Officials Strategize Over Religious Right

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 09, 2005, issue of December 09, 2005.
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At a meeting called to strategize about the political and cultural challenges posed by Christian conservative activists, Jewish communal officials disagreed about the extent of the problem. They left with no concrete plans or strategy.

The meeting was convened by the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, who warned in a major policy address last month against the growing campaign to “Christianize America.” A few weeks later, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, also spoke out, condemning “zealots” on the “religious right.”

The meeting Monday in New York brought together leaders, including Foxman and Yoffie, from six Jewish organizations spanning the political and religious spectrum.

On Foxman’s behalf, ADL spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum told the Forward that the six participating organizations did not come to any conclusions but did agree on some basic issues.

“Everyone said they realized there can be some serious problems here,” Shinbaum said. “Some have said it in public, some have not.”

The meeting ended with no concrete conclusions and with participants talking vaguely about holding another meeting.

In his speech last month, Foxman complained about a national “mood change” in which talk of God and religious values has been replaced with talk of Jesus and Christian values. The recent meeting came the same week that conservative Christian groups stepped up boycotts of stores that chose to replace the phrase “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.”

Marc Stern, the assistant executive director who represented the American Jewish Congress at the meeting, said that one development the attendees agreed to oppose was the recent letter from 70 congressmen to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, defending the right of military chaplains to use specifically Christian language in public prayers. Almost all the lawmakers who signed the letter were Republicans.

At the same time, Stern and others said, the attendees disagreed on whether overall the problem was as dramatic as Yoffie and Foxman said it was in their speeches.

“It’s something we should be concerned about,” said Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The council is a public-policy coordinating body representing 13 national organizations and 122 local Jewish communities. “But we need to be careful not to brand the entire evangelical community with the quotes of the few.”

In his speech, Foxman was careful to point out specific Christian organizations. Yoffie spoke more broadly about the religious right; later he told the Forward that he was referring to extremists of all faiths.

The most unlikely attendee at the meeting was the Washington representative of the Orthodox Union, Nathan Diament. Typically the union found more common ground with evangelical Christian groups on policy matters than most other Jewish organizations have. Diament said that he agreed with Foxman that specific statements and positions taken by some evangelical groups had been problematic — including any efforts at “religious coercion.” But Diament pointed out that many evangelical groups agree with Jewish groups on this point, and he said that Yoffie and Foxman’s recent speeches had blurred these distinctions.

“In some ways, Foxman and Yoffie are painting with too broad a brush, and they’re oversimplifying things,” Diament said.

Diament said that if the O.U. is to come to any agreement with the ADL, Foxman and his organization will have to soften their limited view on what is the appropriate role of religion in public life.

“There’s a fundamental question about whether you think religion in the public square is appropriate, or whether you think it is fundamentally inappropriate,” Diament said.






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