Eric Cantor’s Loss; and Ours
By now, pretty much everyone is aware of Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor’s shocking loss in the Republican primary for the House seat from Virginia’s 7th Congressional District to the newcomer and Tea Party favorite David Brat. There has been much speculation as to what led to Mr. Cantor’s defeat, as he was much better financed than his opponent, and, given his high profile as House Majority Leader, much better known. Right after the race had been called for Mr. Brat, there was speculation that Cantor’s loss had something to do with immigration reform, the idea being that Cantor had supported it, and his constituents and his opponent had not. Such speculation was understandable, as Brat had made it a centerpiece issue of his campaign. But a funny thing happened on the way to this “conventional wisdom”. The truth was that Cantor was no great fan of immigration reform (he had merely once said that he would consider it), and polls seemed to show that Republican voters in the district did not consider this to be a particularly important issue, especially when it came to this election. So what happened?
Religion is what happened, but not in the way one might expect. Cantor is Jewish, and the 7th District is overwhelmingly Christian, especially among its Republicans. But most people discounted the possible influence of anti-Semitism, and for good reason, in my opinion. Cantor had won many elections (both primary and general) in this district, and so there is no reason to believe that people who had voted for him many times before would all of a sudden vote against him because he is Jewish, which, I hasten to add, he always has been. So in what way was religion a factor in this race? I think it’s connected to an interesting fact that came to light after the election. With Cantor gone, the Republican delegation to Congress (both the House and the Senate) is now 100% Christian. Not a non-Christian in the bunch. Compare this to the Democratic delegation, which (according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center) at the start of 2013 included 32 Jews, 3 Buddhists, 2 Muslims, 1 Hindu, 1 Unitarian, and 10 members who did not specify a religion in the poll. So what can we learn from this, and how does it relate to Cantor’s defeat?
As stated previously, I see no evidence that Cantor’s defeat was related to anti-Semitism. But I do think that religion played a part; not that these Republican voters did not want to vote for a Jew, but rather because evidently (like Republicans throughout the country) they did want to vote for a fellow Christian. But why now? This was not always the case (as Cantor’s past electoral victories shows). I remember growing up with a Jewish Republican Senate stalwart in my home state of New York, Jacob Javits. In recent times, Jewish Republicans such as Warren Rudman and William Cohen were fixtures in the Senate. What has changed? Well, a number of things, including the advent of identity politics, wherein people vote for someone who is “like them” (regarding race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc), believing that someone who is “like them” will better represent their interests. I think this is a factor, combined with something else. The past few years has seen an alarming erosion of Jefferson’s famous “wall of separation between church and state”. Examples of this dangerous erosion are too numerous to mention here, but followers of this blog are well aware of them. How did this trend impact on Cantor’s loss? The more government and religion are entwined, the more important it becomes to voters which religion their elected officials belong to. If you believe that Church and State should be kept separate, you’re not likely to be overly concerned with your representative’s religion. If government and religion are kept separate, your elected leaders will not be dealing with religion on a regular basis, and so their religious beliefs will not impact on their work as government officials. But it’s a different matter if you think that it’s a good thing for government and religion to be entwined. If a person wants religious beliefs to have a direct impact on government policy, it is quite likely that the religion that such a person wants having that influence is their own. And so Eric Cantor was not defeated because his constituents wouldn’t vote for a Jew; he lost because his constituents, seeing the growing influence of religion on our government, wanted to be sure to be represented by a fellow-Christian. And so Eric Cantor is another casualty of our failure to keep church and state separate.