Jews warily watch Falwell’s voter drive


WASHINGTON, April 17 (JTA) — The Rev. Jerry Falwell has injected himself into the political arena again.

Heading up a voter registration drive dubbed “People of Faith 2000,” Falwell and other Christian leaders say they want to bring moral values back to America and register millions of new voters in time for the elections in November.

“This is purely a campaign that hopefully will bridge all ethnic and religious groups,” he said last Friday as he announced the launch of the Web site

While some Jews and evangelical Christians have formed alliances in recent years, many Jews still regard the influence of the religious right in politics warily.

But Jewish groups do not sound overly concerned about Falwell’s latest foray into politics.

Jews probably still have “negative vibes” about Falwell, said Marc Stern, the co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department. But, he said, the registration drive doesn’t seem to be any different from other such drives.

“If the JCC runs a voter registration drive, it’s not getting at the public at large, and you know what the demographics of the Jewish community are,” Stern said, referring to the overwhelmingly liberal views of a majority of Jews.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he sees no problem with Falwell’s drive — nor does he think there will be any negative reaction from Jewish Republicans.

There are registration drives among liberal constituencies, Brooks says, and the people who disagree with Falwell’s project do so because they disagree with his views, but then sanction similar registration drives for their own purposes.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a religious liberty watchdog group, charges that Falwell’s project is partisan and therefore violates voter registration laws.

Churches and other nonprofit organizations are allowed to conduct voter registration drives provided they are nonpartisan. Americans United has filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service and asked it to investigate the registration drive.

The role of religion in politics is always a difficult issue and the role of the religious right in particular is a constant source of debate. For politicians, pandering to the religious right is seen as a political misstep, but ignoring or attacking religious conservatives can be just as dangerous.

A speech at Bob Jones University, a South Carolina school that upholds a campus ban on interracial dating, earlier this year provoked a great deal of criticism against Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.

On the other hand, after assailing the religious right in a campaign speech, former presidential candidate John McCain lost a number of primaries and then dropped out of the race for the presidency.

Last year Falwell caused some friction between Christian conservatives and Jews when he said that the Antichrist, a figure that Christians believe will rise and spread universal evil before the second coming of Jesus, is Jewish. Falwell said his remarks, which some perceived as anti-Semitic, meant only that the Antichrist must be Jewish because Jesus was a Jew. Falwell later apologized for his “lack of tact and judgment” in making the statement.

Falwell, like many evangelical Christians, is a strong supporter of Israel, and his views have often matched those of Israeli political hawks.

A Falwell project in 1998 attempted to mobilize 200,000 evangelical Christian ministers to lobby Congress in an effort to push the U.S. government not to pressure Israel to cede any more land to the Palestinians.

His support for Israel aside, many of Falwell’s domestic political views differ sharply from those of most American Jews. But he is very careful not to put any of his personal views in the People of Faith 2000 campaign.

While Falwell has been eager to criticize Vice President Al Gore and show support for Bush, no mention is made of any particular candidate in the voter registration drive.

With this latest effort, Falwell is treading into the waters of nonpartisan politics. He says his interest is to re-energize conservatives, get them informed, register people “right in the pews,” and get them to the polls.

“I don’t think the religious conservatives have lost power,” Falwell said. “I think they’ve lost their enthusiasm.”

Falwell has headed voter registration drives before, but they were during the heyday of the Moral Majority, the conservative group he founded in 1979 and dissolved 10 years later and was influential in politics throughout the 1980s.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of the conservative group Toward Tradition, is a member of the advisory board for People of Faith 2000.

In addition, the Christian Coalition, founded by Pat Robertson, is publishing voter guides.

The group is also is working to register millions of new Christian voters this year.

Recommended from JTA