ADL Breaks With Pack On Church-State
Foxman signals shift in tactics with attack on Evangelical power in U.S.
James D. Besser/Washington - Washington Correspondent
Warning that the Evangelical right has made alarming gains in social and political influence, a leading Jewish church-state watchdog is calling for a tougher and more unified Jewish response.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, speaking to the group's national leadership here last week, signaled a sharp shift in ADL policy by directly attacking several prominent religious right groups and challenging their motives, which he said include nothing less than "Christianizing America."
Among the groups he cited were the powerful Focus on the Family ministry and the Family Research Council.
Foxman said as these groups seek to use the government to further their missionizing goal, Democrats and Republicans alike are "pandering" to the religious conservatives.
The ADL leader also called for a national Jewish summit to respond to the growing challenge.
Foxman may face stiff resistance, however, from colleagues in other organizations who believe a more confrontational strategy would be a big mistake for American Jews and for Israel.
In an interview this week, Foxman said the shift in ADL's approach on the Evangelicals was necessitated by their growing political and social clout.
"What we're seeing is a pervasive, intensive assault on the traditional balance between religion and state in this country," he said. "They're trying to bring Christianity to all aspects of American life. They're not just talking just about God and religious values but about Jesus and about Christian values."
At the same time, Foxman said, Evangelicals are becoming much more adept at "using elements of the government to achieve their goals."
On a policy level, he said, that includes the vast expansion of funding for religious institutions through various faith-based programs in the government.
But even more threatening, Foxman said, is how the views of many of the most strident Evangelical leaders have started to pervade American society, which he said will be revealed in a forthcoming ADL poll.
Although only portions of the survey were available this week, Foxman said some of the results are alarming.
According to the survey, 70 percent of weekly churchgoers and 76 percent of self-described Evangelicals agreed that "Christianity is under attack" in this country - a conclusion that is hard to square with their growing influence in Congress, the White House and the courts, he said.
Sixty-nine percent of Evangelicals and 60 percent of weekly churchgoers said there should be "organized" prayer in public schools, according to the survey, and 89 percent of Evangelicals agreed that religious symbols "like the Ten Commandments" should be displayed in public buildings.
More ominously, only 26 percent of Evangelicals and 31 percent of weekly churchgoers agreed that "courts should protect church-state separation."
Those numbers, Foxman said, show that the views of Evangelical political leaders are "moving into the mainstream. There's no aspect of American life they're not trying to impact."
Traditional support for strong church-state separation, he warned, is withering under the assault. Politicians in both parties, eager to appease the religious conservatives or at least not open themselves up to charges of being anti-religion, are adding to the problem.
"When you have [Democrat Sen. Joseph] Lieberman and [Republican Sen. Norm] Coleman on the same page on the religion issue, and the fact that Senator [Hillary] Clinton is moving toward the center on these issues, where do you go then?" he asked.
Foxman said it is time to start naming names and judging the motives of leading conservative Christian groups, and not simply respond to their specific policy initiatives.
"We can't use a flyswatter approach to this - it's too serious," Foxman said.
Foxman is calling for a Jewish summit to re-evaluate strategies.
"We should put together the community relations and religious organizations, and see where we agree and what we can do about it," he said. "We have to develop a clearer strategy of what we can live with and what we can't."
That may mean a growing willingness to compromise on issues that may not cut to the heart of church-state separation, he said, citing the debate over the "under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance as a possible example.
But Foxman's get-tough approach could be a hard sell to Jewish leaders who may not share his sense of impending emergency and who may have other reasons for not wanting to escalate confrontations with the Evangelicals.
"I'm wondering if this is a wise choice by ADL," said Steven Windmueller, a former Jewish community relations professional who now directs the HUC-JIR/Los Angeles School of Jewish Communal Service. "It suggests they know the motives and the intent of some of these groups. Historically we have shied away from demonizing and labeling. It could put us in a place where we as a community don't want to be."
Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Congress and a former ADL official, agreed that a collective re-evaluation of Jewish church-state strategies is in order, but expressed concern that attacking the Evangelicals could harm Israel.
"There are many, many on the Christian right who are very reasonable, very rational, and who have nuanced positions regarding Jews and Israel," Rabbi Korn said.
Instead of raising the level of confrontation, he said, "we should be thinking about how to develop a nuanced relationship with the religious right. We should be giving them support and praise for the wonderful things they are doing for Israel, and still manage to be strong where we disagree with them on our domestic agenda."
Rabbi Korn said Israel and the growing Evangelical support for the Jewish state at a time when "mainline" Protestant groups are increasingly hostile "should be very much a factor" in shaping Jewish-Evangelical relations.
He conceded that "Jews have always fared badly in systems where religion is allied with the government. But I just don't see that there is a serious move to do that in this country. I'm not frightened by the issue of whether the Ten Commandments should be in public buildings."
Marshall Wittmann, a fellow with the Democratic Leadership Council and a former Christian Coalition lobbyist, said the ADL shift could be an "overreaction" based on a misunderstanding of the motives of most religious right leaders.
"What motivates the religious right more than anything else is a feeling of grievance, a feeling that they are the one group that's fair game for ridicule and criticism," Wittmann said. "So while the Jewish community should be very careful about church-state issues, we should also be sensitive to that feeling of grievance. The Jewish community overreacts and that just makes the religious right feel it even more."
Wittmann also argued that the ADL shift misses a major change in the Evangelical world.
"The Pat Robertsons and the Ralph Reeds are in decline," he said, referring to the Christian Coalition founders. "There is an opportunity to really reach out beyond them, to the grassroots of this movement, to the new mega-churches."
Wittmann also disputed the level of threat posed by the religious right.
"They've had control of Congress for 10 years, but they've never managed to pass a school prayer amendment. A decade ago, that was item one on their agenda," he said. "Outside of limits on partial-birth abortion, they have achieved very little."
John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who studies the role of the religious right in politics, agreed.
"I don't see anything to justify this kind of response in the recent activities of conservative Christians or their agenda," Green said. "I haven't noticed much of a change in their goals, strength or influence. In fact, it may have gone the other way, given the sagging of Bush's popularity."
The ADL, he said, may have gone to the mattresses because of this year's changes at the Supreme Court, which may advance the conservative agenda more than legislation.
But Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said a tougher stance by Jewish groups makes sense in today's environment.
"There is a need for the Jewish community to adopt a more vigilant approach to monitoring the activities, statements and actions of these fundamentalist groups because they're so clearly on the ascendancy in this country," Kahn said.
That has been abetted, he said, by the precipitous decline of the mainline denominations.
Kahn warned that Jewish groups have been "seduced" by the Evangelicals' support for Israel, even as these groups pursue the "Christianization" of the nation through their political activities.