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Reform Rabbi and Evangelical Minister Debate Role of Religion in Politics

April 17, 1985
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The “Christian right” — although not necessarily anti-Semitic itself — is helping to create a climate of opinion that is bad for Jews, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations told a prominent evangelical leader at a public forum Sunday night.

In a “debate” on the role of religion in politics sponsored by the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, Schindler told the Rev. Pat Robertson that Jews object not to the right of religious groups to participate in political discourse, but to the style and tone of the arguments the fundamentalist Christians put forward.

“There is too much hyperbole. Everything is cast in apocalyptic terms,” Schindler said. Issues such as abortion and prayer in public school are far too complicated, he told Robertson, to brand the participants in the debate as either for or against God and religion.

The debate, which drew some 1,500 people to the Washington Hebrew Congregation, opened a threeday consultation on conscience by the Reform movement here. The convention is being attended by some 300 rabbinical and lay leaders from around the country, and will include meetings with numerous members of Congress on both domestic and foreign policy issues.


Schindler’s comments followed an address by Robertson, in which the minister, whose television program, the “700 Club,” draws millions of viewers every week, took pains to emphasize the “love that we have for Israel” and to assuage a pronounced uneasiness among many American Jews about what they perceive as an attempt by evangelicals to break down the barrier between church and state.

As an example of his own organization’s commitment to Israel, Robertson said, the television station run by his group in southern Lebanon produced the camera footage contradicting a claim by CBS television that Israelis had deliberately fired at two of their cameramen while searching a Lebanese village for terrorists last month. The CBS crewmen were killed, prompting immediate condemnation by the network.

However, after a visit to the scene of the incident and consultation with Israeli officials, vice president of CBS, Ernest Leiser, subsequently acknowledged that the Israeli soldier who fired at the crewmen could have mistaken them for terrorists.


But the debate, which actually took the form of two consecutive addresses with a few brief rebuttals thrown in as asides, did little to bridge the gap between the Christian fundamentalists and those Jewish leaders who are reluctant to regard them as allies.

Overtures to the Jewish community by evangelical leaders such as Moral Majority founder Jerry Faller’s opponent but cancelled due to illness, have raised differences about whether the evangelical support for Israel should open the way for active cooperation between the two groups.

The issue of prayer in public schools, actively supported by the fundamentalists and endorsed by the Reagan Administration, has been a particularly strong bone of contention.

But Robertson, who was invited at the last minute to appear in Falwell’s place, said that Jewish objections to prayer in school was the product of a legitimate but misplaced fear.

“Inside of the Jewish people there’s a fear — it may be on the surface, it may be under the surface, but it’s a strong fear that somehow, some way, we’re going to go back to what happened in Germany, or what happened during the Spanish Inquisition, or what happened in England, or what happened in any other country,” Robertson said.

He added, “There’s a fear way down deep inside, and what often comes out of that fear is, let’s get away from all religion because it may break out and come against us.”


Citing from a sermon by Robertson himself, Schindler responded that the hyperbole and “absolutistic terms” used by the fundamentalists give Jews good reason to fear. Robertson was quoted in his address as saying that “the Constitution of the United States is a marvelous instrument for self-government by Christian people, but that the moment you turn it into the hands of non-Christian people and atheistic people, they can use it to destroy the very foundation of our society.”

The minister later said he had been quoted out of context and that his comments had actually been a paraphrase of a statement by President John Adams, a framer of the Constitution. By “Christian, ” Robertson explained, he himself had been referring to a shared Judeo-Christian faith.

But Robertson said that as a minister, he could not attack other clergymen who have made statements which embarrassed him. His explanation was an apparent reference to a sermon by Rev. Bailey Smith, in particular, in which he said that God does not hear the prayer of a Jew. After his comments had caused a stir, the minister retracted his statement and later made a well-publicized visit to Israel.


Schindler maintained Sunday night that “this extreme and absolutistic language of the Christian right creates a climate of opinions which is hostile to religious tolerance. Such a climate is bad for civil liberties, bad for human rights, for interfaith understanding and for mutual respect among Americans. Therefore, it is also bad for Jews.”

Although Robertson’s commitment to Israel was undoubtedly sincere, Schindler told the minister, and although the “Christian Right” is not a monolith but a “companionship” of like-minded individuals and groups, “we simply have no other choice but to interpret you and to lump you with the others, especially when the words of moderation which you so beautifully speak are so vitally contradicted by those with whom you confer, or whom you endorse, or on whose letterhead your name appears.”

The debate was mediated by Rabbi Joshua Haberman, who has been in the forefront of efforts toward cooperation with the evangelical movement.

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