Soon-to-be the youngest member of Congress, North Carolina Republican Madison Cawthorn has already faced a media onslaught that dishonestly cast a 2017 Instagram post, which showed his visit to Adolf Hitler’s World War II retreat, as neo-Nazi propaganda. Members of the elite press rekindled their misguided outrage on Monday in response to a quote that was falsely attributed to Cawthorn.
In a wide-ranging interview with Jewish Insider, Cawthorn admitted that “it does not look like Donald Trump is going to be the president,” described sharing common ground with Joe Biden on “infrastructure reform,” and expressed an interest in reforming America’s “terrible” foreign policy. He also said he was “looking forward” to meeting Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) — whom he described as someone “of conviction.”
For the mainstream press, however, the major takeaway was Cawthorn’s comment about his religious convictions.
“Newly Elected GOP Congressman Madison Cawthorn Has Tried to Convert Jews to Christianity” reads a fear-mongering headline in the Daily Beast.
In his first extensive interview after being elected, Cawthorn opened up to Jewish Insider about his passion for preaching and sharing his testimony, which he started doing several years ago following a horrific car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
He said he had read through “just about every single religious work there is,” including the Torah and the Koran, to get a better understanding of how Islam and Judaism relate to Christianity. “The thing I found when I was actually reading through the Koran is that Christianity — that is a very easy switch to make to lead [sic] a Muslim to Christ,” he explained.
“They believe Jesus is a real person,” he continued, before correcting the ham-handed initial description. “They believe he was a prophet, though. And so when you’re trying to lead an atheist to Christ, or, say, kind of a traditional Jewish person, you kind of have to make people really — you have to sell Jesus a lot, because, one, they don’t really believe that, you know — some very devout Jews just think he’s kind of a good guy. That’s great. But, you know, the Muslims, they already believe that he was somewhat divine.”
Later in the interview, he was asked if he has tried to convert practicing Jews and said he had tried “unsuccessfully.” “I have switched a lot of, uh, you know, I guess, culturally Jewish people. But being a practicing Jew, like, people who are religious about it, they are very difficult. I’ve had a hard time connecting with them in that way,” he said.
Cawthorn grounded his approach in the desire to lead others to Jesus Christ. “If all you are is friends with other Christians, then how are you ever going to lead somebody to Christ?” he explained. “If you’re not wanting to lead somebody to Christ, then you’re probably not really a Christian.”
Cawthorn’s views are far from unusual: Evangelical Protestantism is the single largest faith tradition in the United States and is built on a foundation of witness and conversion. Such an emphasis may help explain why it is “the major exception” to the gradual decline of American Christianity, as Pew noted in 2015. (“The share of all Protestants who are born-again or evangelical is at least as high today as it was in 2009,” it reported last year.)
But his musings found their way into the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which dishonestly merged two of Cawthorn’s quotes to conceal the fact that he was discussing the challenges associated with converting Jewish people, not describing an inability to connect with Jewish people in general.
“[Muslims] believe Jesus is a real person,” JTA quoted Cawthorn as saying. “But being a practicing Jew, like, people who are religious about it, they are very difficult. I’ve had a hard time connecting with them in that way.” The implication? Cawthorn thinks Jews are ignorant, and he prefers Muslims.
The elision was eventually corrected, but apparently fooled the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who shared the quote on Twitter, prompting a wave of online criticism.
“[Muslims] believe Jesus is a real person. But being a practicing Jew, like, people who are religious about it, they are very difficult. I’ve had a hard time connecting with them in that way."
— newly elected Republican congressman Madison Cawthorn:https://t.co/pAWY5mARXR
— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg) November 16, 2020
“Truly shocking rhetoric from kid who, uh, visited Hitler’s vacation home as part of his ‘bucket list,’” was the response from New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie. “It is textbook antisemitism, soon to be taxpayer funded,” Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board member Abraham Gutman said. “I’ve got a pretty good hunch about what websites this guy is reading,” MSNBC host Chris Hayes quipped, before continuing.
But of course they won't and I'm willing to bet it gets 1/20th of the coverage of Omar's tweet? And this speaks to something pretty profound about how the two parties are viewed and whose "extremism" gets attention.
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) November 16, 2020
Goldberg later shared the “full interview” Cawthorn gave to Jewish Insider story and didn’t respond to an email asking if that decision stemmed from a realization that the JTA quote was incorrect. But the damage was done.
“The 2020 election showed us that ‘woke’ cancel culture liberalism isn’t a winning message for Democrats,” a Cawthorn spokesman told National Review. “Rather than learning that lesson, the Left is doubling down on their charge that all conservatives are guilty of being Nazis and white supremacists until proven innocent. Apparently, they missed Biden’s memo on unity.”
Following a request for comment, JTA editor-in-chief Philissa Cramer told National Review that the outlet had updated the piece to fix the framing of the quote in question.
“Our headline and the story itself make clear that when incoming U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn said Jews were ‘more difficult’ he was referring to his proselytizing efforts,” she said. “That said, we have clarified our story to show that some quotes did not appear consecutively in the Jewish Insider interview, which we encourage people to read in full.”
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated with a comment from JTA acknowledging its correction.