On Nov. 16, the news source Jewish Insider published an article about Madison Cawthorn, the U.S. Representative-elect for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District. In the interview with Jewish Insider, Cawthorn made a statement that has since subjected him to both scrutiny and praise: that he tries to convert Muslims and Jews to Christianity. Proselytizing — trying to convert others to your religion — is a core tenet of Christianity for some. Cawthorn shared a screenshot from a Washington Examiner article on social media that talked about the importance of proselytizing in Christianity, and stated that accepting Jesus as one’s savior is the only path to salvation. Cawthorn said in the interview with Jewish Insider that he feels it is his duty to “lead (people) to Christ,” which he said he’s had relative success in doing, having converted “several Muslims” and “a lot of… cultural Jews.” As these statements from Cawthorn became known to the public, they were the center of another controversy in the representative-elect’s short political career.
I understand that many Christians see converting others as an act of kindness, feeling that they are helping the other person. This was the argument that Cawthorn and his supporters made in response to the adverse reactions he received. However, there is a notable difference between having a discussion of faith with someone who seeks it or is uncertain of their beliefs, or lack thereof, and trying to sway someone who already follows a religion. The latter invalidates that person’s religion, no matter how good-intentioned the proselytizer is. To target Muslims and Jews for conversion sends the message that Islam and Judaism are false or less correct than Christianity. The Washington Examiner article that Cawthorn shared blatantly does this, and while Cawthorn didn’t write it himself, he clearly agrees with the sentiment. As a Jewish person, seeing someone — especially my district’s congressional representative — talk about wanting to convert Jews is troubling. Given the long history of people seeking to erase Jewishness from the world, any talk of conversion, forced or not, raises a red flag. Of course, there are Muslims and Jews who are open to conversion, but it’s up to them to ask for guidance.
What adds to the troubling nature of this matter with Cawthorn is his refusal to listen to Jewish voices on whether or not his actions are antisemitic or, at least, harmful. Instead of acknowledging why people were hurt, he positioned himself as the victim, claiming that he was being attacked for simply sharing his faith and that his critics were anti-religious freedom. This is ridiculous. Sharing your faith is tweeting out a Bible verse or having a meaningful discussion with someone who solicited your views. It isn’t trying to convert people. And the only infringement on religious freedom that I can see in this situation is Cawthorn’s lack of respect for Islam and Judaism. He is the furthest thing from the newest victim of cancel culture. He’s an elected official who has a duty to hear the voices of the people he is representing, especially when they are telling him that he is being ignorant.
I know that one’s initial reaction to criticism is usually to ignore and deny it, but I hope that Cawthorn will realize that this is an opportunity for growth. In the same interview with Jewish Insider, he seemed excited to interact with the Jewish communities in his district, and in another interview with the same news source, he displayed a level of knowledge and eloquence on Jewish issues that pleasantly surprised me. I didn’t agree with everything he said, and I found a number of things to be misinformed, but I did appreciate some of his sentiments. For instance, he condemned QAnon and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), two groups who are known to be antisemitic, yet have support from various politicians.
With that being said, his comments on conversion aren’t his first controversy. This isn’t even the first time he’s been accused of antisemitic behavior. During his congressional race, an Instagram post of his was placed in the hot seat. It was a set of photos of Cawthorn and his brother at Adolf Hitler’s vacation home with a caption that disturbed many, myself included. Cawthorn was chastised for referring to Hitler as “the Führer,” which some took as a sign of respect, as well as his description of the visit as a bucket-list item and a fun time. Cawthorn’s original response to the flurry of denouncements — or at least, the only response of his I’d seen up until recently — again positioned himself as the victim. He said that he was being treated as a white-supremacist-until-proven-innocent, and remarked that the thought that a person in a wheelchair would support Hitler was offensive and illogical. However, Cawthorn did later express regret at his use of the term “Führer” during an interview with Jewish Insider, also stating that he wished he’d had more empathy when creating the caption that he admitted was insensitive. He held firm to the narrative that he’d described the visit as a fun time because he felt it was a “triumph over (a) supreme evil” to be an American in a wheelchair laughing in Hitler’s old home. I’m not inclined to disbelieve him.
I hope that Cawthorn takes a similar approach of reflection with this newest scandal, albeit with a quicker and more widespread apology. If he truly values having a relationship with the Jewish communities in his district — as well as the Muslim communities, although I don’t speak for them — he must examine his actions and words closely and have an openness to criticism. Regarding converting Jews and Muslims as a challenge and a bragging right is offensive and alienates members of those groups; ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. Cawthorn must strive to do better.
By: Sarah Monoson, Print Editor-in-Chief