NEW YORK (Jul. 18)
When Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour addressed a gathering of Jewish leaders last week, he had all the right opinions on Israel — but failed to tell the group what it really wanted to hear.
Members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations wanted to know that the Republican leader is as concerned as they are about the growing influence of the Christian religious right in the Republican Party.
“Our concern, some of us, is that the party has been targeted,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told Barbour.
“What we want to hear from you is: you’re going to fight that targeting.” Foxman said.
Foxman’s concern is fueled by controversy surrounding a recent ADL report that details the political ambitions of religious right groups. The report has become the centerpiece of an election-year political firestorm over the growing power and influence of the religious right.
“The Religious Right: The Assult on Tolerance and Pluralism in America,” paints the Christian right’s conservative political agenda–most notably its stated opposition to the separation of church and state — as a threat to religious pluralism in America.
The 193-page report, released last month, also outlines these groups’ plans to gain control of the Republican Party.
Barbour — who said he had not read the ADL report — flatly denied charges that religious right groups have launched a “takeover” of the Republican Party.
“If I thought there was danger of our party being taken over by anybody, Christians, Jews or mugwumps, I would be very concerned about it,” Barbour said.
But the success of Christian right groups in recent state Republican conventions from Minnesota to Texas, including the nomination — with their overwhelming support — of Oliver North as Virginia’s Republican candidate for Senate, has fueled concern that religious right groups are having a substantial national impact, forcing moderates and old-line conservatives to the fringes of the Republican Party.
The ADL report brought to the fore this tension within the Republican Party, threatening to expose the alliances between mainstream and religious right groups, and providing fodder for Democratic attacks in an important election year.
BOTH PARTIES TRYING TO MANIPULATE ISSUE
Since the release of the ADL report, critics — including conservative columnists and religious right groups themselves — have accused the ADL of anti-Christian bigotry, and of working in tandem with the Democratic Party to launch partisan attacks.
Both Republicans and Democrats have tried to maneuver the issue to their political advantage.
Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, last month launched a broad-scale attack on the religious right, charging it with “taking over the political party of Lincoln.”
Such attacks are portrayed by conservatives as religiously motivated, anti-Christian campaigns.
In his address to the Conference of Presidents on June 11, Barbour accused Fazio of firing the “opening shot” in a “Christian-bashing campaign” aimed at making the religious right a divisive political issue for Republicans in the November elections.
Similar sentiments have been sounded in the press.
“Christians active in polities are now on the receiving end of an extraordinary campaign of bias and prejudice,” William Bennett, former secretary of education in the Reagan administration and now closely affiliated with religious right groups, wrote in the New York Post on June 28.
In public statements and correspondence with the ADL, religious right groups portray themselves as inexplicably demonized by the ADL, despite the religious right’s strong support for Israel.
In a June 22 letter to Foxman, Robertson accused the ADL of “false charges of anti-Semitism” in “an obvious effort to discredit the role of people of faith in the civic process.”
In his response on July 13, Foxman said Robertson had confused “legitimate criticism with defamtion.
“Our concern focuses on political positions and statements held by the Coalition and other religious right groups on certain issues — not with the role of religious people in the civic process,” Foxman wrote.
ATTACKS ON ADL AS CAMOUFLAGE
David Cantor, a senior research analyst at ADL and author of the report, said the attacks on the ADL are an attempt to deflect legitimate criticism away from the Christian right.
“If we have no credibility, then the attacks against the religious right lose some credibility,” said Cantor. “They are attacking us because they believe it provides some kind of cover from Democratic attacks.”
Cantor said Republicans do not want to alienate the Christian right supporters — most of them evangelical and fundamentalist Christians–that are expected to be decisive voting blocks in the November elections.
Officials at the Republican National Committee estimate that the religious right accounts for up to 25 percent of the active members of the party, though less than 12 percent of total party membership.
The ADL flatly denies any partisan motives or affiliation with the Democratic Party. And it insists the report aims at explaining the history and political strategies of the religious right, not at labeling religious right groups or leaders as anti-Semitic.
For its part, the Christian Coalition denies any formal affiliation with the Republican Party.
“We are an organization of people of faith holding up the issues banner,” explained Christian Coalition spokesman Mike Russell.
Russell said the group puts the weight of its cadre of volunteers and activists behind candidates from either political party who endorse Christian Coalition platforms.
With a databank of 1.2 million committed voters and activists, it is a strategy, said Russell, that works.
Some conservative Jewish groups — most notably Americans For A Safe Israel — have made common cause with the religious right.
AFSI cites the religious right’s historically strong support for Israel as a reason why Jews should accept, if not encourage the movement.
In his address to the Conference of Presidents, Barbour repeatedly cited this support to assuage Jewish concerns about the religious right.
But after his talk, a member of the conference approached Barbour at the dais.
“Israel is part of our agenda, but it’s not our total agenda,” she said.
(JTA correspondent Matthew Dorf in Washington contributed to this report.)