Is the Religious Right Good or Bad for the Jews?
The story is told of a Jewish visitor to New York in the days when the Dodgers called Brooklyn home. The fans of Dem Bums” were wildly celebrating the one and only World Series victory ever achieved while they played at Ebbets Field. “What’s going on?” the visitor asked his American cousin. “The Dodgers won! The Dodgers won!” the cousin cried, slapping him on the shoulder. The visitor was speechless with bewilderment. Then he ventured to ask, “Is this good or bad for the Jews?”
Jews and the Religious Right
“Is this good or bad for the Jews?” is a question that is asked by Jews whenever we have found ourselves buffeted by the forces of history and the prevailing winds of the host culture. It is perhaps understandable that we have been such sharp-eyed observers of changes in the political and social climate. Again and again, Jews have been deprived of even the most fragile of footholds in societies that have tolerated our presence for a time, only to turn against us overnight.
Only in America did we find a way of life that did not depend on the whim of this or that defender of the faith or feudal lord—a way of life that rested on the legal guarantees that undergird the social contract. The constitutionally held principle of separation of church and state is regarded as most precious by the Jewish community.
In recent times, the United States has seen a resurgence of the presence of religion in the political arena. Books like Kingdoms in Conflict by Chuck Colson, The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus and The Culture of Disbelief by Stephen L. Carter have made the case for an active Christian political presence whose purpose is to reassert Christian faith as a factor to be reckoned with in the arena of public policy. Movements such as the Moral Majority and the more recent Christian Coalition have sought to apply these ideas. Is this good or bad for the Jews? The response of the vast majority of American Jews to the rise of the Religious Right speaks for itself. It is, by and large, one of utmost suspicion.
This is so for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the ancient, well-grounded fear that a reunion of Christian doctrine and political power spells hardship for Jews. The persecutions in Germany, Russia, Poland, England and Spain are simply too vivid to forget. Again and again, history has shown that when Church and State unite, Jews suffer.
Therefore, it ought not be surprising that when Pat Robertson speaks in terms of a “Christian” America, Jews interpret his words as a threat. Or that when Patrick Buchanan conjures up the symbol of a cultural “holy war,” the image is more than figurative to many Jews. The militant tone of some frustrated politically conservative Christians worries many Jews who shudder at the thought of them as a force in law making.
The element of religious faith is only a part of the deep antipathy many Jews feel for the Religious Right. Another component is plain old politics. Until now, the most recent concerted efforts to bring Christianity into the political arena have come from the conservative end of the spectrum. This, almost more than anything, has raised red flags among Jewish voters. But it is not only Jews who feel discomfited by the Christian Right. Evangelical Christian authors and teachers such as Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller, all of whom would identify more with a politically liberal ideology, hold the view that “the almost total identification of the Religious Right with the Republican majority in Washington is a dangerous liaison of religion with political power.”1
Jewish social activists do not object to religious language in politics per se. Many rallied around Dr. Martin Luther King despite the fact that Dr. King unabashedly clothed his call for racial justice in biblical imagery, much of it from the New Testament. But when that same kind of imagery is enlisted by a Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition or his successor, former Republican Congressman Randy Tate, the reaction is quite different. The plain fact is that many Jews feel almost no empathy with most of the conservative causes that a Reed or a Tate embody. Many Jews would characterize the Religious Right as mindless Bible-thumpers.
Jews and the Political Left
“Why are all Jews leftists?” Richard Nixon was said to have queried Henry Kissinger. Though this is an overstatement, it is a perception many non-Jews have. Again, the reasons are rooted in Jewish history.
Since the late nineteenth century Jews have traditionally affiliated with leftist political parties and causes. Very early on, the leftists projected a far more inclusive image that attracted the immigrants who would soon become citizens and voters. The interests of the poor has been the province of leftist political forces. If you were poor, downtrodden and a minority, your home was in the Democratic Party, the party of the masses, or some party or movement further to the left.
The legacy of those early days has provided a firm foundation for Jewish solidarity with many present day liberal causes. Part of that legacy is a deep-seated antipathy on the part of many Jews toward the Republican party—the party of the privileged, perceived as the bastion of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant aristocracy; a group not known for its warmth toward Jews. Of course there are exceptions. But for the most part, it was known that the Republicans stood for the status quo and that unless you were white, Protestant and native born you, were unwelcome. In the case of the Jews, it was the cause closest to the hearts of Jewish social activists that placed us most squarely against Republican standard bearers.
Labor and Liberalism
On the other hand, the cause that Jews espoused most passionately was the American labor movement. Poor working conditions and their attendant social unrest provided a most important impetus for Jews to migrate to the new world in the first place.
The Jews brought their passion for workers’ rights with them, and found they were warmly received by Democrats, Socialists and even Communists. Soon there was a Jewish press. Abraham Cahan’s Jewish Daily Forward provided a focal point for political radicalism. The message of workers’ solidarity soon branched out into other agendas for social change. It should not come as a surprise that for many Jews faith became non-essential. It became fashionable to view the old-world religion as just another outmoded convention that deserved to be left behind. For many, agnosticism and atheism became synonymous with progressive politics. This identification has left a lasting imprint on American Jewish political consciousness.
Jewish Culture and the Religious Right
Politics is not the only factor in play when we look at the chasm between Jews and the Christian Right. There are also cultural reasons. Jews have thrived in urban centers. It has been largely in cities that we have made our communities and contributions. Conversely, conservative Christians identify with Middle America, small towns and suburbia. Many love to point to large cities as places riddled with crime and all manner of social ills. But in demonizing large urban centers as the chief culprits of societal breakdown, the Religious Right alienates many Jews who thrive on city life. Culturally, the cities are settings for diversity of expression—religiously, artistically, and in all aspects of daily life. We Jews, as a people, are highly committed to the preservation of such cultural pluralism. Conservative Christians are not known for their eagerness to celebrate such diversity. Add to this mix the flagship causes of the Religious Right—pro-life issues, school prayer, and the opposition of “special rights” for homosexuals—and it’s no wonder it finds so few friends among the Jewish community.
Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, comments,
- “The dramatic rise of the Religious Right, and especially the Christian Coalition, poses some serious questions for the American Jewish community. While the United States is increasingly a multireligious, multiracial, and multiethnic nation, groups like the Christian Coalition often appear to be advocating an exclusivist America, an America that, in the critical arenas of politics and governance, would bestow special preference upon its own particular brand of Christianity.” 2
Jewish missionizing and the Christian Right
Another aspect of the conflict between the Religious Right and the traditional political profile cultivated by our people is one that has direct bearing on Jewish believers in Jesus. It is the connection that writer Jeffrey Goldberg attempts to draw between the Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson, and Jewish evangelism. Writing in New York Magazine, Goldberg vilified Robertson not just because he is a religious conservative, but because he alleged that the American Center for Law and Justice, the legal advocacy group connected with his organization, went to bat for the Jews for Jesus organization in a discrimination case against the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. For Goldberg, Robertson’s viewpoint as a Christian conservative moves in tandem with what he refers to as “a far more pernicious form of anti-Semitism — that wants to see the world rid of Jews…a movement that uses deception and distortion to convert Jews to Christianity.”3
The article concludes by quoting Rabbi James Rudin, who succinctly sums up the position taken throughout—”If Robertson is using his empire to foster something that aims for the spiritual extinction of Judaism, then he’s no friend of the Jewish people.”4 And of course by extension, anyone who is a friend of Robertson’s might be advocating Jewish extinction as well.
This scare tactic can be seen even more clearly in an article by Barbara Simon in the Winter ‘96 issue of Reform Judaism. She labels Jewish believers in Jesus as “Jewish apostates. . . who sit in the inner sanctum of the religious right’s secretive coordinating body, the Council for National Policy.” She goes on to say that high on the agenda of the CNP is “the eradication of church-state separation, the constitutional wall that thwarts their theocratic vision of America at the dawn of the third millennium.”
Where do Jewish believers in Jesus fall on the political spectrum? Not surprisingly, most are caught between two poles, each of which exerts a powerful pull. Most resonate with Jewish activism in the righteous social causes of our day and want to be “on the side” of those championing the poor, the powerless and the disenfranchised. That pull transcends party affiliation as a motivator. Jewish believers in Jesus feel reluctant to follow any political party or cause in an uncritical way. Their question goes beyond “Is this good or bad for the Jews?” They must also ask, “How does this person or position line up with the biblical values I hold?” And ultimately they must ask the question, “Where does God want me to stand?” That is a question each of us should be asking.
- Carolyn Curtis, “Putting Out A Contract,” Christianity Today, p. 17.
- A James Rudin, “A Jewish perspective on the Religious Right” National Jewish Post and Opinion, Indianapolis, IN, 21 September 1996.
- Jeffrey Goldberg, “Are You A Completed Jew?” New York Magazine, 2 October 1995, p. 40.
- Ibid, p. 41.