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The Christian Right and the Jewish Left

Lawrence Bush
July 1, 2005

by Esther Kaplan
Ever since George W. Bush’s reelection in November, a victory secured at least in part by the intense devotion of his Christian right base, the rest of us have been wondering how to respond.
Tom Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas, has argued that the reason progressives lost the great red middle of this country to George Bush is that they failed to put forward a strong, clear, populist economic agenda. Into that vacuum stepped the Christian right, with its drive for “family values”. Republicans, by stirring up passions about such issues as gay marriage and abortion, duped social conservatives into voting against their economic self-interest for little more than a handful of symbolic gestures and empty promises. Frank’s analysis has gained a lot of currency and has even been adopted by many progressive Democrats as a sort of road map. The trouble is, Frank is only half right.
He’s right that when Americans are organized and educated about their economic concerns, they will vote differently. Data about how union families voted last November are persuasive in this regard: While most whites voted for Bush, most members of white union families voted for Kerry. While 22 percent of Americans listed “moral values” as their top concern, only 16 percent of union family members did, prioritizing economic issues and the war in Iraq instead. These were the results notwithstanding a Democratic Party that refused to take up the fight against Bush’s policies that rob from the working majority to buy Hummers for the rich.

Sketch of Pat Robertson on TVFrank and his followers are wrong, however, about the nature of the threat posed by the Christian right and the extent of their accomplishments. The Christian right has won far more than symbolic gestures, as Frank seems to believe. In fact, Bush has delivered so handsomely for the Christian right that Gary Bauer has called him the new leader of their movement.
Let’s take abortion, for example: They won passage of a ban on “partial birth” abortion, the first federal restriction on abortion since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973; they got fetal rights enshrined in law and policy through such measures as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act; they got Bush to implement a global abortion gag rule around the world, which forces recipients of U.S. aid to abdicate their right to inform their clients about abortion options or even engage in policy debates on reproductive rights.
The Christian right has effected a wholesale shift in what kinds of organizations receive federal funds. The gag rule, for example, stripped millions of dollars from organizations at the top of their enemies list, such as Planned Parenthood. Gay organizations doing AIDS education and prevention work have been defunded through “obscenity” investigations; Muslim charities through the Patriot Act. At the same time, Christian right organizations have received a windfall of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars through the President’s faith-based initiative and other programs. Pat Robertson, who blamed the attacks of September 11th on the ACLU, received $1.5 million through a faith-based grant. Franklin Graham, who called Islam an evil religion, received around $10 million to preach abstinence in Africa. Chuck Colson, the Right to Life Committee, Concerned Women for America, dozens of anti-abortion counseling centers — they’re all cashing in.
There’s been a similar changing of the guard when it comes to scientific advisors on everything from AIDS to birth control to medical research and international family planning: out with the American Medical Association and other recognized experts; in with biblical literalists, selfprofessed virgins, anti-gay evangelists, and members of Christian right lobby groups.
Bush is also in the process of a profound remaking of the courts by appointing judges who, in his words, “understand that we received our rights from God.”

How else has the GOP given the Christian right more than merely rhetoric and empty promises? Let me mention just a few of these tangible, real world gifts:

  • $1.5 billion to push marriage on welfare recipients and $1.5 billion to push abstinence-only education, domestically and internationally.
  • Federal funds to restore and expand churches.
  • A policy to promote adoption above abortion at family planning clinics.
  • A secret land trade to save a giant cross standing on federal park land.
  • The sale, for the first time, of creationist literature in national park bookstores.
  • An FCC crackdown on obscenity and a Justice Department crackdown on porn.
  • Access to Iraq for Christian evangelizers, obsessed with finding converts in the Muslim world but mostly shut out to due proselytizing bans.
  • Weekly strategy sessions with the White House and leaders of Congress.

None of these are merely “symbolic victories”. They are real gains for the Christian right agenda, and they’re affecting the daily lives of people across this country and around the world.

Frank and his adherents also misunderstand the anti-democratic nature of this movement.
When liberal evangelical leaders like Jim Wallis argue that liberals should soften their support for abortion and gay rights, and when Democratic centrists like Bill and Hillary Clinton advocate this view, they are acting as if the Christian right had brought about a new national consensus to which liberals must accommodate themselves. Yet 85 percent of Americans want their kids to learn about condoms and birth control in their sex education, not abstinence only; 70 percent thought Congress should not have intervened in the Terri Schiavo case; two thirds say they support gay civil rights and gay civil unions; and the majority of Americans — even the majority of Republicans — still support legal abortion.
No, the Christian right has not convinced the majority of Americans of their views, but they have consolidated their ability to influence government policy by organizing circles around liberals and the left: by taking over entire religious denominations, developing a vast media and grass roots structure for mobilizing their base, and taking over Republican Party structures. The leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, has been purged of moderates, as has the Southern Baptist Seminary, which now imposes family values litmus tests on its faculty. From a handful of televangelists in the 1970s have sprung hundreds of radio and television programs, publishing houses, educational institutions, think tanks, and lobby groups. After steadily recruiting candidates for minor local offices and joining GOP clubs and committees, the Christian right now has decisive influence over forty-four of fifty state Republican Party committees, and players such as Ralph Reed hold influential roles at the top of the party. White evangelical social conservatives make up no more than 18 percent or so of the country. But in the last two presidential elections, they comprised 40 percent of Bush’s electorate. Judging by Christian Coalition scorecards, their ardent backers make up a third of the House and the Senate.

Their wins in Washington are dependent on two important factors: an alienated electorate, a third of whom doesn’t vote, which enhances the power of an organized minority; and a GOP coalition strategy that says any constituency that can deliver votes or cash gets White House support for its top agenda items, even if these are profoundly out of step with America. So the NRA gets an end to gun control; the corporations get their tax cuts, deregulation and tailored-to-business legislation — and the Christian right gets everything I just catalogued and more.
However, the Christian right is not just another “special interest” constituency. Many of the movement’s central ideas stand opposed to democratic values. They have spent years spinning a false religious history about the nation’s founding and now seek to “restore” America as a “Christian nation”. (David Barton, a leading advocate of this idea, was a paid advisor to Bush/Cheney ’04 and holds the No. 2 post in the Texas GOP.) They believe that the war on terror is a holy war against Islam. (When Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Jerry Boykin got bad press for telling evangelical churches that the enemy in the war on terror is a guy called Satan, evangelicals led a campaign to defend him, and he never received any formal censure, just a mild letter of concern.) They believe, overwhelmingly, in the “end times”, and they view our foreign policy through that lens. (Pat Robertson recently said that if East Jerusalem comes under Palestinian control, that would be “Satan’s plan to prevent the return of Jesus Christ the Lord.”) When it comes to public health, they believe that saving souls for the next life is more important than saving lives in this one. And many of them, including some inside the White House, believe that George W. Bush was chosen by God to be president — a belief that shields him from democratic accountability.
This movement and its Washington allies have no respect for the balance balance of powers. When they don’t like a court decision, they go to Congress to circumvent it, decrying activist judges °and when Congress doesn’t do the right thing in their eyes, they’ll circumvent Congress as well. When Bush’s faith-based legislation failed, the president simply created it through executive order; and when his most extreme judges failed to get Senate confirmation, he put some on the bench through recess appointments.

The Christian right has no respect for pluralism. Under pressure from Pat Robertson and others not to support “aberrant” religions, the faith-based initiative has directly funded only religious charities that are Christian. Already faith-based programs in at least three states have been found to overstep church/state law by directly using taxpayer funds to proselytize.
The Christian right has no respect for democratic dissent. The abortion gag rule has silenced organizations around the world from participating in public debates about women’s health. Loyalty oaths are being imposed on foreign aid recipients, requiring them to sign statements opposing prostitution in order to get U.S. assistance.

Members of the Christian right are not dupes, as Tom Frank implies, but ideologically driven people who are remaking our government. The question is what are we going to do about it. Liberal and left Christians have begun to raise their voices in important ways, complaining that the Christian right has hijacked Christianity and abandoned its most basic teaching: to stand with the poor. They’re forming organizations and networks to amplify their voices. But secular people and religious minorities could play a vital role in defending the great values of pluralism and secular democracy and challenging the Christian right’s, and the GOP’s, abandonment of those values. With American Muslims facing deportations, interrogations, watch lists and frozen bank accounts, their ability to respond has been curtailed. The Jewish community isn’t constrained by such pressures but has the Jewish community taken up this cause?
Certainly, a number of major Jewish organizations have stated their opposition to the Christian right agenda in Washington. The Reform movement said an antigay marriage amendment would defile the Constitution and called the partial birth abortion ban an unconstitutional infringement on reproductive choice. The Anti-Defamation League called Bush’s faith-based legislation “bad public policy” and the American Jewish Committee has challenged some of its excesses in court.
But massive rallies in Washington and New York? Those are only organized in defense of Israel. National lobby days on Capitol Hill? Only for the sake of Israel. High-powered meetings with Democratic leaders to insist that they take up the fight? Only on Israel. Hannah Rosenthal, the recently resigned director of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, described to me a meeting held last year between top Jewish leaders and John Kerry. People like Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive staffer of the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, were so insistent that the meeting be focused on Israel that Rosenthal, representing a domestic agenda, wasn’t even allowed to ask a question.

There is not a single Jewish organization in the country that has put fighting the Christian right at the the top of its agenda. Mobilizing support for Israel — even for the reactionary politics of the Sharon administration — has simply eclipsed other priorities. Worse, evangelical support for Israel has muted Jewish criticism of the dangers posed by the Christian right. Even though this support springs from a profoundly anti-Semitic millenialist worldview — in which Jews make aliyah only to enable Christ’s return, at which point we will convert or be swallowed up into the pits of eternal hell — and even though this worldview requires inflexible opposition to a Palestinian state anywhere in Judea and Samaria — which the vast majority of American Jews acknowledge is the only path to peace — it has bought a great deal of silence and even gratitude.
Israeli tourism has become so dependent on the Christian right that the tourism minister now comes to the U.S. every year to give an award of appreciation to such Christian right firebrands as Pat Robertson. And listen to these words from Abraham Foxman of the ADL, from a 2002 article entitled, “Why Evangelical Support for Israel is a Good Thing”. “American Jews”, he says, “should be highly appreciative of the incredible support that the State of Israel gets from . . . the Christian Right . . .”
In the Congress, support for Israel is strong on both sides of the aisle, [but] there is no doubt that evangelical members are notably aggressive in their support, proposing resolutions and speaking out forcefully. This is especially noteworthy during the current Administration, as they are conveying their sentiments to a President who shares many of their religious and social perspectives.
“... On many public occasions, including at rallies and meetings, on TV and radio appearances, evangelicals have become regulars, a pro-Israel presence alongside the Jewish community. While such support is evident from other significant parts of the body politic, support from evangelicals is especially consistent and unreserved.” Foxman adds that anti-Semitism is now “history” among evangelicals, superseded by the new special role of the Jews in the modern state of Israel. He insists that American Jews can embrace evangelical support for Israel while “continu[ing] to articulate in forceful ways our significant disagreements on social issues.”
Not long ago, the ADL paid for a New York Times ad containing an article by Ralph Reed, and Foxman publicly thanked Gary Bauer for his support for Israel. This is exactly the kind of validation these extremists need to soften the harsh edges of their reactionary agenda.

The failure of the official Jewish community to stand in opposition to the Christian right has presented some enormous challenges — and opportunities — for the Jewish left. To respond to these challenges effectively, we have to do a few things:
First, we have to push a populist economic agenda. A strong movement for a real living wage, national health care, taxing the rich, card check for unions, college scholarships and day care would provide a substantive alternative to the current, two-party corporate embrace.
Second, we have to take on the values debate, in two ways. We have to attack the values of the Christian right and the current GOP leadership, in plain language, as immoral. They don’t care if people die in sub-Saharan Africa, the heart of the global AIDS epidemic, as a result of their abstinence-only agenda. They don’t care if the abortion gag rule puts women’s lives at risk. They don’t care if the war on terror, which they see as a war on Islam, kills innocents. We have to stop being afraid to call their values uncaring, cruel, and heartless. We also have to talk about our own values: opposition to unjust wars; a deep moral concern about poverty; a commitment to human dignity and human liberation that make our support for gay rights and women’s rights unwavering; a commitment, when it comes to a health crisis like AIDS, to throw out corporate and religious ideology and do what it takes to save lives; a deep belief in democracy and pluralism. These are beautiful moral values, and we need to stop hiding them.
Third, we have to take on the mainstream Jewish community. Committing to economic populism requires us to question the way wealth buys power in the organized Jewish community today. And challenging the Christian right’s toxic values means pushing the organized Jewish community off its single-minded focus on “supporting Israel” at any cost.
The urgent task for the Jewish left at this moment in history is to fight these habits of organization and habits of mind, and to assume real leadership in the fight against the Christian right.

Esther Kaplan was the keynote speaker at the JEWISH CURRENTS Luncheon on May 15, 2005. She is the author of With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House, published in October by The New Press. She is a contributing editor at POZ, the national AIDS magazine, and was acting senior editor at The Nation. For ten years, she has been co-host of “Beyond the Pale”, a weekly radio program covering Jewish culture and politics on WBAI/New York.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.