March 18, 2004
Evangelicals Are Not Our ‘Natural Allies’
A few years ago, a few moderate American Jewish leaders tried to allay Jewish fears that the Christian right was a threat.
American Jews had it wrong, they said -- former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, the Rev. Pat Robertson and their ilk really were quite nice, even open-minded fellows and strongly pro-Israel to boot. They were our friends.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) publicly praised Reed's pro-Israel stance and invited Christian conservatives to ADL banquets. Christians, in turn, organized nationwide prayer vigils and lobbying campaigns to support Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's vision of a greater Israel.
Basking in the glow of this newfound friendship, Reed proclaimed that the Jewish-Christian alliance for Israel was as important as the black-Jewish coalition for civil rights in the 1960s.
Then, a Hollywood film star produced, directed and bankrolled a cinematic portrayal of Jesus' final hours that depicted Jews as Jesus' killers, promoting an age-old anti-Semitic theme. Fearing that the film would stoke new anti-Semitism, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman pleaded that Gibson alter the film, the pope disavow it and the Christian evangelicals that had become Foxman's allies sermonize against it -- to no avail.
Foxman should have seen it coming.
For all their talk of loving Jews and Israel, conservative Christians' No. 1 priority always has been to expand their influence and numbers at home and abroad.
Several years ago, I interviewed dozens of Christian activists for a book I was writing about a campaign against gay rights that bitterly divided many Oregon communities, where I was living at the time.
When I disclosed my Jewishness to the evangelicals I met in the course of my research, they responded with boundless curiosity and kindness. A few asked if they could accompany me to synagogue, professing their great affection for the Jewish people. Several spoke excitedly of their trips to Israel or their desire to visit there.
I found it all disarming and even a little flattering.
But then the invitations to attend their churches arrived, along with offers to pray for me. I declined them graciously and heard little else until my book, a critical but empathetic account of conservative Christian activists, was published.
The messages then began to get meaner and were often tinged with anti-Semitism.
"How could a Jew possibly write an unbiased account?" one asked.
Another told me to "go back to New York, where you belong."
Today, some of those activists have gone on to mobilize support for Israel, working to insure that the Holy Land stays in Jewish hands so that "saved Christians" like themselves can enjoy their final rapture out of harm's way.
Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, these Christians have felt further justified for their alliance with Israel by the conviction that Judeo-Christian culture must protect itself against the followers of Mohammed, in preparation for the coming "clash of civilizations."
My travels in evangelical America tell me that despite the claims of Jewish conservatives, and even moderate leaders like Foxman, conservative Christians are not our "natural allies." In fact, most American Jews find themselves deeply at odds with the Christian right over a host of issues.
Witness the overwhelming support that the American Jewish community has given to the issue of gay marriage. In Massachusetts, a near unanimity of Jewish communal leaders support gay marital rights, and opinion polls nationally show Jews to be the most solidly in favor of gay marriage of any religious group.
Christian conservatives, needless to say, are champing at the bit to make gay marriage the next major battle in the "culture war."
Even when it comes to Israel, evangelicals are out of step with American Jews and Israelis -- most of whom would agree to trade land for peace if a viable peace plan were proposed. Evangelicals, by contrast, support the maximalist ideology of the most fundamentalist Jewish settlers, who view territorial concessions as suicidal.
The Jewish-Christian alliance was based on the idea that Israel needs as many friends as it can get. But it needs good friends -- friends who believe in the importance of a democratic Jewish homeland, not those whose support for Israel is based on inflexible theological explanations for Israel's right to exist.
The rift over "The Passion" should be a wake-up call to American Jewish leaders: The Jewish-Christian evangelical honeymoon is over. It may even be time to file for divorce.
Arlene Stein is a professor of sociology at Rutgers University and the author of "The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community's Battle Over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights."