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Support for Bush on Moral Values Has Many Jewish Officials Worried

November 11, 2004
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It’s like one of those family fights that devolves into shouts of “You just don’t get it.” Conservative Christians wonder if “blue-state” voters — those in states that went Democratic — get the values that drove them to the polls in unprecedented numbers to re-elect George W. Bush.

People who voted for John Kerry — among them, three quarters of the Jewish electorate — wonder if “red-state” voters that went Republican understand why those values make them nervous.

In election exit surveys conducted by the American Jewish Committee, Jews who voted for the Massachusetts senator on Nov. 2 consistently cited the Democrats’ position on church-state separation. Now, President Bush’s claim that he has a mandate from the 51 percent of voters who chose him has many Jewish officials worried.

They worry especially that a plurality of Bush voters — 22 percent — cited “moral values” as the primary reason for their votes. Such moral values include opposition to abortion rights, a greater role for religion in government and opposition to gay marriage.

“The message that the Christian right think the election is a success for them has caught people’s attention,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella body for Jewish community relations councils nationwide. “Whether or not it really is a success, their proclamation that they have increased the power has caused a great deal of discomfort to the community.”

Certainly, there has been no lack of preening by some Christian leaders.

“Christian Evangelicals Made the Major Difference in the 2004 Presidential Election” was the headline of a post-election release from the Christian Coalition, a massive lobby group that opposes gay marriage and abortion.

Rich Galen, a strategist for the Republicans, told JTA that “red-state” Americans felt left out of the traditional power centers, and expressed their frustration with their vote.

“Those who live in Hollywood and those who live on the upper West Side of Manhattan have a different view of morality, of what is acceptable, of what a good code of conduct should be, than those who live in the middle of the country,” Galen said.

“As an example, most people in America think that same-sex marriage is wrong,” he said. “It is far different than acceptance of homosexuality as a fact of life, which most people do. In the New York Times principal circulation area — and in the L.A. Basin — I suspect a huge majority not only think that same-sex marriages are acceptable, but should be celebrated and, further, believe that anyone who disagrees with them is ignorant and unsophisticated.”

The post-election triumphalism on the right may presage a stronger push to bring Christianity into the public square, and many Jewish officials — especially those in the red states — are ready for a backlash.

“People are questioning where the line is,” said Deborah Lauter, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League in Georgia. “There has been an increase in stealth evangelism. We’re seeing it everywhere.”

Lauter says that when she trades battle stories with other regional directors, the others deal primarily with anti-Israel activism, while much of her work has to do with stemming Christian influence.

Some recent examples in Georgia are evangelicals who distribute pamphlets in public schools, stickers that appear in school textbooks disclaiming evolutionary theory, and the curious case of a Jewish cheerleader singled out by her Christian coach.

Jaclyn Steele anguished for months before bringing her case to public attention, said her stepfather, David Bernath.

“It has been a gut-wrenching decision for our family to do this,” Bernath said of the case they made against cheerleading coach Marilou Braswell at the University of Georgia in Athens. “We thought about not doing this, but we made the decision we couldn’t let this go on.”

An avid cheerleader since her early teens, Steele at first tried to avoid the references to Jesus in the locker room, and the prayer sessions at Braswell’s house. Eventually she was prompted to act by other cheerleaders who told her that failure to participate in the prayer sessions would probably keep her off the “A” team.

The family met with Braswell, but it didn’t go well.

“She told us, ‘Well, you know we live in the Bible Belt, what do you expect, this is the way I was raised,’ ” Bernath recalled. “She never got it.”

Braswell eventually toned down the evangelism, but the university fired her after she singled out Steele at the beginning of the school year in a prepared statement she read to cheerleaders about the controversy.

Bernath said the family was heartened by the support it received in the media and at the university, a sign that evangelism was not pervasive. But he worried that it was increasing, citing his own experience in keeping evangelical pamphleteers out of schools in Marietta, Ga., and said Bush’s re-election was a harbinger of more to come.

“Even though George Bush says he respect everyone’s faith — and I believe, deep in his heart, he does — the religious right is ready to cash in what it can,” Bernath said.

Braswell already has grass-roots organizations campaigning for her rehiring. A group called the Center for Reclaiming America has urged a letter-writing campaign.

That kind of reaction can be harmful for Jews, say some Jewish officials, who cite the evangelicals’ friendliness on other matters — especially support for Israel.

“It is wrong and short-sighted of Israel and the Jewish community not to reach out to these people, even as they become more and more powerful,” said Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, who fund-raises among evangelical Christians for Israeli and Jewish causes.

“The Jewish community needs to get its act together,” Eckstein told JTA this week in Istanbul, where he was disbursing funds to bolster security at synagogues. “When you have a president of the United States who is a born-again Christian, a speaker of the house who is a born-again Christian, and you have the Karl Rove strategy of bringing in evangelicals, you are dealing with a force.”

Rove is President Bush’s political adviser.

Others counseled a more flexible approach, allying with the Christian right on shared issues and making differences clear on others.

Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said Orthodox Jews voted in similar patterns to believing Christians because they were concerned by the same perceived government imbalance toward liberal policies on abortion and gay marriage.

“Moral concerns do not equate with Christian concerns,” Shafran said. “Many of these concerns are shared with Jews, in the Orthodox community and beyond.”

The key, he suggested, is for Jews not to slavishly join one camp or the other, allowing them to point out differences with either side when they arise.

“There may well be crazies, people who want to see total dismantlement of the wall between church and state,” Shafran said of the Christian right. “That doesn’t mean I have to mitigate my concerns.”

He cited abortion as an example.

“We feel there must be a right to abortion, but we feel an unfettered right to abortion, as a post-facto birth control, does not send the right message,” he said. “We would argue for tighter controls on abortion, as a last resort.”

On the other hand, if the fundamentalist view that life begins at conception were to gain legal traction, Orthodox Jews would make the case against that as well, Shafran said.

One road might be to build alliances with other religious groups that perceive a threat from evangelicals.

Mark Rubenstein, executive director of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans, noticed an interesting reaction a few years ago at an ecumenical Thanksgiving celebration that rotates among local churches and synagogues.

“That year, it was at a Baptist church, and it became a revival meeting,” he said. “The minister was not attentive at all to the ecumenical aspect.”

Jews who attended the service were upset — but so were Episcopalian and Catholic clergy, he said.

That held out hope, said Rubenstein, whose synagogue coordinates programs with inner-city black churches and mosques.

“If anything, people are being more aware of the need to try to be ecumenical,” he said.

JTA Correspondents Yigal Schleifer in Istanbul and Toby Axelrod in Berlin contributed to this story.

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