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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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He has a theological degree. Here’s how Rep. Greg Landsman sees faith in Congress


In a Congress filled with memes and hot takes, Rep. Greg Landsman stands out for the opposite. The freshman Democrat from Ohio speaks methodically, uttering each word only after an almost rabbinical level of contemplation — which is fitting for someone with a master’s in theological studies from the Harvard Divinity School.

That doesn’t mean everything he says is politically cautious or boring. He’s given considerable thought to Taylor Swift’s relationship with her father, for example. And when he bashes Mike Johnson, it’s because he believes the new House speaker isn’t curious or empathetic enough for the job.

“I use my faith to connect to people and find common humanity and do good work,” Landsman says. “Based on what I have seen so far, that is not how he uses his faith.”

Landsman sat down with Roll Call earlier this month to talk about his Jewish faith, the “incredibly raw” feelings on Capitol Hill around the Israel-Hamas war, and how he responds to antisemitism.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Looking around at the walls of your office, I see you have some pictures of Muhammad Ali.

A: Yeah. I picked up boxing about 10 years ago and have had amateur fights. I try to box almost every day, at least bag work. I became mildly obsessed with the sport, and it became incredibly helpful to me as a way of reducing my stress and gaining focus.

It’s hard to get into boxing without falling in love with Muhammad Ali. He was an original thinker and a profoundly decent human being.

There are very few people who — if you look up to them, and look for real guidance on how to lead an impactful life — won’t let you down. Muhammad Ali is one of those people.

Q: You’re on the NRCC target list . What’s your biggest worry heading into 2024?

A: My biggest worry has nothing to do with me or my race. My biggest worry is where we are in terms of our politics.

What is it about this moment that leads to Mike Johnson becoming speaker? That led Kevin McCarthy to say to many of us — who were 100 percent ready to work with him to marginalize the extremism and let him govern — “No, I’m gonna pass on that”?

There’s real frustration because of how broken the economy’s been for decades, where you have the super wealthy who continue to consolidate power and wealth at the expense of the rest of us.

Instead of solving the problem, too many national and state politicians divide and fear-monger and get folks scared of each other. Solving the problem requires restructuring the economy and fixing the tax code, which they don’t want to do.

I’m determined to stay here as long as voters let me, to attempt to fix this economy and the tax code and how power and wealth is shared in this country, so that people can pay their bills and enjoy their lives.

Q: You mentioned Mike Johnson. He says his deep Christian faith led him to seek office. You’ve said something similar about your Jewish faith. Is there any common ground there?

A: Well, I’m always going to hold on to the possibility of common ground. I am a person of tremendous faith, and I think about God throughout the day. It’s just in my DNA. It’s how I’m built.

There are a lot of differences between me and Mike Johnson. I have a master’s in theology. I’ve studied the Bible and know it well, and based on what he has done and said, I am not convinced he’s done the same.

I’ve studied Torah and the Quran and the way folks of all kinds of different faiths approach God. I use my faith to connect to people and find common humanity and do good work. He uses his faith to separate folks — to force people into very dangerous categories of good and evil.

And what he did with the vote [on the Israel aid package] was cynical and political, and outrageous and incredibly scary. It was his first opportunity as a leader to bring us together, but he chose to do the exact opposite — which was to pit the security of the people, Jewish or otherwise, against protecting billionaires from paying all of their taxes. I know the Bible, and that is not in the Bible.

Q: You’re talking about the supplemental that would pair billions in military aid for Israel with funding cuts for the IRS. But you were one of 12 Democrats who joined Republicans on Nov. 2 to help it pass the House.

A: Yeah, I voted for it, because of my commitment to Israel and the fact that I’m not going to let him change that about me. Ending this war as soon as we can is going to save lives and is going to improve our national security, and I’m just not gonna let him push me around like that.

What if we didn’t have the Senate to fix this? I’ve only been here 10 months, but that was one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of really gross bills brought to the floor.

Q: You have called out your Democratic colleagues, too, going back to Rep. Pramila Jayapal over the summer, when she said Israel was a “racist state.” You responded by condemning “anti-Zionist voices that embolden antisemitism.” What do you make of the latest rhetoric from the progressive wing of the party during the Israel-Hamas war?

A: A lot of Jews and Muslims in this place, we are scared. We are in a lot of pain. We are stressed. We are incredibly anxious, and the emotion is incredibly raw.

I wish everyone was a little more curious and thoughtful and interested in learning more about what has happened. You know, I don’t expect people to go all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. But I do want all of us to spend more time on the history here — what Jews have gone through, what Palestinians have gone through, what Muslims have gone through.

In my conversations with folks who have said things that have crossed the line, I asked them just to reach out if they wouldn’t mind, because you don’t have to tweet everything you’re thinking. Take a minute and pick up the phone. Because this is complicated, and there is a way to say how you feel without yelling “fire” in a movie theater, where people are going to get hurt.

It’s important to remember that antisemitism isn’t just hating Jews. It is oftentimes ascribing [to them] the things we hate most about society. That was the case in the ‘30s in Nazi Germany. What I see now is a similar thing, and it’s happening with the support of people who I do not believe are antisemitic, but it’s still happening, and they’re still part of it. [They’re saying] Jews are now occupiers and colonizers and they are racist, and they are fascists, and they are genocidal. Don’t do that.

One of the things that I have been advocating for well before Oct. 7 Is for folks to appreciate the fragility of the Jewish state of Israel. Hamas in Gaza, Islamic Jihad and others in the West Bank, Hezbollah — Israel is this very small country, and it’s surrounded by [groups] that have absolutely set out to eliminate Israel. That’s what they want.

And so unlike criticizing the New York Mets or a TV show you don’t like, there is a fragility here that you should take into account. The success of American democracy isn’t inevitable. But we would lose our democracy in the course of years, if not decades. Israel could be gone in minutes.

Quick hits

Last book you read? “Of Boys and Men” by Richard Reeves, about the current state of boys and men in the United States. It’s a very sobering book. I am not a big read-for-fun guy.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? Yes.

Your least popular opinion? I love Taylor Swift, but I have some very unpopular opinions about the role her father plays in her life and just how much influence he has.

So you’re a Swiftie? Believe it or not, it’s a hard conversation to have with people who are also Swifties, because some people interpret that as she’s not completely in control. I think she’s very much her own person and the talent is 100 percent her, but I do think that some of the more corporate aspects of the Taylor Swift world are him.

One thing your friends know about you that your constituents don’t? My college nickname was Craig, because someone thought it was my name, and then other people thought it was really funny. My college friends still call me Craig.