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Dysfunction and extremism: The failure of House Republicans as the opposition

The 118th Congress has ushered in a divided federal government. The newly Republican-controlled House will amplify the staunch opposition displayed by the GOP since President Biden took office. Still, with Democrats in control of the Senate and the executive branch, Republicans are very much the minority party. With that in mind, let’s consider the role of an opposition party in a democracy and whether the GOP can meet those responsibilities. 

Lord Randolph Churchill, member of the UK Parliament and Winston Churchill’s son, said that “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose.” Even if Churchill wasn’t talking about the American political system, we’ve taken a page from that playbook. When in the minority, Democrats and Republicans alike campaign on a platform of opposing the other party. Democrats framed the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential election as a referendum on former President Trump, which heavily contributed to their victories. In the recent 2022 midterms, Republicans did the same maneuver against President Biden and the Democratic Party. 

On its face, the assessment that the opposition party’s sole duty is to oppose seems intuitive. The minority party should only concern itself with criticizing the party in power as a pathway to eventually becoming the new majority party. It doesn’t agree with the other party and doesn’t want to see its opponents succeed, so ridicule is the best option. The very nature of an opposition party invites a personality of antagonism and stonewalling. 

However, this understanding of an opposition party isn’t helpful for democracy. At its core, the duty of elected officials is to represent the interests of their constituents. This may often involve opposing the efforts of the other side, but it can also require cooperation on issues shared by both sides of the aisle. If the opposition party devotes its entire strategy to resisting the party in power, it displays itself merely as a nuisance, not as a legitimate alternative to governing. It consumes itself in the idea of opposition and fails to present a coherent platform or vision to the opposition’s own approach to governing. This strategy only serves partisan interests, not that of the nation. Instead of complete opposition, the role of the minority party is to selectively oppose. It should certainly criticize the party in power on issues they disagree on, but also cooperate on issues both sides share an interest in. That way, the opposition creates a clear picture of its governing strategy for voters.

Unfortunately, House Republicans appear to be following the initial approach to opposition. Their plan on holding sweeping investigations into the Biden administration and possible impeachments reveals a strategy of blocking Democrats at every turn, not selective opposition. While this strategy of mere opposition provides no clear picture of what a Republican government would pursue, it does reveal their inability to govern. Within the first few weeks of a Republican-majority House, we can see two ways that highlight the ineffective and potentially dangerous governing style of the GOP. 

First, the dysfunction of House Republicans demonstrates that party in-fighting has bled into governing. The prolonged election of Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to Speaker of the House is a clear indication of this. Despite being nominated by his party’s conference, McCarthy failed to secure enough votes prior to the new Congress convening. Following concessions to the far-right faction of his party, McCarthy was elevated to the speakership after a historic 15 rounds of voting. McCarthy’s inability to create a majority before the vote demonstrates the difficulty of building a winning coalition in his conference. If Republicans were still in the minority, this wouldn’t be a problem. But as the majority party, continued failure to coalesce majorities threatens the House’s ability to pass crucial legislation. 

This has dangerous implications for the country. For instance, as the U.S. hits the debt ceiling, there’s more pressure for the House to increase the federal government’s borrowing limit. However, infighting within House Republicans amidst McCarthy’s promise to not raise the debt ceiling will likely ensue a financial crisis. If Republicans somehow manage to avert an economic disaster, they still risk a similar outcome with voting on 12 individual spending packages rather than an omnibus bill, another one of McCarthy’s concessions. Republicans have to pass each of these bills to avoid a government shutdown, an unlikely outcome with a slim majority and hostile opposition within the party.

Second, House Republicans’ toleration of extremism threatens our democratic institutions and well-being of the nation. Possibly one of the most significant concessions by McCarthy was to appoint three members of the Freedom Caucus to the Rules Committee, which decides how bills are considered. The caucus contains many of the anti-McCarthy House Republicans who opposed him in the speaker vote. Handing the power to control which bills make it to the House floor over to his party’s radical faction will invite dangerous legislation while blocking essential bills from being voted on. 

Moreover, reappointing members like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Paul Gosar (R-AZ) back to committees signifies the GOP’s lack of accountability among its members. Greene was removed for spreading (often antisemitic) conspiracy theories. Gosar was ousted for sharing a video depicting him killing Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). We’re witnessing the beginning of a House GOP that tolerates extremism and violence, which never leads to productive governing.

My hope was that the House GOP would use its control of the House in a meaningful way. Rather than merely score political points or oppose for the sake of opposing, I aspired for the spirit of bipartisanship modeled under the previous Congress. However, it appears that instead of providing a meaningful opposition, House Republicans have selected a strategy that won’t benefit Americans. We’ll continue to see a party that lacks the unity and goodwill to govern in a meaningful way, if it can govern at all. 

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Will Kevin McCarthy be Speaker of the House next year?

Despite pre-election predictions of a “red wave” that didn’t manifest at the polls, Republicans will emerge from the midterms with only a slight majority in the House of Representatives. Based on the latest reports, it appears that the GOP will only enjoy a 5-seat majority in the House. President Biden joins the list of exceptions to the historic rule that a president’s first midterm election is a disaster. With an average seat loss of 28 since World War II and 45 for the last 4 Democratic presidents, the president’s situation is much more positive than some anticipated.  

Still, even with a relatively good outcome, Biden and Democrats should expect gridlock as a Republican-controlled House will stonewall their agenda. Even with a slim majority, Republicans can disrupt the Democrats’ goals by stalling legislation, conducting hearings and more. One major factor in how a GOP majority will affect the Biden administration is the leadership on both sides of the aisle. On the Democratic side, we’re already seeing major departures as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced they would not seek leadership positions in the coming term. With that, a new generation of Democratic leaders will usher in an era of new leadership for the Democratic caucus. 

A key question is whether the notably toxic relationship between Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Pelosi will spill over into the new Democratic torchbearers. That assumes, though, that McCarthy will himself remain in leadership. His caucus did vote to endorse him as Speaker of the House, the most powerful position in the chamber. However, with a vote tally of 188-31 and a challenge from protest candidate Representative Andy Biggs (R-AZ), McCarthy’s path to the speakership is anything but certain.

Most people likely think that you need at least 218 votes, or half of the chamber, to be elected Speaker. However, the process is slightly more nuanced. It’s true that you need a majority of votes for the speakership, but that majority is based only on the number of votes cast “for a person by name.” This means that only votes for specific individuals are considered in the calculations. If a representative doesn’t vote or simply votes “present,” their vote doesn’t go towards the majority necessary to be Speaker. For example, if 8 of the 435 representatives don’t vote for an actual person (which happened in 2021), then you actually need 214 votes for the speakership. 

With these rules in mind, the concern for McCarthy isn’t that he failed to receive 218 votes among his party members. There’s a precedent for not receiving a majority in your conference but still being elected Speaker in the official House vote. In 2015, former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) was nominated with 200 votes before garnering 236 votes on the House floor. In 2019, Speaker Pelosi earned 203 votes in the Democratic caucus’s internal vote that expanded to 220 on the House floor. The issue for McCarthy, though, is that he doesn’t enjoy the substantial majorities that Ryan and Pelosi had for their elections. 

Assuming every representative votes for an individual, McCarthy can only afford to lose 4 votes before his speakership chances are in jeopardy. Unfortunately for him, 5 Republican representatives have already publicly announced they won’t be voting for McCarthy: Biggs, Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Bob Good (R-VA), Ralph Norman (R-SC), and Matt Rosendale (R-MT). Even worse, an additional 15 Republicans have voiced privately that they won’t vote for the current Republican leader. On that basis alone, McCarthy can’t be Speaker. If these 20 Republicans don’t vote or vote “present,” McCarthy would need 208 votes to be Speaker, which is 6 less than if the other 202 Republicans voted for him. 

If McCarthy can’t secure his speakership prior to the official vote in January, it would throw the House into turmoil. It’d be the first time since 1923 that a vote for speaker consisted of multiple ballots. Over the course of two days and nine ballots, then-Speaker Frederick Gillett (R-MA) struck a deal with Progressive Republicans to secure his re-election as Speaker. A similar situation could be repeated in 2023. Members of the House Freedom Caucus have expressed interest in changing House rules and procedures in exchange for their support of McCarthy. 

An unlikely, although possible, scenario is that Democrats manage to elect their own nominee for Speaker despite a GOP majority. With 213 seats, Democrats only need 11 Republicans to abstain from voting before they have enough votes themselves to elect a Speaker. Even some moderate Republicans could break from the party line and join the Democrats. McCarthy has recently warned about this potential outcome as a way to galvanize votes among Republicans.

Even if McCarthy becomes Speaker, as top Republicans project despite the mathematical hurdles in the way, the question remains whether he can control the Republican caucus. With a narrow majority and a substantial number of representatives spewing undemocratic, extremist beliefs such as election denial and conspiracy theories, it’s unclear if McCarthy can keep his party focused on a clear agenda. A McCarthy speakership would be defined by constantly balancing the Trump and moderate wings of his roster.  

We won’t know who the Speaker will be until January when the new Congress is in session. Until then, though, we can rest assured that the race for Speaker will be as interesting as it is uncertain.

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Antisemitism and the abortion debate

A common feature of the abortion debate is employing religious rhetoric to justify one’s position. This is especially true among the Religious Right, who frequently reference Christian values and religious teachings to support their position against abortion. However, the Religious Right doesn’t hold a monopoly on religious rhetoric. Although some religions hold a firm stance against abortion, there’s a wide variety of positions on the topic among different faiths. Like many issues, not every religion agrees on abortion. 

Regardless of the extent to which religion informs one’s position on abortion, religious rhetoric has an influential role in the political sphere. Religious language in advocacy has serious implications for policymaking and legal interpretations. If our arguments are rooted in religious teachings, then those values will be reflected in the text, analysis and enforcement of the laws that follow. For instance, consider Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the decision that overturned a woman’s federal right to an abortion. In it, Justice Alito described a fetus as an “unborn human being” as opposed to the “potential life” terminology used in Roe v. Wade. Although not explicitly religious, Alito’s language instituted a narrative rooted in some religious traditions’ view of when life begins. When numerous states began criminalizing abortion in nearly all circumstances, part of their justification was found in this language. 

We know that religious rhetoric has a real effect on abortion policy, but it’s also important to note that the language we use can also affect perceptions towards different groups. How we frame an issue and our word choice can be rooted in dangerous rhetoric, even if that wasn’t our intention. In today’s column, my intention is to highlight this issue for Jews in the abortion debate. Because Judaism purports a more lenient stance on abortion than some faiths, at least in some circumstances, and American Jews are overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing abortion in all or most cases, it’s easy for antisemitism to manifest. I’ll discuss in two ways how some language in the abortion debate is rooted in antisemitism. 

The first aspect to consider is how some anti-abortion rhetoric is embedded in the blood libel accusation often levied against Jews. American Jewish Committee defines the blood libel as a “perpetuated accusation that Jews have murdered non-Jews (such as Christian children) in order to use their blood in rituals.” Despite blood rituals being expressly forbidden in the Torah and Jewish law, the allegation has persisted throughout history. The first identified case of the blood libel in medieval Europe was William of Norwich in 1144. After William, a young boy, was found stabbed to death in the woods, the Jews in the area were accused of engaging in a ritual murder of him. Despite no evidence to support the claim, the blood libel persisted across Europe during the Middle Ages. It continued into the Protestant Reformation as Eastern European Jews were subjected to pogroms or anti-Jewish riots. Arab Jews also experienced the blood libel, most notably with the 1840 Damascus Affair. During World War II, the Nazis frequently employed the blood libel in their propaganda. Even after the Holocaust, the blood libel has persisted to justify dehumanization, persecution and violence toward Jews. 

The connection between blood libel and abortion is found in language identifying abortion as “child sacrifice.” As the Anti-Defamation League notes, antisemites allege that Jews employ abortion as a means to participate in child sacrifices for Moloch, a Caananite deity. We see this dangerous rhetoric today. Following the Dobbs decision, writer E. Michael Jones equated child sacrifice to Jews. Moreover, choosing to describe abortion as child sacrifice is participation in the antisemitic trope, even if one doesn’t mention Jews. Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently described the Democratic Party as “a child sacrifice cult” during an abortion segment. Kristina Karamo, the Trump-endorsed Michigan nominee for secretary of state, claimed abortion constitutes “child sacrifice” and a “satanic practice.” Although neither explicitly mentioned Jews, their language is rooted in the history behind the antisemitic trope. 

The second aspect of antisemitism in the abortion debate is analogizing the Holocaust to aborted fetuses. Among opponents of abortion, some have employed comparisons to the Holocaust to justify a view that abortion is a moral tragedy. Republican politicians have routinely likened abortion to the Holocaust and Nazism. Jason Shepherd, a Republican state representative in Georgia, suggested that companies that provide abortion access for employees are similar to the Nazis persecuting Jews. The Republican nominee for Illinois governor, Darren Bailey, argued that the Holocaust “doesn’t even compare” to deaths from abortion. In 2019, Alabama governor Kay Ivey signed a law that compared abortion to the Holocaust in its text.

These Holocaust comparisons are antisemitic because of their underlying effect of distorting the reality of the tragic event. The Holocaust was the systematic extermination of six million European Jews and was the result of Nazi rhetoric meant to dehumanize the Jewish people. Any effort to liken the Holocaust to another event, no matter what it is, diminishes the experiences of Holocaust victims and survivors. It ignores their suffering for political gain through cheap talking points. At the same time, it undermines efforts to emphasize the seriousness of the Holocaust. We should care about the Holocaust because it was the Holocaust, not because some other issue appears similar to it. 

The point of this column is not to take a stance on abortion. Rather, my intention is for readers to take careful note of the rhetoric they employ when they discuss abortion. The language we use to articulate our arguments matters and has serious implications. If we tolerate antisemitic rhetoric, even when it’s not clearly antisemitic, it normalizes those behaviors and spurs prejudiced attitudes towards Jews. 

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Kanye West shows responding to antisemitism requires education, not just condemnation

The latest chapter in the ongoing controversies of Kanye West is his antisemitic tirades. Over the last month, West has spewed nearly every antisemitic trope in the book. On Instagram, he suggested that the rapper Diddy was influenced by Jews, playing on the notion that Jews control the media and other societal institutions. The insinuation is dangerous because it portrays Jews as puppet masters of the world and responsible for the world’s ills. After being restricted on Instagram, West shared on Twitter that he’s “going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.” He clarified later that he meant “DEFCON 3” in reference to a stage in U.S. defense readiness. However, whether he wants to kill Jews or go to war with them, both are clearly antisemitic. He also tweeted that Jews try to “black ball anyone who opposes [their] agenda,” again spreading the antisemitic conspiracy that Jews control the world.

In early October, he was interviewed by Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson and shared several antisemitic comments. Although those weren’t aired in the official interview, the footage was released around the time of his social media episode. In it, West claimed that Black people are the “real” Jews, arguing that Jews are “who the people known as the race Black really are.” While there are certainly Black Jews, his characterization plays into an antisemitic trope that non-Black Jews are imposters who stole their Jewish identity. In another part of the interview, the musician stated that he preferred his kids “knew Hanukkah than Kwanzaa. At least it will come with some financial engineering.” Here, West propagates the notion that Jews are greedy and wealthy. While the stereotype may seem positive, it’s historically used as justification to oppress Jews and commit violence against Jewish communities.

In mid-October, West appeared on a three-hour episode of the podcast “Drink Champs” and blamed nearly all his problems on Jewish people. West talked about sharing “Jewish business secrets,” claiming that “Zionist Jews” control the media, comparing Planned Parenthood to the Holocaust (Holocaust comparison, by the way, is antisemitic), and more. The rapper’s antisemitic commentary can go on much longer, but the message is clear that Kanye West’s October was a series of antisemitic conspiracies and rhetoric.

West’s celebrity status only amplified the reach and influence of his dangerous antisemitism on society. Because he has such a high level of stardom, his hate-filled messages have been misinterpreted by some as legitimate and emboldened others to spread antisemitism. Los Angeles saw a slew of antisemitic demonstrations following West’s comments, including one group that gave Nazi salutes over an overpass with a banner reading “Kanye is right about the Jews.” Antisemitic flyers were distributed in Beverly Hills alleging that Jews control the media and are responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond Los Angeles, a College Republicans group in Wisconsin posted a photo on Instagram with the message “Kanye is right. Def-con III,” likely referencing the assault on Jews that West has been advocating for. Although social media is always ripe with antisemitism, West’s comments have only reinvigorated users, spreading further hate on the Internet.

Now, it’s true that West has been routinely condemned. He’s been restricted from Instagram and Twitter indefinitely. Organizations and other celebrities have denounced West, including major sponsors like Balenciaga and GAP, as well as members of his former in-laws, the Kardashians. However, in some cases, this took too long. Adidas, for instance, waited until this week to cut ties with West, despite weeks of outrage as the company with Nazi ties was silent about their partner’s antisemitism. Why should Jews wait for their concern about clearly antisemitic acts to be shared by others? When bigotry happens, there must be solidarity with the affected community and commitment to counteract hate. Otherwise, the dangerous rhetoric manifests into discrimination and violence against marginalized communities.

That’s why condemning antisemitism and cutting ties with antisemites isn’t enough. Of course, condemning bigotry and disassociating from those who espouse hateful views is often good. However, we cannot simply call something bad, exclude those who practice it from societal institutions, and expect the problem to go away. Even though Kanye West may not be on Instagram or Twitter, his influence remains abundant. In addition to our current efforts, we must also combat the ignorance and misunderstanding that hatred capitalizes on to counter these prejudiced beliefs. This is especially true for antisemitism, a complex form of hatred that pertains to a small portion of the global population. We must strive to educate non-Jews about identifying and responding to Jew-hatred.

The first step to combating antisemitism is learning how to identify it. If we can’t recognize antisemitism, then we have no hope to limit its pervasive influence across the world. For this initiative, a clear, unified definition is necessary. By beginning from a similar starting point, we preclude the chances of obscurity or ambiguity that antisemites often employ to avoid condemnation. The Working Definition of Antisemitism offered by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance fits this description, adopted by countless governments, universities and other organizations throughout the world. I invite readers to utilize the Working Definition to gain a better understanding of antisemitism, as well as resources like the Translate Hate Glossary from American Jewish Committee to learn about common ways antisemitism manifests in our everyday conversations. 

Antisemitism is a difficult topic to understand and navigate, but there are steps we can take to build a more inclusive environment for the Jewish members of our community. As a Jewish student myself who works in Jewish advocacy, I’m still seeking clarification on antisemitism as new issues arise. I hope that you’ll join me on this journey.

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

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A guide to sin and forgiveness in Judaism for non-Jews

Since last week, I and other Jews across the world have begun celebrating the High Holy Days, a period of serious moral reflection for ourselves and our community. We assess our behavior in the last year in hopes of doing better this year by contemplating topics like forgiveness, redemption, freedom, joy, more through prayer and celebration. The most important period during this time is the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The former, celebrated last week, marked the Jewish New Year and the 10 Days of Repentance when we seek forgiveness from others for our wrongdoings in the last year. Only those who forego sin are inscribed in the Book of Life, the metaphorical concept meant to encourage Jews to become better people in the new year. 

The repentance period culminates on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which concluded yesterday evening. Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish Calendar, where it is believed that heaven and earth are closest and we are on the level of angels temporarily. Like the angels, we don’t eat or drink on Yom Kippur because our sustenance comes from G-d. The day is spent on intense engagement with repentance, human frailty and humility before G-d. We participate in communal repentance for sins as the Book of Life is sealed.

My earliest memories of Yom Kippur included feelings of starvation and weariness from day-long worship services, not necessarily the holiday’s theological significance. Ironically, it wasn’t until I began Catholic school that I seriously reflected on my own religion’s conception of sin and forgiveness. I was never truly confronted with another approach to these issues until my friends had to explain why I shouldn’t go with them to confession. After 11 years in Catholic education, I wouldn’t claim to know everything about the University’s religious tradition. But I do recognize the rich theological discussions and spiritual development I’ve had from learning about Catholicism and Christianity. Seeking to understand other faiths has greatly benefited my own faith life, strengthening my spirituality while developing an appreciation for other religions. Along this sentiment, I’d like to share some reflections on my tradition’s approach to sin, forgiveness and repentance in the hope that it’ll enrich readers’ spiritual journey, like engaging with Christianity did for me. At the very least, maybe my explanation will help you review the Hebrew Bible for Foundations of Theology. 

Likely the most startling difference between Judaism and Christianity on this subject is that Jews don’t believe in original sin. Judaism does attest that Adam and Eve’s sin had cosmic ramifications and created a chasm between humanity and G-d, like Christianity. However, our traditions differ on the legacy of that sin. Jews believe that humans are born into the world free of sin, not in a state of sin like Saint Augustine wrote. There are some rabbis throughout history who believe that death was punishment for the first humans’ sin, but not that we’re born with sin. 

Rather than be inherently sinful, humans have the same capacity to commit sins or mitzvot, the 613 commandments in Judaism. In Genesis 8:21, we find that the “devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth.” From here, the rabbis teach of the yetzer, or inclinations. For Jews, life is a constant attempt to resist the evil inclinations and act on the good inclinations. But the evil inclination isn’t actually evil or some demonic influence; instead, it’s the allure of satisfying one’s pleasures, which if left unregulated, can lead one away from G-d. Judaism also teaches that the inclinations are born separately. A child begins life with the evil inclination and doesn’t develop the good inclination until age 13. At this point, sinful acts are countered with moral rebuke that teaches the child the difference between right and wrong. From then on, there’s a battle between the inclinations for supremacy. 

Judaism’s understanding of sin coincides with the image of a merciful, loving G-d. This concept is best captured by the central biblical verse of the Yom Kippur liturgy: “And the Lord said, ‘I pardon, as you have asked’” (Numbers 14:20). G-d’s consistent forgiveness of the Israelites despite repetitive sin demonstrates that G-d’s essence is enveloped by mercy alongside His absolute Being and absolute freedom. This act of forgiveness is repeated throughout Yom Kippur through various prayers and exercises asking for G-d’s forgiveness. One component is Kol Nidrei, asking G-d to absolve us of any vows made in His name. The reasoning is simple: How can an imperfect human ever expect to uphold a bargain with G-d? The Viddui is another important prayer, as Jews gather in a community to seek forgiveness for communal sins. Although one may not have committed the sins listed, the members of the community are intertwined on that day, making everyone responsible for each other. Along with other prayers, Jews exit Yom Kippur forgiven of our sins and resolve to be less sinful in the coming year, drawing closer to G-d’s will. 

Engaging other religions is an opportunity to enrich one’s understanding of other faiths while strengthening one’s own spirituality. As an elite university that still emphasizes faith, we have a rare chance to have these conversations in meaningful, informed ways for the benefit of all. 

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Religion is for Democrats too, not just Republicans

You wouldn’t be alone in associating religion with the Republican Party and secularism with the Democratic Party. Over the last several decades, the rise of the Religious Right has cemented the fact that the Republican Party is dominated by white evangelicals inserting religious views into the party platform. Today, that sentiment is only reinforced as Republican candidates infuse Christianity into their campaign strategy. At Republican rallies this year, we’ve witnessed praise music, prayer, and other practices typically associated with religious worship. These religious practices at campaign events aren’t superfluous either, as Republican candidates call to end the separation between church and state and declare the United States a Christian nation. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, has struggled with religion due to the diverse religious and non-religious portions of its membership. In an effort to not alienate voters, Democrats have avoided religious rhetoric, often joined by criticism that they aren’t doing enough outreach to religious voters. 

However, that appears to be changing. During the 2020 election, a significant number of Democrats engaged in religious outreach. During the primary campaign, then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg routinely referenced his faith to demonstrate that Democrats can be religious too. In one debate, Buttigieg employed a religious offensive against the Republican Party for hypocrisy between its platform and profession of Christianity. Other presidential hopefuls like Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren and then-Senator Kamala Harris also utilized religious rhetoric, speaking about their connection to G-d and specifically Christianity. President Joe Biden worked on extensive outreach to white Catholic and white evangelical voters, reducing former President Donald Trump’s performance among those groups enough to help solidify his victory. 

Religion also made an appearance with both Democratic candidates for the two seats in the 2020-2021 U.S. Senate elections in Georgia. Senators Warnock and Ossoff’s election was a pivotal moment for the Democratic Party, securing a majority in the Senate. The infusion of his progressive views and background as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King preached, was a key factor in Senator Raphael Warnock’s victory. Although more hesitant to mention religion during the campaign, Senator Jon Ossoff referenced the Jewish values that informed his political views and became the first Jewish candidate to win statewide office in the South since 1974.

Additionally, we’re witnessing candidates in the 2022 midterm elections build off the religious momentum over the last several years. Warnock has made religion a central message of his reelection campaign, emphasizing the joint nature of devotion to faith and commitment to social justice. His messaging routinely references his religious work and how it informs his political views. Just like it delivered him for his initial election, Warnock is hoping Georgia voters will be drawn to his religious fervor. 

Also in Georgia, the Democratic candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams, uses religion, but in a different way. As abortion becomes a pressing issue in all elections after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Abrams has discussed the role her faith has played in shaping her views on the subject. She’s openly discussed how her upbringing by Methodist preachers informed her initial stance against abortion, but she’s since changed her beliefs after viewing it as a health issue, not a moral one. Her approach to abortion opens a new vantage point for Democrats to reach voters who may be personally opposed to abortion, but are hesitant to attempts throughout the country to reduce access to it. 

In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro is running for governor openly as a Jew and refusing to cede religious voters to his opponent, Doug Mastriano, a state senator. Shapiro has used his devout faith to reach out to religious voters, especially Black Protestants in the state by attending worship services and speaking from the pulpit. He’s routinely referenced his faith during campaign events, hoping that some voters who typically vote Republican on religious grounds consider switching. Among other Democratic candidates who employ religious rhetoric, he’s especially notable for attacking Christian nationalism as an assault on religious liberty, especially for religious minorities.

Although religion may appear to be a new winning strategy for Democrats, it isn’t risk-free. In the last two decades, Democrats themselves have become less religious in their membership. This isn’t to say that non-religious Democrats would vote Republican, but it does risk alienation and low voter turnout. These candidates are wagering that religious rhetoric will either deliver more voters or drive voters away from Republicans, but the threat of alienation will always be present for a party as religiously diverse as the Democratic Party. This isn’t to argue that Democrats who reference religion will lose (we’ve seen that’s not always the case), but to point out there’s a reason why Democrats have been cautious about religious rhetoric in the past. Even if elected, the division in the Democratic Party between the religious and non-religious suggests that while religious rhetoric may contribute to electoral victory, it doesn’t necessarily translate to religious influence in policymaking. 

This column is not an endorsement of religion as a political tool for Democrats or Republicans. The question of religion’s role in politics is separate from my observations of the trends in the Democratic Party. The last few years are a demonstration that Democrats can successfully utilize religion as an outreach method on the campaign trail. Although religion may still be tied heavily to the Republican Party, we’re beginning to see pushback from the Democratic Party and a potential shift in the way that religion operates in the political sphere. 

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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The effect of disinformation on religious freedom

When the truth is as flexible as rubber, the stability of democracy isn’t far behind. Disinformation is a fundamental threat to the democratic world. Hallmarks of democracy, such as the free and open exchange of ideas and our institutions, rest on the assumption that our society is committed to the pursuit of truth.

This is not to say that there can’t be disagreement. Arriving at a consensus despite our differing opinions should be democracy’s standard operating procedure. The threat lies when information is rejected because it contradicts one’s worldview with no evaluation of the evidence. When we’re given false information that prompts divisiveness and hostility, that’s the problem.  

Disinformation rejects the truth in favor of disillusionment for the benefit of those who profit off a distorted reality. No level of truth, no matter how certain, is free from this threat. The last few years are riddled with examples. COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy worldwide has been linked to beliefs motivated by disinformation. The January 6 insurrection was fueled by a partisan lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Russia has employed social media propaganda to sway users in India, China and African nations to support its invasion of Ukraine. 16 of the world’s biggest polluters spread 1,700 ads on Facebook to undermine the world’s shift to clean energy in 2021. A report from Oxford University found that 81 governments engaged in disinformation campaigns last year to attack political opponents, silence dissent and meddle in foreign affairs. Disinformation poses a clear problem for democracies, one that nefarious governments and powerful groups aim to capitalize on. 

While the threats are formidable, there’s an undercovered dimension of disinformation that warrants further review: its effect on religious freedom. A core purpose behind religion is to ascertain the purpose behind the truths we encounter. Judaism teaches that science and religion converge as religion informs the “why” behind scientific discoveries. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is right to proclaim that “Since the same G-d who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, G-d cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.” We can use science to explain how the world functions, but faith informs what that means for us as individuals. Because disinformation is an assault against the truth, it is also an attempt to undermine our efforts to understand and assign meaning to that truth. When truth is subjected to ill-motivated revision, the process by which we understand that truth is also threatened. 

There are three ways that disinformation harms religious freedom I’d like to explore. The first is when the state pressures religious groups to promote its disinformation campaigns. This operates in a similar function as one argument for separation of church and state. Political influence of religion diminishes the transcendent value of one’s faith, reducing it to a political tool and not a spiritual resource beyond material concerns. State coercion to participate in disinformation campaigns fits this offense. 

Moreover, if a religious group refuses to participate in these campaigns, the sustainability of the community is threatened. Consider the Jewish community in Russia. Over the summer, the chief rabbi of Moscow fled the country after refusing to support the invasion of Ukraine and promote propaganda. Thousands of Russian Jews have escaped the country in fear of persecution amidst the government’s forced closure of the Jewish Agency, an organization that facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel. When a religious community doesn’t adhere to the state’s vision of truth, it risks severe punishment.

The second manifestation is when religious groups participate in disinformation. When the leaders of a faith willingly promote disinformation for personal gain, it dwindles the sincerity and value of the religious principles they promote. For instance, a report from openDemocracy found a global network of crisis pregnancy centers backed by American religious groups frequently peddles dangerous lies about abortion. Materials include claims that abortion leads to cancer, increases the chance of child abuse and more. Sometimes, the clinics would pose as abortion providers before discouraging women from seeking the procedure. 

Participation in disinformation can also come from the pew, not the pulpit. In many evangelical communities in the U.S., congregants have pressured their pastors to promote the QAnon conspiracy that the 2020 election was stolen and more. The use of false information to advance one’s ends is a complete disregard for the truth and undermines the goodwill that individuals seek in religion.

Third, disinformation can target religious communities, threatening their safety. When fabricated information negatively portrays a religious group, it imbues stigma towards its members. This often manifests into verbal or physical harassment, which discourages one from practicing one’s faith or publicly displaying that faith. In India, Islamic groups were blamed for spreading COVID-19 and “coronajihad” became a term to villainize Indian Muslims. These circumstances only emboldened the religious conflict in the region, promoting hostility toward Muslims. This type of harassment is a clear offense against religious freedom, limiting one’s ability to express one’s faith safely and freely.

My hope in this column is to alert readers to the neglected effect that disinformation can have on religious liberty. The right to seek meaning in one’s life, manifested through religion, is an innate right that ought to be as respected as other forms of expression. In the fight against disinformation, we must remain committed to protecting the rights of all people.

Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or bziegler@nd.edu.

The views expressed in the column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Blake Ziegler

Contact Blake a bziegler@nd.edu