by Suzanne Pollak
Two incidents connected to Virginia’s upcoming elections, occupying less than a week apart, have caused concern among Jews.
On Sunday, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor declared that people who don’t follow Jesus Christ “are engaged in some sort of false religion” during his sermon at Restoration Fellowship Church in Strasburg.
Several days earlier, on Sept. 17, an official in the Virginia Republican Party while warming up the crowd at a Ken Cuccinelli for governor campaign rally, told an anti-Semitic joke whose punch line relied on the old stereotype of Jews being tight with their money.
The incidents have been condemned by both Jews and politicians in Virginia, who have stated that those comments have no place in Virginia’s race for governor and lieutenant governor.
In the most recent incident, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson, was delivering a sermon when he declared that “Any time you say, ‘There is no other means of salvation but through Jesus Christ, and if you don’t know him and you don’t follow him and you don’t go through him, you are engaged in some sort of false religion,’ that’s controversial. But it’s the truth.”
Neither Jackson nor the church’s pastor, returned calls to Washington Jewish Week on whether he was invited to speak as a candidate or a private person.
But Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said that once “Mr. Jackson accepted a public role” then he is expected to meet higher standards.
“There is a reason why we keep church and state separate in the United States,” Halber said. “When you assume a public mantle, you have to be for all the people.” It is hard to imagine a person holding the second highest position in the state “play[ing] a leadership role” and representing all the people of Virginia while giving that sermon.
“I think that Mr. Jackson will find out that in one quote, he has offended a significant slice of the Virginia population,” Halber said. Judaism “is an authentic religion, and I vehemently and unequivocally reject his statement that Judaism, Hinduism, Buddism and multiple other faiths are not authentic and true religions.”
A spokesperson at the National Jewish Democratic Council agreed, noting “there is no such thing as ‘some sort of false religion’ and that all people’s beliefs should be respected, both in the pulpit and in everyday life.”
NJDC further noted that Jackson, who is a Baptist pastor, “is entitled to his religious biases, but bringing them into elected office runs contrary to the foundational values on which this country is built. Virginia voters should be concerned about a ticket that tolerates such representations.”
Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation of Alexandria also condemned Jackson’s comments, noting that although anyone can speak on the pulpit about any topic, he believed that the Republican candidate “crossed many lines.”
Moline said he did not believe it was proper for Jackson to “be promoting Christian values as the foundation” of his campaign but did note “no laws were broken here.”
While Jackson may not have violated any laws, he stepped over the line of “good taste, wisdom,” Moline added.
The AJC also expressed “concern” over Jackson’s remarks. Noting that the candidate spoke during a Sunday morning sermon, Alan Ronkin, director of AJC’s Washington, D.C., regional office, said,“We do not question Mr. Jackson’s right to hold views about the exclusive truth of Christianity. But that said, as a candidate for public office, his expression of those views at this time places a burden on him to assure Virginians of all faiths that these religious views will not prejudice his performance of the duties of the office he seeks.”
Ronkin called on Jackson to publicly clarify his remarks and share how his sentiments about other faiths would affect his decisions as an elected official.
Jackson’s comments also drew fire from his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Ralph Northam, who wrote in an email to Washington Jewish Week: “Comments like this are divisive and wrong, and have no place in politics. We need to be inclusive, that’s why I am running for Lt. Governor to bring all Virginians together to move our Commonwealth forward.”
Someone connected with Northam’s campaign commented on Jackson’s remarks, noting that “none of this was a surprise to us. This is normal talk for him.”
The incident was expected to be brought up at Tuesday night’s television debate between the candidates for lieutenant governor, which was slated to take place after press time.
On his campaign website, Jackson, a Marine Corps veteran, includes under the heading “Agenda to Inspire and Unite Virginia,” a paragraph entitled “Defend Religious Liberty.”
In that paragraph, Jackson states, “Obamacare is a Federal abuse of power which also violates the First Amendment by forcing individuals, businesses and religious organizations to act against their sincerely held religious beliefs. It must be resisted with all the legal and political force we can muster.”
In the earlier incident, for which John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, has since apologized, Whitbeck appeared to be warming up the crowd before Cuccinelli spoke by telling a joke. That joke revolved around “the head of the Jewish faith” handing the Vatican “a ceremonial piece of paper. It’s very old. It takes back hundreds of years,” Whitbeck said.
The joke ended with, “Well, it was a bill for the last supper,” which was followed by crowd laughter.
Following a public outcry, Whitbeck posted a statement on the 10th Congressional District Republican Committee website, which reads, “Earlier this week, I made a lighthearted attempt at humor to which some have taken offense. It was certainly not my intent to offend and I sincerely apologize to those who were.”
A representative from Cuccinelli’s staff distanced himself from the comment.
Halber said anti-Semitic comments have “no place in civil political discourse, and it was inappropriate and offensive.”
Halber said a representative of Cuccinelli’s campaign called the remarks inappropriate. Halber praised the “immediate response,” noting it “is yet another positive indication that in the Commonwealth, both citizens and candidates alike, will not tolerate this type of divisive and derogatory commentary in a public forum.”
The NJDC condemned the anti-Semitic joke, noting it is “pleased that Mr. Cuccinelli has apologized for his supporter’s inappropriateness, but we remain concerned that the tea party audience enjoyed the joke and that this type of insensitivity seems to permeate Republican gatherings in Virginia this year.”