Interview with Minority Whip Eric Cantor, the House’s only Jewish Republican

Cantor on faith and politics.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Newly elected Minority Whip Eric Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives. I spoke with him this morning about his faith and politics:

You're the only Republican Jew in the House. Ever get lonely?

I don't think there's any question that the majority of the American Jewish community are Democrats. But I feel very much at home in the Republican Party. And I feel that in fact, given where we are as a country, that I can have a lot of effect in trying to come up with solutions to problems facing this country as a Republican.

What do the Jewish Democrats have wrong?

I'm not saying that they have anything wrong. But I do think there is the notion that if you are Jewish, you must have certain positions on certain issues, whether it's social issues, the life issue, the church and state issue, and that somehow one party or the other is not acceptable. I don't buy that. I don't think that's where we are as Americans. I don't think people are concerned about being Democratic or Republican, conservative or liberal.

How does your faith influence your politics and positions?

I grew up in a kosher home, attended Hebrew schools on a regular basis growing up. I sent my kids to Hebrew day school when they were younger. Obviously, my faith is part of who I am. It would tend to color my being. I don't feel like I necessarily apply that faith in any direct way. I'm sure it does manifest itself so far as my perceptions and my views and how I work on legislation. But I can't come up with a way that says it dictates my position one way or the other. There isn't a monolithic Jewish position on anything.

For many conservative Christians, their pro-life stance is a direct result of their faith. Is your pro-life stance a result of your Jewish faith?

You can find many rabbis that differ on the question of when life begins. I don't think there's a monolithic position. That's one of the things about the Jewish faith . . . there is a multitude of opinions. Our faith has been about discourse, it's been about interpreting the texts for thousand of years. . . . It's my belief that dictates where I come down on certain issues.

It's been reported that you want to take the Republican Party in a more conservative direction. Might that scare off more Jews, who are particularly wary of the Christian right's agenda, from the GOP?

I'm going to disagree with your original assumption. I want to take the party into much more of the world of relevancy to people's lives in this country. I'm very much an adherent to common sense conservative principles. . . . I want to take the party in a direction that represents solutions to the very real challenges the country faces right now. Our party has enough room in it so that folks from different perspectives can meld behind solutions.

Does that mean the Republican Party has overemphasized hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage?

The party is made up of a diverse mixture of constituencies and individuals . . . My desire is to make sure the party is focusing its message and efforts on delivering solutions to challenges that all Americans face every day. That would include some issues that are important to me in terms of social issues. Most Americans are troubled right now by economic issues.

That would seem to prioritize economic issues above social issues.

It's about trying to move away from speaking in ideological terms and to start talking in terms that are relevant to people's lives. It doesn't mean that ideology or the principles behind the solutions aren't there. But we need to begin to focus on things that are relevant to their lives.

Does religion play too big a role in our politics? Are candidates too eager to wear their faith on their sleeves?

Most Americans would agree that our country was founded upon a faith in God, so I don't necessarily think that it's a bad thing that people are proud of their faith. As a Virginian, Thomas Jefferson's statute of religious freedom to me stands out in a very unique way in that we're a country that will not only protect your right to practice your faith but America will also not impose a particular faith on anyone. As a Jew, this is something very new in the course of history, for Jewish people to practice their faith and not have to be penalized or discriminated against for practicing their faith. What that also means is that others practicing their faith have the ability to do likewise.

Do you spend a lot of time trying to win more Jews over to the Republican cause?

It is a never-ending goal of mine . . . I know this is a very difficult struggle. Most American Jews are more liberal and Democrat. But I can make the case on any number of issues that it's not about liberal and Democrat or conservative and Republican. It's about what's right for kids and families.

What's your pitch for Jews going Republican?

No. 1, in terms of the U.S.-Israel relationship and strengthening that relationship, we will see now with the incoming administration a difference in terms of policy in terms of security for Israel. You will begin to see a difference. We have had one of the best friends in the White House for the U.S.-Israel relationship with George W. Bush. And we'll see how the President-elect handles that question. From the influences around the President-elect and the team he's put together, you probably will see a much different landscape.

Are you worried about that?

I'm very concerned about it. I'm concerned about the posture of the incoming administration toward Iran. Iran obviously poses an existential threat to Israel every single day. Not only to Israel, but the United States. 

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