A split is emerging among influential pro-Israel Evangelical Christians over the American-backed plan for Middle East peace, sparking debate over whether the issue could cut into President Bush’s support in 2004.
On one side of the divide are Christian activists, including former Reagan administration official Gary Bauer, who accuse the White House of pressuring Israel into dangerous concessions and say many Christian voters could end up punishing Bush by staying home in 2004. But establishment evangelicals, including the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land and Republican strategist Ralph Reed, are defending the president’s efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and insisting that evangelicals will continue to back Bush to the hilt.
“I think people not turning out on election day, or the erosion of passion among volunteers who stuff the envelopes and ring the doorbells, are things that the White House has to be concerned about,” said Bauer, a leading Christian conservative activist, who challenged Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries.
That argument was rejected by both Reed and Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. They countered that Christian conservatives continue to support Bush and trust that he would not do anything to harm Israel’s security. “This president is more popular and is more highly regarded among grassroots social conservatives than any Republican politician in my memory,” said Reed, former Georgia state GOP chairman and past executive director of the Christian Coalition. “I’ve looked at the survey data, his job approval among social conservatives is somewhere between 92% and 96%.”
The debate taking place among evangelicals mirrors the dynamics of Jewish communal squabbling over the plan, known as the road map, said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization that has raised tens of millions of dollars from evangelicals for Israel. “Most of the Jewish community is generally supportive of the president, the prime minister and of giving this road map a chance,” Eckstein said.
“But now you do have the phenomenon of some of the more right-wing evangelicals joining forces with some right-wing Israelis, including [Israeli Tourism Minister] Benny Elon, and Jewish groups like the [Zionist Organization of America] that vocally oppose the road map,” Eckstein said. “The whole mainline Republican evangelical side, people like Ralph Reed, are not a part of that. Like me, they are supporting the president and the prime minister.”
Elon, the most right-wing member of the Israeli Cabinet, took part in a “Bible Belt tour” last week, aimed at convincing Evangelical Christians to speak out against the road map.
“They’re not going to vote for the Democratic candidate,” Elon said. But, he added, if Bush continues to pressure Israel, then evangelicals are “just not going to come.”
The Israeli minister addressed more than 300 Christian leaders from several states at meetings in Memphis, Tenn., organized by Ed McAteer, who helped establish the Moral Majority and currently heads the Religious Roundtable, a coalition of evangelical groups. McAteer has reportedly helped raise $70,000 to put up more than 100 billboards urging Christians to voice their disapproval of the road map in calls to the White House.
Christian activists on both sides of the debate insisted that White House senior adviser Karl Rove “understands” that Bush needs a strong turnout from evangelical voters to guarantee victory in 2004. Yet critics of the road map appeared befuddled over why the president was pushing a peace plan that they say is opposed by so many of his evangelical supporters.
Some suggested that Bush was under heavy pressure from Arab leaders and the State Department, or was being influenced by his father and the former president’s foreign policy aides. But Bauer argued that evangelicals are increasingly unwilling to make distinctions between the president and his aides.
“My sense is that the notion of blaming Secretary of State [Colin] Powell is beginning to wear a little thin as more and more people concede that at the end of the day Powell works for the president and not the other way around,” said Bauer, who also serves as president of American Values, a conservative advocacy group in Washington.
Another theory being tossed around was that Bush has been receiving bad advice from several Christian leaders who, out of fear of losing their access to the White House, have failed to convey to him the full depth of evangelical upset over the road map.
McAteer told the Forward that in the coming weeks he plans to send out a mass press release, under the title “The Lapdog Brigade,” criticizing Christian leaders who regularly meet with White House officials but fail to “speak out” against the road map. He declined to name names but said the targets of his criticism would likely be identified in the press release, which he plans to send to 1,000 newspapers across the country.
“It’s very disgusting to me,” McAteer said. “These are not evil men, but they know better.”
Sentiments on both sides of the debate were on display Sunday at a small but spirited anti-road map rally in Crawford, Texas, near the president’s ranch. Some 160 Zionist Christians, who attended the “Anti-Road Map and Pro-Israel Rally,” assembled in the late afternoon heat of Central Texas to march into Crawford from the rented picnic grounds of Tonkawa Falls Park.
Many in the crowd took up the chant “Keep Bush, trash the map.” Not everyone, however, was sounding a pro-Bush theme: One elderly woman’s sign read “Trust G’d, not Bush. Next time, I vote for a yellow dog.”
Many in the crowd identified themselves as “Joes” — Christians who have an affinity for Torah and try to adopt Jewish worship practices. The name refers to prophecies about the House of Joseph being scattered in the winds but being gathered in again before the end of days.
Maggid ben Yosef, president of Jerusalem Torah Voice, said Sunday’s event presented his “Joe-ish” group with a chance to take a dramatic stand. Ben Yosef’s organization has already mailed a copy of the King James Version of the Holy Bible to the White House, with more than a dozen specific admonitions and prophecies cited, to warn the president against pressuring Israel.
Bernard Shapiro of Houston, director of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and one of the boosters behind the scenes of the Crawford rally, fiercely criticized the road map but said that the problem is not Bush. “He’s being misled by people in the CIA,” said Shapiro, founder and president of the Houston chapter of Americans For A Safe Israel.
Richard Hellman of the Christians’ Israel Public Action Campaign, a Washington-based lobbying organization, objected to the creation of a Palestinian state. Hellman was also drumming up support for his own September 10 event, dubbed the “Israel USA Solidarity Rally” and scheduled to take place in Washington.
As for Bush, Hellman said, “We love him, we support him, we want him to be re-elected.” The problem, he added, is that “the State Department has served him ill and endangered his success.”
For Bush to consort with Palestinian leaders, Hellman said, “is like a knife right in the kishkes of Israel.”
With reporting from TERRI JO RYAN in Crawford, Texas, and ERIC MARX in New York.