A Southern Baptist leader lecturing at Criswell College used a gutter word to describe a Jewish U.S. senator.
During the Jan. 29-31 Criswell Theological Lectures at the Dallas school, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, described Sen. Charles Schumer as “the schmuck from New York.” The lecture is archived on-line.
The slang term for a stupid, obnoxious or oafish person entered the English lexicon as a borrowed word from Yiddish, where it is an obscene word for male genitalia and an insult. Comedian Lenny Bruce once got arrested for using it in a comedy routine.
Many observers attributed Schumer’s election to the Senate in 1998 to a gaffe by his opponent, three-term Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, who called Schumer a “putzhead”–a roughly equivalent term–in a closed-door meeting with Jewish supporters. D’Amato apologized but still lost. “That’s the nature of Yiddish slang,” observed the Jerusalem Post. “It zings and often is unforgettable.”
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics called Land’s remark “offensive.”
“When a Baptist preacher slurs a senator of Jewish faith with such a degrading word in a lecture to theology students, he discloses a hostility towards Jews and may communicate that using Yiddish insults against those of Jewish faith is acceptable for ministers,” said Parham, executive director of the Nashville-based BCE. “The fact that he has had a month to think about what he said and has not issued an apology or at least a retraction suggests a disturbing insensitivity and an indifference to crudeness.”
Land isn’t the first SBC leader called out over insensitive language toward Jews. In 2003 seminary president Albert Mohler compared Judaism to a “deadly tumor” in an analogy illustrating a mandate to evangelize Jews. In 1980 SBC president Bailey Smith uttered famously that “God Almighty does not hear the prayers of a Jew.”
“Anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in the soil of Christianity,” Parham said. “We need to be about cutting those roots, not watering them as Land has done.”
Schumer, 57, was born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father owned an exterminating business. A product of public schools, he went on to graduate from Harvard College and Harvard Law School.
He was elected to the New York State Assembly at age 23, making him one of the youngest members since Theodore Roosevelt, and to Congress at 29. During 18 years in the House of Representatives, Schumer wrote and helped pass high-profile legislation including the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks for handgun purchases; the Assault Weapons Ban; the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill that put 100,000 new police on the streets; and the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which made blockading family planning clinics a federal crime.
Since joining the Senate, Schumer has become one of President Bush’s harshest critics. He pushed Democrats to use the filibuster to block some of the Bush appointees as federal judges. He also led a Senate inquiry into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys that critics called a political purge orchestrated by the White House, and like other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee grew angry when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said more than 100 times he didn’t know or couldn’t remember important details of the dismissals.
Schumer chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2006 mid-term elections, when Democrats picked up six seats and established a majority.
Land’s comment came during a three-day lecture series on God and country based on his book, The Divided States of America? What Liberals and Conservatives are Missing in the God-and-Country Shouting Match! In it, Land claims America is not as divided as the media and pundits on the right and left make it appear.
“America’s political divide has generated plenty of hear and hot air, and voices on both sides have been needlessly strident,” he wrote. “The problem with nasty shouting matches is that eventually they get boring for all except the few principles juicing their adrenaline and the followers feeding off the vicarious thrill. The most thoughtful inevitably turn down the volume by simply turning away.”
Schumer wasn’t Land’s only foil in his Jan. 31 lecture. He pointed out that if John Kerry had been elected president Hillary Clinton would today be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. “Clinton would be parking her broom at the Supreme Court for 25 years,” he said.
“Land doesn’t speak for the goodwill Baptists that I know who work to advance the common good with their Jewish friends,” Parham said. “I hope Baptist clergy will tell their Jewish colleagues that they disagree with such name-calling and that Land’s attitude is not their attitude.”
In 2004 the Baptist Center for Ethics sponsored a luncheon in an effort to seek to improve relations between Baptists and Jews. Recently BCE released “Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists’ Relationships with Jews,” a DVD documenting past anti-Semitism and proposing a way forward for constructive partnerships between Baptists and Jews.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
“Good Will for the Common Good: Nurturing Baptists’ Relationships with Jews”