The so-called “religious right” is becoming a powerful force in both local and national politics, a group of Jewish Democratic activists was told this week.
Experts from religious and constitutional liberties groups told participants in a conference sponsored by the National Jewish Democratic Council that the Christian Coalition, a religious right organization sponsored by the Rev. Pat Robertson, could have I million members by the end of the year.
The NJDC, a group formed to strengthen ties between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party, has become involved in the effort to combat the agenda of groups like Robertson’s.
The religious right has a variety of goals, including support of school prayer and opposition to both abortion rights and gay rights, that are at odds with positions taken by the majority of the American Jewish community.
In recent months, the NJDC has been organizing an ad-hoc coalition of over 40 groups who oppose this agenda, including religious, prochoice, education and moderate Republican groups.
Arthur Kropp, president of the constitutional liberties group People for the American Way, told the conference Sunday that the religious right movement had changed and grown compared to its 1980s configuration.
In the 1980s, he said, the movement consisted primarily of prominent television evangelists, without a real political organization behind them.
Now, he said, there is a strong and successful grass-roots effort on the state and local level, backing up the national visibility of Robertson and other religious leaders.
In one day recently, Kropp said, the Christian Coalition signed up 27,000 new members.
The movement succeeds in the current climate, Kropp said, by feeding on American fears about loss of control over their surroundings.
“The religious right asks the right questions” about issues of concern to Americans, Kropp said. He added, however, that the movement “almost always has the wrong answers.”
The groups have learned how to work within the political system, often placing candidates in local school board races that receive little attention and then working up from there, he said.
“We don’t have to be afraid of them,” Kropp told the approximately 120 NJDC members gathered for the speech. “If we run the other way, it is at our peril.”
He urged NJDC members to get involved in local races and to encourage young people to participate in the political process.
Among the political races concerning the NJDC is the contest in Virginia for lieutenant governor.
The NJDC released a statement in June criticizing Republican nominee Mike Farris for his ties to the Moral Majority and other religious right groups.
James Dunn, a Baptist minister who serves as executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, warned NJDC members that the “hard-line leadership” of the religious right sees Jews as either “pawns or prospects.”
Dunn urged closer coordination among opponents of the religious right to combat the latter’s appeal.
The NJDC, a relatively new group, was founded in 1990 in an effort to involve more Jews in Democratic politics after many Jews drifted toward the Republican party in the 1980s.
It now has 4,000 members in 13 chapters and committees around the country.
With a Democratic president in the White House, the group is shifting its focus and adjusting to its insider status.
Several NJDC officials have taken high positions in the Clinton administration, including NJDC vice chair Stuart Eizenstat, recently named U.S. ambassador to the European Community.
Eizenstat, a former Carter administration official, spoke at Sunday’s dinner session, arguing that the NJDC was a needed counterweight to the “eroding of our social conscience” among American young people, including young Jews.
Prominent administration officials including Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala addressed the group Monday.