Heaven Can’t Wait
07/30/99
Staff Writer
Will Jews be condemned to hell under President George W. Bush? The question of what the Texas governor and front-running Republican presidential candidate believes about where Jewish souls will wind up in the afterlife is a concern for political pundit Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, the on-line magazine. Kinsley, in a column last week, said Bush may be “pulling a dirty trick” on Jews by not answering whether they can get into heaven without accepting Jesus as their savior. He is calling on Bush, a born-again Christian, to clarify whether he believes those who don’t accept Jews can attain salvation. Kinsley said the recent “kosher certification” of Bush by the Anti-Defamation League is not good enough and he should not be let off the hook. The current debate stems from Bush’s public statement in 1993 that he believes “heaven is open only to those who accept Jesus Christ,” according to a reporter’s paraphrase in the Houston Post. Religion experts say it is the first time heaven has become an issue for a serious presidential candidate, and Bush’s is the most striking religious remark since the head of the Southern Baptist Convention declared that God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews in 1981. “It’s the first time I can remember that a serious presidential candidate and the question of who gets into heaven and who goes to hell has even been on the radar screen,” said Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. The debate demonstrates that religious belief is expected to be a dominating theme in the 2001 race as the candidates attempt to win over a middle-class populace they believe is thirsting for leadership on family values and social welfare issues. Already Democrat Vice President Al Gore, a Southern Baptist, and Bush have stirred controversy in recent weeks by proposing to increase the partnership between the government and social programs run by religious groups. Orthodox Jewish groups hail these initiatives while progressive Jewish groups are critical, saying they violate the constitutional principle of church-state separation. Kinsley relates another version of the “heaven” story, citing a published account that has the evangelist Billy Graham correcting Bush, advising him “never to play God” by stating who is getting into heaven. But conflicting newspaper reports about this incident, Kinsley said, have left the critical questions of what Bush believes in unanswered as he appears to be sailing toward the Republican nomination. The son of former President Bush leads all candidates by far in money raised with a whopping $37 million. Kinsley argues that Bush’s current formulated response about his views on heaven — “It is not the governor’s role to decide who goes to heaven. I believe God decides who goes to heaven, not George W. Bush” — merely skirts the issue. “This won’t do, I’m afraid,” he writes. “It was good enough to get him a kosher certification from the Anti-Defamation League, but it makes no sense. No one is asking Bush to ‘decide’ or ‘rule on’ who gets into heaven.” The issue, Kinsley says, “is whether God has an admissions policy that excludes Jews and whether George W. has an opinion about what that policy might be.” Kinsley, who is Jewish, argues that by playing up his faith to “pander” to the religious right, Bush is misleading Jews by not directly answering the question about what he thinks their futures hold. “George W. is lying either when he professes his faith or when he denies its implications,” writes Kinsley. The columnist adds that “... if Bush really believes that accepting Jesus is the only path to salvation, he is pulling a pretty dirty trick on Jews by telling them otherwise. Putting votes before souls: Talk about political expediency!” Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker called Kinsley’s column “mean spirited and factually inaccurate.” “The governor believes his personal faith teaches him that Jesus Christ is his personal savior,” she told The Jewish Week. “His personal faith also teaches him that judgments are left to God.” Asked specifically whether Bush believes whether non-believers can achieve salvation, she said: “That’s God’s judgment.” Last December, the ADL said it was satisfied after Bush, responding to a query from the organization, wrote a letter to national director Abraham Foxman saying he was “troubled that some people were hurt” by his statement that those who do not believe in Jesus do not go to heaven. “I regret the concern caused by my statement and reassure you and the Jewish community that you have my deepest respect,” Bush wrote. In welcoming Bush’s letter, Foxman declared “the matter of his 1993 statement is now behind us.” But not to everyone. “I don’t think it’s behind us,” contends the AJCommittee’s Rabbi Rudin. “I would want to know if this is true. What does that mean for his fellow citizens who don’t share that Christian belief? Will they be in his mind, second-class citizens? I think we have every right to ask these questions?” Professor Martin Marty, director of The Public Religion Project at the University of Chicago, agreed. But Marty said Kinsley is being overly critical and that Bush’s seemingly contradictory views on salvation are typical of mainstream Christians in America. That is, they believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation but also that others do go to heaven. “He’s [Bush] not lying; he’s as ambivalent as almost all Christians are about the topic of heaven and hell,” said Marty, a Lutheran minister and a Democrat, regarding Kinsley’s accusation. “It has no political bearing. Political bearing would be if he is rough on Israel or rough on Jews here.” Kinsley did not return phone calls. Bush’s spokeswoman said that the governor doesn’t believe his personal views would impair his ability to serve as president. “If he did,” Tucker said, “he wouldn’t be running.”
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