Christian rights political muscle worries U.S. Jews

WASHINGTON, D.C. — "You're going to have a big, big say about what happens in '96," Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) told about 4,000 cheering activists at the Christian Coalition's annual conference here last week.

At the same "Road to Victory" gathering, the Rev. Pat Robertson, the founder of the 1.7 million member grassroots organization, reiterated his goal that his group gain control of the Republican Party in all 50 states.

It is this "say" that Dole pledges and the quest for power that Robertson seeks that continue to fuel concern in the Jewish community over the growing influence of the religious right in American politics.

The coalition's conference capped off a year that has seen a profound shift between the Jewish community and the Christian Coalition.

Jews and evangelical Christians opened new channels of communication and agreed to tone down personal attacks and to respect each others' right to engage in political activity.

Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition's executive director, apologized for past insensitivities to Jews and pledged at Jewish gatherings to work to eliminate evangelical references to America as a "Christian nation."

As part of the truce, Jewish groups agreed to respect the Christian Coalition's place on the domestic political scene. But for all the goodwill and talking going on, the agenda of the mainstream Jewish community and the Christian Coalition is as much at odds today as it was this time last year, when an Anti-Defamation League report labeling the religious right "an assault on tolerance and pluralism in America" sparked a war of words between the two communities.

Some of the rhetoric may have changed, but the agenda of the pre-eminent religious right organization remains the same: prayer in schools through a constitutional "religious-equality" amendment, a limit on abortions, and federal funds for charities and religious schools.

The Christian Coalition is supported by some in the Jewish community, but the more prevalent Jewish sentiment echoes that of the American Jewish Congress, which in a recent report called the Christian Coalition "dead wrong" in its "Contract With the American Family."

Republican leaders have embraced the 10-point legislative agenda, which is modeled after the GOP's "Contract With America." The family contract calls for a religious equality amendment, the elimination of federal funding for the arts, a disbanding of the Education Department, tax-funded vouchers for use in private and parochial schools, and a ban on late-term abortions.

In a telling sign of the coalition's political muscle, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) reiterated his pledge at last week's conference to bring all the contract's measures up for a vote in the House. Dole made a similar pledge for the Senate.

But this agenda is not good for America or the American Jew, according to the AJCongress, which issued its report just days before the conference. In its report, "Whose American Family?" AJCongress warns: "With allies such as [the Christian Coalition], the family may really be an endangered species." The coalition's platform is "too narrow, too shallow and too partisan to be of any real help to America's families."

"There is no one `American family,'" said AJCongress president David Kahn, "and to claim that the Christian Coalition's hodgepodge of hot-button issues for religious political conservatives would help most families is absurd."

The AJCongress report, prepared by Marc Stern, co-director of the agency's Commission on Law and Social Action, analyzes the coalition's contract. AJCongress charged that the coalition's current agenda is the latest incarnation of a stealth campaign by the coalition.

"The contract reflects a skillful attempt by the Christian Coalition to select issues with popular resonance, but on which massive grassroots opposition is unlikely," the report says. "Those choices are more likely to lead to success and popular acceptance for the coalition" that would "help establish and secure the Christian Coalition's place in contemporary politics."

The report notes that missing from the coalition's contract are some of the more hotly contested elements for the conservative Christian movement, such as an outright ban on abortion and anti-gay legislation.

The contract is "a floor, not a ceiling," the report warns, and is "best seen as the first round of demands of the Christian Coalition and its allies in Congress."

The ADL has taken a softer stance. "Pragmatically, things may not have changed but there is a much better understanding" between Jews and the Christian Coalition, said Abraham Foxman, ADL's national director.

"Yes, there is still a concern about pluralism, but there is less danger because there is less stealth politicking and there is a relationship where we can call each other if there is a stepping out of bounds."

Foxman acknowledged that the Christian Coalition's influence "could be" dangerous down the road. But, he said, "we will keep fighting in the courts and in public to minimize any threat."

In contrast to those who expressed concern over the growing political strength of the Christian Coalition, some Jewish activists praised the coalition.

Rabbis Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and Daniel Lapin, founder of Toward Tradition, spoke at the Christian Coalition's conference last week.

"Certainly, there are some Jews who promote higher taxes and bigger government to solve our country's problems," Lapin told the coalition's conference.

"Let them speak as liberals, not as Jews," said Lapin, an Orthodox rabbi who was featured prominently on the dais at the conference's gala banquet at which right-wing politician Pat Buchanan spoke.

Later in the day, Eckstein, who brokered the original truce between the Jewish community and evangelical Christians, spoke. "This is a critical moment in history. God has given us the opportunity to reverse this 2,000-year relationship and replace enmity with love and divisiveness with cooperation," he said. "If Christians were better Christians and Jews were better Jews, we'd have a better nation." He then issued a challenge to the delegates: "Be truly Christlike" and "love as Jesus loved."

Eckstein plans to open a center for Jewish-Christian cooperation in Washington next month. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has agreed to be the honorary co-chairman.

The good will between the Jewish community and the Christian Coalition was put to the test recently when the AJCongress sent out a fund-raising letter labeling Christian Coalition activists as "zealots."

In a letter to AJCongress executive director Phil Baum, Reed charged that the AJCongress letter was "peppered with derogatory and negative references to evangelicals and the organizations that represent them. Your letter was filled with exaggerations, hyperbole and, sadly, examples of the very kind of anti-religious bigotry that you and I oppose," Reed wrote.

Baum later apologized to Reed, writing that he was "chastened and embarrassed to read your criticisms." Disagreement over policy "is no excuse for deliberate misrepresentation or intemperate name calling, which is designed not to address the merits of an argument but to provoke and inflame prejudice and fear," Baum wrote. "To the extent our letter contained that kind of material, please accept my genuine regrets."