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Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” clearly is a cultural phenomenon as well as a box office blockbuster. But does it have political fallout? I think a bit, but in the end the right- and left-tilting effects probably balance out. [IMGCAP(1)]

Gibson’s graphically violent depiction of Christ’s arrest, torture and crucifixion has received largely hostile reviews but is a popular hit — an inspiration to many devout Christians and a scary phenomenon to many Jews.

Personally, I thought the movie powerful, not fundamentally anti-Semitic — yet a disappointment because it was so violence-obsessed that it failed to explain who Jesus was, why he was killed, and why he’d probably be killed again if he were alive today.

The movie has potential political effects because Gibson marketed it to slice straight into the cultural divide between conservative, church-going, Republican Red America and liberal, secular Democratic Blue America.

Conservative Roman Catholic Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine and a close ally of White House political guru Karl Rove, says the movie definitely helps President Bush.

“It solidifies evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics around the notion that something they think is valuable can prevail against the mainstream media, especially The New York Times, which tried to destroy the movie before it even opened,” Hudson told me.

“If ‘The Passion’ has legs, the Democrats are in trouble,” he said. “Their worst fear is that Mass-attending Catholics and evangelical Protestants will get together — that’s a solid 25 percent of the electorate.”

However, Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, says multiple reviews alleging anti-Semitism in the film will “modestly” limit the support Bush has gained among Jews for his strong pro-Israel policy. The movie and publicity about it “emphasize the fundamental divide between Red and Blue America,” he said, “and the Jewish community is definitely in the Blue camp in its social and economic views.”

David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the movie “has caused strains” between previously cooperating evangelicals and Jews because the evangelicals — unlike mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic hierarchy — “have been unwilling to hear about the pain the movie has caused among Jews.”

Of course, partisan effects could be heightened if Bush said he’d seen it and then offered controversial commentary on it. So far, the White House says he hasn’t seen it.

Forman thinks that if Bush were to praise the movie, it might have an effect “comparable to or less” than his backing of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, which is a plus with evangelicals in the culture wars and a minus among socially liberal Jews.

The movie definitely is a major cultural event and has triggered intense, nearly ideological debate over its violence, historical accuracy, theology and alleged anti-Semitism.

A Gallup poll on Tuesday showed that an astounding 11 percent of American adults had seen the film already — about 24 million people — and that an additional 65 percent planned to see it in a theater or on video. Seventy-seven percent had a favorable opinion of it based on what they’d seen or heard; 78 percent of those who’ve seen it said it had strengthened their religious faith; and 87 percent thought the violence appropriate for the message.

Gibson marketed the film heavily among devout Christians, who believe that Jesus suffered and died to redeem humanity from sin. Watching Christ beaten, scourged, bloodied and nailed to a cross only deepens their appreciation of the suffering he endured.

Gibson also triggered a firestorm over charges that his film, like centuries of Passion plays before it, blames all Jews for Christ’s killing. With a few exceptions, Jewish commentators — right, center and left — have attacked the movie, including conservative columnists Charles Krauthammer and Mona Charen and scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb.

The critics accuse Gibson of putting chief responsibility for Jesus’ death on the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, and representing Roman governor Pontius Pilate sympathetically.

They also cite his un-Scriptural writing of Satan into the “Passion” story, showing him most often moving among the Jewish mob screaming for Jesus’ crucifixion.

I thought, in fact, that the Romans came off far worse in the film than the Jews. Overwhelmingly, the brutality is inflicted by sadistic Roman soldiers, and Pilate comes across as a pathetically weak ruler who won’t control the activities of his own men.

The New Testament does blame top Jewish authorities for seeking Christ’s death and for inciting mobs against him, but also makes clear why — because Jesus was a religious radical whose teachings would turn their world upside down.

To me, Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son explains it all — the father (God) welcomes, forgives and blesses his wastrel son, enraging his dutiful, loyal, rule-obeying son. The “good people” of any society — including ours — would execute any revolutionary who put society’s dregs ahead of them.

Gibson shows his own hands driving the nails into Jesus’ hands — a statement that he holds all mankind responsible. But he omits any exploration of Jesus’ message to the world — that of love, mercy, redemption and righteousness.

The movie has not incited anti-Semitic outbreaks in the United States. It has incited heated discussion. The more, the better. And, conceivably, more dialogue could heal — rather than exacerbate — our political culture wars.

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