WASHINGTON - First let me say that Jesus is just all right with me. And Mel Gibson, whether playing a lethal weapon, a patriot Scot or a silver-tongued Hamlet, has only fans in my movie-obsessed household.
But Gibson as Jesus' savior through his movie, "The Passion of the Christ," poses a moral dilemma. To paraphrase the prince of Denmark: Is he an anti-Semite or isn't he? That is the question.
It's an especially important question for conservatives, who, apparently grateful for a Hollywood movie that feels familiar, if not precisely family-friendly, have embraced Gibson as one of their own. He is the far right's newly anointed one.
A few nights ago, I attended the conservative Media Research Center's Annual Dishonor Awards, an Academy Awards spoof that "honors" the most egregious perpetrators of liberal bias in the media. Featured were several media stars from conservative ranks, as well as "surprise" guests Sam Donaldson and Rush Limbaugh.
Throughout the evening, I was struck by speakers' repeated invocations of Gibson. They were trying to make the point that Gibson was a victim of liberal media bias. At long last, a native-born, movie-star poster boy of their very own.
What's wrong with that? Nothing except that Gibson steadfastly refuses to convincingly distance himself from Holocaust deniers and minimizers. Several times during the past several months, and most recently in an interview with Peggy Noonan for the March issue of Reader's Digest, Gibson has avoided giving a clear answer.
When someone of Gibson's enormous popularity, high profile, huge bank account and access to the big screen decides to tackle the most controversial, emotionally divisive story in human history, his message matters.
The movie itself has been thoroughly dissected by now. Some think it's anti-Semitic, some don't. Yasser Arafat says it's not. Phew.
More to the point - at least as one selects bedfellows for the campaign season - is Gibson's intent. Unfortunately, Gibson doesn't make his own best case when asked to clarify his position on the Holocaust. The question is not misplaced given Gibson's family history.
His father is Hutton Gibson, activist, Holocaust denier and author who rejects the Second Vatican Council, when the church revolutionized itself to conform with modernity. In an interview with The New York Times, the senior Gibson said the Holocaust was a manufactured catastrophe arranged by Hitler and "financiers" to export Jews from Germany. Vatican II, he said, was "a Masonic plot backed by the Jews."
And, oh, yes, he says Sept. 11 wasn't executed by al-Qaida hijackers. The airplanes that flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were "crashed by remote control."
As a fan of Latin, incense and a certain amount of pomp with my circumstance, I'm sympathetic to people who prefer traditional ritual to vernacular accommodation. I figure if you're going to church, by all means make it High Church. Otherwise, you may as well sit cross-legged in the back yard and ululate in concert with nature.
I'm also sympathetic to the notion that you don't keep revising religious doctrine to ratify new inventions in human narcissism.
But one of Vatican II's accomplishments was to exonerate Jews in the death of Christ. When you reject the notion that Jews shouldn't be held exclusively accountable (we're all to blame, my Roman Catholic friends tell me), along with a denial that 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War II, then you begin to seem like an anti-Semite, sort of the way a squat, waddling, web-footed, quacking creature seems an awful lot like a duck.
Both Gibsons subscribe to a Pre-Vatican II Catholicism. And while the son can't be held accountable for the wacky views of his father, the younger Gibson refuses to come out and say what everyone wants to hear: "I love my father, but disagree with him about the Holocaust." Instead, he says, "My father has never told me a lie."
When Noonan pointedly asked Gibson to clarify his position - "The Holocaust happened, right?" - he kinda sorta acknowledged it (he has friends with numbers on their arms and, yes, "atrocities happened"), but otherwise described the extermination of Jews as just so many causalities among many.
Which is to say, Holocaust deniers justifiably might feel that they have their own movie star poster boy. And this may not be the group hug in which conservatives want to participate.