Organize against religaous rigxt, rabbi says in S.F. vAsit

Their list of enemies includes Planned Parenthood, the Supreme Court, welfare mothers and supporters of church-state separation. They're mostly Protestants living in the South, according to recent Gallup Polls. And the majority are women and adults over 65 who do not have a college education.

They're the religious right, a group that has long tried to get a seat at what it calls "the national table." Now it has a seat, and one rabbi is worried about what's on the menu.

"They have managed to shift the public debate," said Rabbi Jody Cohen, national specialist on interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

"All presidential candidates know they must include language and agenda items that embrace some ideas of the religious right in order to get elected," added Cohen in a talk last Friday at the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation building.

Cohen warned the audience that the religious right "has a following and are gaining on the Republican Party. They are well-organized and well-funded."

The rabbi cited a Gallup Poll indicating that 18 percent to 22 percent of Americans identify themselves as part of the religious right.

She described their vision of America as a nostalgic return to "traditional values." It's an ideal, she said, that includes prayer in public schools; the teaching of Creationism; and limiting abortion, immigration, and artistic endeavors not based on Christian values.

Gays, liberals and the media are frequent targets of the religious right, said the rabbi, who works out of AJCommittee's New York office.

Cohen focused much of her talk on the Christian Coalition, a grassroots organization with a $25 million annual budget, 860 chapters and a reported 1.7 million members. The group was founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, who has been blasted by Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League for presenting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in his writings.

In an attempt to both include Jews and appear more mainstream, Robertson and others toned down their rhetoric at September's "Road to Victory" conference, vowing to eliminate evangelical references to America as a "Christian nation."

Still, Cohen said Robertson "is promulgating a Christian theocracy."

This threat to church-state separation should concern not only Jews, but all Americans interested in a preserving a pluralistic society, Cohen said.

Her message to the audience was that Jews need to set up coalitions with people of other faiths to stop the religious right's rise and to expose many of the so-called "stealth candidates" the Christian Coalition quietly helps elect to local-government positions across the country.

Interfaith coalitions need to take action immediately, said Cohen, suggesting such steps as organizing voter-registration drives, disseminating literature through religious institutions, sponsoring speaker forums, exposing stealth candidates and examining campaign contributions.

She underlined the need for Jews to work with other groups, including mainstream Christians. "Jews have to be careful to be perceived as not the only people countering the religious right," she said.

"If it is seen as a Jewish-Christian issue, what are the implications for Jewish-Christians relations, which have reached a commendable level in this county? We want to continue to build on that."