Jews and the Christian right: Is the honeymoon over?

Worried by increasingly strident evangelical rhetoric, Jewish leaders have finally dared to criticize conservative Christians. Will an alliance held together only by a shared support for Israel survive?

Topics: Middle East,

Jews and the Christian right: Is the honeymoon over?

Throughout the last five years, as the Christian right has assumed ever greater power and prominence in America, the organized Jewish community has been remarkably quiescent. Traditionally, Jewish leaders have been among the most vigilant guardians of American secularism, seeing the separation of church and state as key to Jewish equality. But faced with an evangelical president who seemed inviolable and an alliance of convenience with the religious right over Israel, Jewish leaders didn’t raise much of an outcry when billions of taxpayer dollars were diverted toward religious charities through Bush’s faith-based initiative. They didn’t make a fuss when the administration filled the bureaucracy with veterans of groups like the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition. As leaders of the religious right and their allies in the Republican Party trumpeted plans to “take America back,” observers detected growing anxiety among ordinary American Jews, but there was little response from organized Jewry.

This month, that started to change. Two major Jewish figures — Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism — have taken on the religious right and, by extension, the Republican Party. By doing so, they have enraged some evangelicals and opened a fissure in the larger Jewish community. Some leaders are worried about provoking a conservative backlash and ushering in a new era of anti-Semitism. Others rejoice that someone has finally articulated what so many ordinary American Jews have been thinking. Either way, the culture wars have suddenly taken on an overtly sectarian cast.

On Nov. 3, Abraham Foxman gave a speech to an ADL meeting, calling attacks on church-state separation the “key domestic challenge to the American Jewish community and to our democratic values.” “[T]oday we face a better financed, more sophisticated, coordinated, unified, energized, and organized coalition of groups in opposition to our policy positions on church-state separation than ever before,” he said. “Their goal is to implement their Christian worldview. To Christianize America. To save us!” Among the major players in this campaign, Foxman listed Focus on the Family, the Alliance Defense Fund, the American Family Association and the Family Research Council.



Foxman lamented the divisions in the Jewish community over the issue, noting that there is much less unity than there was 15 years ago. Nor could Jews count on their old allies in the civil rights struggles — African-Americans and Latinos — for help. Those bonds have withered; those groups no longer tend to see church-state separation as a vital condition for minority rights. With the America that Jews have prospered in threatening to disappear, Foxman called for a meeting of Jewish leadership to plan a coordinated strategy.

One person who plans to be there is Rabbi Eric Yoffie, whose group is the largest Jewish organization in the country, representing more than 900 congregations. Two weeks after Foxman’s broadside, Yoffie blasted the religious right in a sermon delivered to around 5,000 people at the Union’s biannual convention in Houston. Yoffie says he hadn’t coordinated with Foxman, but the two share some of the same concerns — though Yoffie approaches the issue from a religious rather than a political perspective.

“We are particularly offended by the suggestion that the opposite of the religious right is the voice of atheism,” he told his audience. “We are appalled when ‘people of faith’ is used in such a way that it excludes us, as well as most Jews, Catholics and Muslims. What could be more bigoted than to claim that you have a monopoly on God and that anyone who disagrees with you is not a person of faith?”

Much of Yoffie’s sermon argued that for many Jews, liberalism is the result of religious values, not their antithesis. Being a liberal believer, he said, “means believing that religion involves concern for the poor and the needy, and giving a fair shake to all. When people talk about God and yet ignore justice, it just feels downright wrong to us. When they cloak themselves in religion and forget mercy, it strikes us as blasphemy. ”

And then he launched into the most controversial part of his sermon — an impassioned denunciation of right-wing homophobia that invoked the historical parallel of Nazism. “We understand those who believe that the Bible opposes gay marriage, even though we read that text in a very different way,” he said. “But we cannot understand why any two people who make a lifelong commitment to each other should be denied legal guarantees that protect them and their children and benefit the broader society. We cannot forget that when Hitler came to power in 1933, one of the first things that he did was ban gay organizations. And today, we cannot feel anything but rage when we hear about gay men and women, some on the front lines, being hounded out of our armed services. Yes, we can disagree about gay marriage. But there is no excuse for hateful rhetoric that fuels the hellfires of anti-gay bigotry.”

Yoffie’s sermon was more than 8,000 words long, and ranged over all kinds of subjects. By all accounts, though, the crowd responded most enthusiastically to his salvos against the religious right. This was something that American Jews have been desperate to hear from their leadership, but much of that leadership has been unable or unwilling to say it. As the Jewish newspaper the Forward wrote in an editorial, “There are many reasons to applaud this month’s back-to-back speeches by Abe Foxman and Eric Yoffie on the dangers of the religious right, but here’s the most important: They have given voice to something their constituents have been thinking and feeling for a long time.”

Why the silence until now? Part of it has to do with Israel. Christian Zionism, inspired by end-times beliefs that make the return of Jews to Israel a precondition for the second coming, has made American evangelicals the world’s staunchest backers of Israeli hawks. (Their Jewish allies usually choose to ignore the fact that the Christian Zionist’s apocalyptic scenario ends with unsaved Jews being slaughtered and condemned to hell.) But while evangelicals support Israel for their own eschatological reasons, there have been threats, implicit and explicit, that such support might weaken if Jews oppose their domestic agenda too aggressively. Indeed, in response to Foxman’s speech, Tom Minnery, vice president of government and public policy at Focus on the Family, told the Forward, “If you keep bullying your friends, pretty soon you won’t have any.’” (Neither he nor anyone else from Focus on the Family returned a call for comment from Salon.)

According to JJ Goldberg, the Forward’s editor, such warnings issue from inside the administration as well. “The timing here is crucial,” he says. “The Bush administration is imploding, so the fear of White House retaliation is much lower than it was. That was a very real fear. It wasn’t just a theoretical fear about Israel. It was threats. Play nice or you won’t be able to come in and talk to us about the things you need. The major Jewish organizations, either individually or working through AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], they go in every week because there’s all kinds of stuff they need — a missile, a box of bullets, intelligence sharing. It’s good for them to be able to play that role and it’s good for Israel and the United States to have an intermediary. In Tom DeLay’s Washington, if you didn’t play nice, you didn’t get to walk in the door. So there has been this silence, coupled with the fact that they didn’t think they could win.” (Of course, not all Jews support AIPAC or the Israeli right, but those who don’t have little presence and less influence in Washington.)

Yoffie, for his part, says his group never had access to the White House, but agrees that the dynamic Goldberg describes has affected the broader Jewish community. “Does that operate in the Jewish community? Sure. Does it work for us? Absolutely not. We say what we think.” Yet the reason his speech has received so much attention both inside the Jewish world and outside, he suggests, is because the Bush administration is under attack more broadly, and so there’s more space for dissent.

There’s still plenty of anxiety among parts of the Jewish community over what Foxman and Yoffie are doing. Rabbi Yechiel Z. Eckstein, founder and chairman of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews — and a former staffer at the ADL — predicts that Foxman’s call for a united Jewish front is doomed to fail, since other Jewish leaders won’t want to take on the religious right. Eckstein’s entire career is devoted to being a liaison between evangelicals and Jews — his organization raises money from Christians for Jews in Israel and in the diaspora, and he’s an advisor to Ariel Sharon and a goodwill ambassador to the state of Israel. Conservative Christian support is crucial for Jews in both Israel and America, he says, and it’s folly to attack them.

Eckstein says that it’s the liberal Protestant churches that have turned on Israel by calling for divestment. Meanwhile, secular Europe treats Israel like a pariah. “And who are the only ones who are coming out and standing with Israel? The evangelical Christians,” Eckstein says. Eckstein acknowledges Foxman’s fear about the erosion of church-state separation, but thinks any danger posed by the American religious right pales beside the threats to Israel. “Jews need to always be on guard for their survival as Jews, and for their rights as Jews here in America, but I don’t believe that those rights are threatened to the point that Jewish leaders like Abe Foxman should try to galvanize the Jewish community and start a battle with a constituency that includes the president of the United States, and that includes such a large part of the Republican Party and such a large part of America,” he says. “I don’t think it’s reached that point that Jews should be alienating their greatest friends in the real battle of Jewish survival.”

When I spoke to Eckstein, he had just gotten off the phone with someone from Focus on the Family. Christian leaders, he said, feel hurt and victimized by Foxman’s speech. And he feared what might result: “Rhetoric can create an anti-Jewish feeling among good Bible-believing Christians,” he says. “Certainly in the evangelical world they’re very focused on their leadership. It’s very different than the Jewish community — most of the Jewish community doesn’t care what Abe Foxman says. If their pastor says that black is white and white is black, well, the pastor said so. If leaders themselves start to say it’s the Jews who are preventing us from having a moral society in America  that’s what we saw in history.”

Goldberg dismisses Eckstein’s argument as contradictory. “You can’t on the one hand make a claim that we don’t need to defend ourselves because we are essentially in a good place, and at the same time argue that we shouldn’t defend ourselves because we are so vulnerable that we could lose everything in a minute,” he says.

In fact, neither is true. Jews in America aren’t endangered, but the power of the religious right has clearly reached a point where a great many feel exceedingly nervous. The fear is not of pogroms or outright discrimination; rather, it’s of the disappearance of the secular civic culture that allowed Jews to feel like full citizens of America rather than a tolerated minority.

Throughout the last decade, the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups had reached a kind of accommodation with the religious right that was based in part on Christian leaders toning down their more theocratic rhetoric. In 1995, Ralph Reed, then the executive director of the Christian Coalition, addressed the ADL and apologetically acknowledged that much of his movement’s language alarmed Jews. “This is true not only of the blatant wrongs of a few — those who claimed that ‘God does not hear the prayers of Jews,’ those who said that this is a ‘Christian nation,’ suggesting that others may not be welcome, and those who say that the only prayers uttered in public school should be Christian prayers. It is also true because of the thoughtless lapses of many — the use of religious-military metaphors, a false and patronizing philo-Semitism, and the belief that being pro-Israel somehow answers for all other insensitivity to Jewish concerns.”

Such sensitivity has virtually vanished from today’s religious right, replaced with a triumphalist religious nationalism. Foxman was especially alarmed by the situation at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where, according to numerous reports, a climate of outright religious bigotry prevailed. Some faculty members introduced themselves to their classes as born-again Christians and encouraged their charges to convert. Upperclassmen exerted similar pressure on undergraduates; one Jewish cadet was slurred as a Christ killer. Several cadets have filed a lawsuit.

Even more disturbing to Foxman than the abuses themselves was the religious right’s response when they came to light. Few were apologetic — instead, they declared themselves the victims. When Democratic Rep. David Obey offered an amendment to a defense appropriations bill calling for an investigation into the situation at the academy, Republican John Hostettler stood up and said, “The long war on Christianity in America continues today on the floor of the House of Representatives.”

When the Air Force adopted guidelines intended to remedy the situation, the religious right reacted furiously. The guidelines didn’t prevent senior officers from proselytizing to those under their authority, though they did urge them to be “sensitive.” They also called for public prayers to be non-sectarian. Christian conservative leaders interpreted this as an assault, and 70 congressmen joined movement representatives in signing a letter to President Bush decrying the guidelines and asking him to issue an executive order protecting “the constitutional right of military chaplains to pray according to their faith.”

“There is an arrogance in their efforts to pull every institution toward Christianity,” says Foxman. “It’s a concerted effort to use government to achieve that which religion should achieve in the open marketplace.” The more theocratic elements of the religious right — elements Reed tried to marginalize, at least in public — have now taken center stage. A decade ago, Foxman says, the drive to Christianize America “wasn’t in the open, it wasn’t as blatant, it wasn’t as aggressive.”

As Foxman said in his speech, “Make no mistake: We are facing an emerging Christian right leadership that intends to ‘Christianize’ all aspects of American life, from the halls of government to the libraries, to the movies, to recording studios, to the playing fields and local rooms of professional collegiate and amateur sport, from the military to SpongeBob SquarePants.”

Given this onslaught, Jews can’t simply cede their place in America in exchange for support for Israel. Speaking of those who caution him not to disturb the Jewish-evangelical alliance, Foxman says, “If we cannot disagree, what kind of a friendship is it?”

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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