WASHINGTON (JTA) — In Texas, the Tea Party passed its first Jewish test even before its legislators had been sworn in.
Deeply conservative forces in the Lone Star State firmly repudiated the effort by evangelical Christians to unseat the powerful Jewish speaker of the Texas House of Representatives because he wasn’t a “true Christian conservative.”
Speaker Joe Straus still faces opposition from his right flank because of his relatively moderate views, but his opponents have made clear that Straus’ Judaism is not a factor in the Jan. 11 race to be speaker.
“There is absolutely no place for religious bigotry in the race for Texas speaker, and I categorically condemn such action,” Rep. Ken Paxton, one of Straus’ two challengers in the race, said in a statement to the Houston-area Jewish Herald Voice. “Furthermore, it is just as shameful for anyone to imply that I would ever condone this type of behavior.”
State Rep. Warren Chisum, Straus’ other challenger, wrote him directly.
“I assure you that those sorts of attacks on a man’s religion have absolutely no place in the race for speaker,” he said. “I absolutely reject all such attacks or insinuations.”
The controversy in Texas was important because Jews nationally had been watching it as a test case to see whether the Tea Party’s deeply conservative base was receptive to anti-Jewish ferment. The considerable Christian rhetoric in the Tea Party movement has stoked some concern among Jews, particularly as candidates from the movement cited Scripture in explaining their opposition to abortion, church-state separation and the teaching of evolution.
As it turned out, the strong response against statements singling out Straus for being Jewish were a relief, said Fred Zeidman, the most prominent Jewish Republican in Texas after Straus. Straus had turned to Zeidman to manage the crisis as soon as it emerged in e-mails from a small cadre of grass-roots conservatives. Straus’ office did not respond to interview requests for this story.
“The big fear was, what are the elected guys going to do knowing this is their base,” Zeidman told JTA. “But they didn’t take the bait — everybody either spoke up or stood down. Nobody followed the lead of this guy in Lumberton.”
“This guy in Lumberton,” a small town in east Texas, was Peter Morrison, who in a newsletter that reaches much of the state‘s GOP leadership noted that Chisum and Paxton “are Christians and true conservatives.”
Morrison wasn’t the only Straus opponent calling attention to his religion.
“Straus is going down in Jesus’ name,” the Dallas Morning News quoted one Republican e-mailer as saying.
Ken Myers, the chairman of the Tea Party in Kaufman County, in sending a mass e-mail in support of a prominent state House critic of Straus, Rep. Bryan Hughes, wrote that “We finally found a Christian conservative who decided not to be pushed around by the Joe Straus thugs.”
Kaufman County, in suburban Dallas, coincidentally is named for David Kaufman, the first Jewish speaker of the Texas House — in the 1840s, when it was a republic.
On Nov. 30, The Texas Observer published an e-mail exchange among members of the state’s Republican Executive Committee in which committee member John Cook launched a salvo against Straus’ faith.
“We elected a House with Christian, conservative values," he wrote, referring to the supermajority that Tea Party conservatives had helped win for Republicans in the state House. “We now want a true Christian conservative running it."
But other executive committee members repudiated Cook, and Straus now claims the support of 79 Republican members of the 150-member House, as well as 49 Democrats.
Some Tea Party members said the issue wasn’t that Straus was Jewish, but that the term Christian was being misapplied or misunderstood.
"I think people have been intellectually lazy in using ‘Christian’ and ‘conservative’ interchangeably,” Felicia Cravens, a Houston Tea Party founder, told Fox News. “And there’s a lot of that in Texas.”
Straus, whose wife and children are Christian but who is active in San Antonio’s Jewish community, seemed unfazed by the flare-up.
“Our country was founded on the rock of religious freedom and the Judeo-Christian values of the dignity and worth of every individual,” he told the Jewish Herald-Voice. “At its core, America believes in the freedom of every individual to worship as his or her conscience dictates, and it would be most unfortunate for anyone to suggest someone is more or less qualified for public office based on his or her faith.”
Straus faces a strong challenge from his right flank precisely because he has proven able to work with Democrats. The House was almost evenly divided in 2009 when he was elected speaker — the second most powerful position in the state because of the power to shape the legislative agenda. Straus angered conservatives with his successful challenge of longtime speaker Tom Craddick.
Straus’ moderation — and the challenge he is brooking from his right flank — reflects the other challenge facing the Jewish community as Tea Party conservatives assert their strength both in state Legislatures and in Congress. Straus has voted against restricting late-term abortions or gay adoption rights.
The bottom line, said Marlene Gorin, director of the Dallas-area Jewish Community Relations Council, was that the outbursts of anti-Semitism disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared.
“It came out of the blue — we have excellent relationships with all the legislators,” she said. “Even to bring it up was disgusting, but I think now it is behind us.”