Anti-Semitism is not primary threat of strong Christian right

A funny thing happened on the way to the annual convention of the Christian Coalition last week. Two rabbis were invited to speak, and they accepted. Some Jews were scandalized, but exactly why are so many Jews so troubled by the Christian Coalition?

Many Jews are unhappy with the coalition's politically conservative agenda. But on many issues, such as crime and welfare, at least three or four out of 10 Jews hold views that are compatible with those of the Christian Coalition. The organization's politically conservative agenda is not the main threat to Jews.

Instead, many are threatened because they believe the Christian Coalition is anti-Semitic. And, indeed, some past remarks of the organization's founder, Pat Robertson, have been suspect. But the Christian Coalition as an organization has never espoused anti-Semitism, and neither has Ralph Reed, its leader. Certainly the Christian Coalition has been a staunch supporter of Israel, as has Pat Robertson himself.

The invitation to rabbis to speak before the convention might be seen as a sign of the group's absence of bigotry. It could just be a token gesture to take away any taint of anti-Semitism. Still, no real anti-Semitic organization would do such a thing.

Jews who always place Christian fundamentalists at the top of groups by which they feel threatened — even though all studies and surveys show that the fundamentalists are no more or less anti-Semitic than other Americans. However, it is not really the coalition's anti-Semitism that most directly troubles Jews.

What most threatens Jews is something else, something more insoluble. It is the Christian fundamentalist belief, protected by the First Amendment, that their religious precepts are the only ones that will save everyone else. In all good conscience then, would it not be ill-willed of them not to want the political state to pass laws that their religion says are necessary for everyone's salvation?

If the Christian fundamentalists were a large majority in this country and gained political control, they would have to do just that — not because they are evil or anti-Semitic, but because of their integrity. Muslim fundamentalists believe all Muslims should live in a state run by a strict Muslim regime, for the good of all Muslims. Many Jewish fundamentalists also believe other Jews should live according to halachah (Jewish law), which they say benefits all Jews.

American Jews should have something in common with the 2 million members of the Christian Coalition. Fewer than one out of 10 Christian Coalition members say either the budget deficit, taxes or abortion are the most important issues facing the country; about two-thirds name "moral decline" as the most pressing issue.

It is an issue with which the Jewish community should be more concerned. But it would be impossible for Jews to join with extreme fundamentalists, who, to reverse moral decline, would want Christianity to become the official religion of the country, with denominational Christian prayers in the schools and so forth — all out of the best will for Jews and others.

Fortunately, most American Christians are not that evangelical or fundamentalist. If they care at all, they follow the declarations of the recent popes and the mainstream Protestant churches, which say explicitly that Judaism is legitimate and inviolable in its own right. They also worry that their own denominations will be dominated by the fundamentalists, and it does not seem at all likely that they will let that happen.

However, it is understandable that Jews are concerned if a fundamentalist group appears to be gaining political power, even if it seems to be friendly. It's fine for rabbis and other Jews to talk with the Christian Coalition, as long as the rabbis will not dismiss Jewish concerns about the real fundamentalist danger.