January 17th, 2013
02:32 PM ET
Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
(CNN) - As I have read recent neoconservative diatribes against President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, former Sen. Chuck Hagel – including charges that he is an anti-Semite and a full-page advertisement attacking him in The New York Times on Thursday – I have asked myself, “What would George Washington do?"
In his Farewell Address, published on September 19, 1796, Washington offered his hard-won wisdom on such matters as church and state, partisan politics, and foreign policy.
On foreign policy, Washington declared our independence from friends and foes alike, warning against the “evils” produced by “permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others.” To love or hate another nation too deeply, he observed, “is in some degree to become a slave ... to its animosity or to its affection.”
Even before Obama officially nominated Hagel to be secretary of defense, the Vietnam War veteran was being attacked not just for displaying insufficient affection toward Israel but for allegedly being an anti-Semite. On December 13, an unnamed Senate aide told The Weekly Standard that Hagel exhibited “the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is” when he said in 2006 that the "Jewish lobby" in Washington tends to "intimidate" lawmakers. On January 7, Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations told NPR that Hagel “appears to be ... frankly an anti-Semite," based on what Abrams described as an insufficiently friendly attitude toward the Jewish community in Nebraska.
Hagel has since apologized to lawmakers for the "Jewish lobby" remark, winning the support of some key Jewish lawmakers.
I understand why some lawmakers and lobbyists might disagree with comments Hagel once made about the wisdom of going to war with Iraq or about the prospect of going to war with Iran. I understand as well why some might take issue with statements he has made about Hezbollah or Hamas or pre-emptive war. That is the stuff of politics, and I say have at it.
But as we as a nation ponder whether Hagel is an appropriate choice for secretary of defense, we need to remember that he is being asked to come to work for the United States.
It is fine for individual Americans to love other countries — for Indian-Americans to love India, for Greek-Americans to love Greece, for Brazilian-Americans to love Brazil. And I am sure that Ed Koch and Alan Dershowitz and other signers of Thursday’s New York Times ad attacking Chuck Hagel love Israel.
That is their right.
But it is not right for the United States as a nation to love any other country. Such love can make us feel we ought to endorse everything that country’s leaders do, or to attack as un-American anyone who says something even mildly critical of its leadership’s policies.
I don’t know much about Chuck Hagel, and I don’t particularly care whether he becomes our next secretary of defense. But as we ponder his nomination, we should remember the words of our first president, one of our greatest, particularly his observation that "the nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest."
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.