Conservative Christians and Jews are renewing their efforts to set aside differences, search for common religious ground and work together to build a more civil, moral society.
“We seek to restore principled thought, moral value and virtuous action to their rightful place, at the heart and center of American life and public policy,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president and founder of the Center for Jewish and Christian Values.
As the new Washington policy center held its inaugural leadership conference here this week, a coalition of Christian and Jewish religious, political and lay leaders decried what they termed America’s moral decline. And they explored ways in which promoting shared religious values can help create a more ethical society.
The center is a project of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, created 13 years ago to promote grater understanding between Jews and evangelical Christians.
While the fellowship has primarily focused on fostering Christian support for Israel, the new center intends to advance a domestic policy agenda that, according to its mission statement, “seeks to reverse destructive government policies.”
That agenda is now being crafted, and the conference was intended to give participants a say in the process.
Although the center has yet to take any official stances, draft statements released this week gave a sense of its general political direction.
The statements criticized what those involved see as an entertainment industry obsessed with violence and gratuitous sex; expressed opposition to physician- assisted suicide; expressed alarm at America’s high divorce rate and the number of out-of-wedlock births; and emphasized what they see as the importance of the traditional, two-parent family.
The more contentious issues batted around during the conference included abortion, school vouchers, gay rights and prayer in school.
The center’s leadership expects to find consensus on some issues, and is agreeing to disagree on others.
Eckstein said the first policy proposals would be released in coming weeks.
As the political campaigns – and accompanying divisive rhetoric – shift into high gear, Eckstein said he hopes that the center can help create a civil discourse surrounding moral issues. “We can’t change the world,” he said, “but we think we can play a role and we want to pick out fights.”
Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition and a member of the center’s advisory board, hailed the cooperative effort between Christians and Jews as a promising beginning. “The religious conservative movement that I represent,” Reed said in a speech at the two-day conference, “will never achieve its aims its aspirations for a better society until it becomes more fully inclusive of those of other faith traditions.”
Reed is one of a number of prominent political figures backing the center’s objectives.
Jack Kemp and William Bennett, co-directors of Empower America, a conservative grass-roots public policy organization, are also taking an active role in promoting a Judeo-Christian consensus through the center.
“The American people really hunger for moral leadership today, and they hunger for a leadership that is prepared to talk about morality in terms of faith,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), an Orthodox Jew who co-chairs the organization along with Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), a born-again Christian.
“We are a tolerant society,” Coats said. “We accept to established religion.”
“Yet we are not a secular society. The values that come from an active faith in God are central to the success of our nation. They should be welcomed an encouraged, not feared.”
The center hopes to bring that message to the grass-roots level during the next year by establishing a coalition of Jewish and Christian leaders across the country and holding similar conferences in 10 cities.
The exact complexion of that coalition, however, remain unclear. So far, Eckstein has assembled a largely conservative coalition made up of such groups as the Heritage Foundation, the Christian Coalition and the Southern Baptist Convention.
At the same time, he has attempted to bring mainstream, secular Jewish groups on board. Representatives of B’nai B’rith and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism participated in the conference, while the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee sent observers.
Eckstein said, however, that such a coalition poses a dilemma. “There’s a decision we have to make now,” he said. “Is the center going to try and build as broad a base as possible” that would include mainstream Jewish organizations, “or are we going to try to build a narrower coalition of more conservative Jews and Christians?”
A narrower coalition of more like-minded religious conservatives would be more likely to find consensus in tackling volatile issues, Eckstein said, while a broad coalition might prove ineffective if it has to water down its agenda in order to find consensus.
Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, agreed that Eckstein “needs to make a decision.” Reflecting a wariness shared by other Jewish groups, Saperstein said he would have difficulty participating in a religious coalition that advances a conservative agenda.
But he also said he would welcome a more inclusive organization that “can have a much greater impact on the public debates in America.”
For now, Eckstein remains torn. “I want both,” he said.