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Since When Is Swimming in the Sea of Galilee Scandalous?

As a journalist who specializes in topics at the intersection of religion and politics, no one would be more excited than me about a scandal involving the Sea of Galilee and GOP politicians. But I’m just not seeing it.

I knew something was up when I first read Mike Allen’s over-the-top hype of his Politico colleagues’ “amazing scoop” in Playbook yesterday. The fact that the story was covered by all the morning shows didn’t make it any more legit, but I did pause for a moment when I read Joe Scarborough’s comments, via Allen: 

This is SO bad for the Republican Party… The Republican brand, it’s been really hurt over the past five, 10 years … Here you have a group of Republicans … going to a sacred religious site for evangelicals … That reverberates from church to church, from pew to pew, from family to family, from preacher to preacher … They have offended their base … Eric Cantor … needs to SCALD these people politically.

Huh? Are we talking about the same story? Here’s what apparently happened: During a congressional trip to Israel last summer, a group of GOP lawmakers, staff, and their families capped off an evening meal in Tiberius—an Israeli town in the Galilee—by swimming in the Sea of Galilee. They had alcoholic beverages during dinner. One GOP congressman doffed all his clothes for the swim.

Okay, that one congressman—Kevin Yoder of Kansas—clearly forgot one very important workplace rule: Never go skinny-dipping with your colleagues or staff. I feel weird enough chatting up colleagues at pool parties while wearing a swimsuit. But aside from that behavior unbecoming a congressional representative, what’s the scandal here? That members of Congress are not teetotalers? Did Yoder waggle his Member’s member in front of a colleague’s young daughter?

The implied importance of the story in Politico’s eyes is in the headline: “Exclusive: FBI probed GOP trip with drinking, nudity in Israel.” Sounds like the FBI thought there was something serious enough to investigate, yes? Actually, no. Turns out FBI agents aren’t concerned about congressional skinny-dipping. Instead, they looked into a side trip to Cyprus that one of the GOP congressmen made following the Israel visit. As Ryan Reilly at TalkingPointsMemo reported yesterday: “FBI agents were actually interested in [Michael] Grimm’s failure to file paperwork related to his trip to Cyprus … which had been paid for by the Cyprus Federation of America. The president of that company was arrested on federal corruption charges in June.” 

Oops. I can’t let it go unnoted that in Allen’s excited promotion of the SkinnyDipGate yesterday, he included one of his patented “LESSON[S] FOR YOUNG REPORTERS: Nothing is more valuable in the Wild West of journalism than dogged, important, air-tight reporting.” I’ll give him dogged—the Politico duo had a dozen sources, including eyewitnesses, bro! But I see nothing air-tight or important about this story. I see August.

Because here’s what appears to have gone unnoticed: Israel is hot in the summer. Really hot. People swim in the Sea of Galilee, among other places. On my first trip to Israel several years ago, I got heatstroke on a walk through the Golan. The first thing we did when we drove back to Tiberius was jump in the Galilee. (Okay, the second thing. We changed into swimsuits first. Try it next time, Rep. Yoder.) Being the Sunday School nerd that I am, I spent the whole time singing “I will call them fishers of men…fishers of men…if they follow me.”

Yes, the Galilee is a spiritual site for many Christians. I got verklempt thinking about Jesus and his disciples swimming and fishing in those very same waters. But it’s not like Yoder cannon-balled into a baptism in the River Jordan. Or ignored everything Jesus said about the poor. Now that would be a story.