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Bush Rankles Jewish Community with Remarks to Evangelical Group

January 29, 1992
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The conservative Christian rhetoric in President Bush’s remarks this week to a gathering of evangelical Christian broadcasters may have scored a few points with that constituency, but it rankled some in the Jewish community.

“I want to thank you for helping America as Christ ordained to be a light upon the world,” Bush told 1,600 delegates Monday to the 49th annual convention of National Religious Broadcasters, a Christian television and radio group.

“One cannot be America’s president without a belief in God, without a belief in prayer,” the president also asserted.

Some Jewish leaders took offense at those remarks, which appeared to be the most sectarian the president has made in any of his four speeches to the group.

But others dismissed the speech as an annual political ritual and said they would only make the comments into a major issue if Bush stresses those views during the rest of his presidential reelection campaign.

Mark Pelavin, Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress, which believes in a strict separation between church and state, said Bush’s statement about God and the presidency is “partially contradicted by the words of the Constitution,” since it “proscribes religious tests for public office.”

It is “important that our leaders be moral and ethical,” Pelavin said. But he pointed out that political leaders have sometimes “used religion for evil purposes.”


David Zwiebel, director of governmental affairs and general counsel at Agudath Israel of America, argued that a belief in God is a “positive characteristic of any public leader and certainly if President Bush says he has a belief in prayer, that’s a commendable aspect of his personality.”

Nonetheless, it would be inappropriate to make belief in God a litmus test for the presidency, Zwiebel said.

Pelavin called Bush’s statement about Christ “outrageous” in that it sends a “clear message” to religious minorities that they are excluded.

He and Zwiebel agreed that referring to a Judeo-Christian heritage would be less offensive, but that even that kind of reference would offend other religions.

Bush also used the religious broadcasters forum to reaffirm his support for voluntary prayer in the public schools.

“In Sunday School, children learn that God is everywhere, but in public school, they find that he’s absent from class,” the president said.

“And I continue to believe, as do the overwhelming majority of Americans, in the right to non-denominational voluntary school prayer.”

Pelavin chided the president for implying that schoolchildren are “being stopped from saying an individual prayer” while at school.

Pelavin did praise Bush’s speech in one respect, for decrying a new “tide of incivility and intolerance and bigotry, in discrimination and anti-Semitism.” The president vowed to speak out against “apostles of hate who poison our kids’ minds and debase our souls.”

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