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Christian Right Poses Serious Threat in Local Elections, Jews Are Told

The “stealth” candidates of the Christian religious right who have been winning local political races around the country pose a serious threat to Jewish interests, Jewish community activists say.

And the success of these candidates has created new challenges for the organized Jewish community.

Organized nationally and regionally in groups with innocuous-sounding names like CARE–Citizens Advocating Responsible Education — and CEE — Citizens for Excellence in Education — these candidates have been running successfully for seats on school boards, local Republican committees, water commissions and real estate zoning boards.

These “stealth” candidates earned their moniker because individuals running for office cloak their affiliation with the Christian organizations until they are safely in office.

“They bury their stealth message beneath honeyed words,” said Maxine Cohen, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Antonio, Texas.

While they have been particularly successful in California, Texas, Florida, Minnesota and Mississippi, they are also advancing in Northeastern cities, including Philadelphia and New York.

CEE, which was started in 1989, has 925 chapters around the country and was able to get 1,965 of its candidates elected in 1990, according to Jodyne Roseman, chair of the San Diego Jewish Community Relations Council.

Roseman spoke at the annual plenum of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, held in Washington Feb. 13-17.

But perhaps the most important group on the Christian religious right, which spawned many of the local efforts, is the Christian Coalition, which grew out of Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 presidential bid.

The group says it now has 250,000 members in 550 chapters nationwide.

In the last few years its candidates have won a large number of the races they have entered.

People for the American Way, a liberal, Washington-based group, monitored 500 local races last year.

The Christian Coalition-endorsed candidates won in 42 percent of those races, said Matthew Freeman, director of research for the watchdog group, in an interview.

GOAL IS TO ‘TAKE OVER REPUBLICAN PARTY’

And their goal, ultimately, is to have a national impact.

They want to “take over the Republican Party by the year 2000,” according to Beth Rickey, formerly a member of the Louisiana State Republican Committee, and founder of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism.

In the meantime, running as “stealth” candidates in local races, they make their views known quickly once elected.

Once on school boards, for example, they advocate school prayer, teaching creationism in science classes, removal of books with content they consider profane and eradicating AIDS education in favor of teaching abstinence.

They say that “AIDS education may lead to (sexual) experimentation, that critical thinking spiritually destroys children, that schools are atheistic institutions, and that the First Amendment is for the freedom of religion, not freedom from religion in schools,” said Ellen Faust, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Dayton, Ohio.

In Dayton-area elementary and middle schools, fundamentalist Christians “demanded to go through classroom shelves book by book,” she said.

They want to get rid of “anything even approaching the traditional role of parents,” said Roseman.

In addition to the agenda which is anathema to most of the Jewish community’s concerns, many of the religious-right groups are also anti-Semitic, according to Louisiana’s Rickey.

‘THEY SHARE CONSPIRATORIAL BELIEFS’

“They share conspiratorial beliefs and believe Jewish people are in a conspiracy to control the world. They also use the word ‘liberal’ interchangeably with Jew,’ ” she said.

In trying to counter the success of the “stealth” strategy, the Jewish community faces several challenges of its own.

First, the candidates’ affiliation must be exposed before they are elected.

The Christian-right candidates have learned to avoid contact with mainstream voters and the media in order to evade scrutiny during the campaign.

In San Diego, the JCRC countered that by making sure that someone from the Jewish community attended each pre-election forum to ask the candidates specific questions about their positions on teaching “creationism,” about where their kids go to school, how long they’ve lived in the district, and their views on sex education and subsidized breakfast and lunch programs.

These kinds of efforts by mainstream community groups made a significant difference between the 1990 and 1992 elections in San Diego, he said.

In 1990, two-thirds of the 90 Christian Coalition-endorsed candidates won seats on various local boards. In 1992, half that number succeeded.

One problem in fighting the efforts of the religious right is that the traditional coalition partners of the Jewish community in efforts against the religious right — mainline Protestant and Catholic churches — have distanced themselves from the issue because they are losing so many of their own members to evangelical congregations and are afraid of alienating more.

“What support we used to be able to rally with a few phone calls has evaporated,” said Roseman of San Diego.

Jewish activists also face a serious challenge within their own community.

Community relations professionals find that Jews are unwilling to devote the time and energy it takes to counter this type of volunteer effort, say observers.

“We could not get the Jewish community as exorcised about this as we wanted,” said Roseman.

“When there are only 25 people in a room, 10 can do a lot,” said one community activist.

What it boils down to, said another community relations worker, is that “they’ve got the zealots and we don’t.”

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