LYNCHBURG, Va. — Addressing one of the country’s most influential Christian fundamentalist colleges this week, the leader of America’s largest synagogue movement highlighted areas of common concern while calling for mutual respect and toleration of diversity.
I can “believe what I believe without calling you a homophobic bigot, and you can do the same without calling me an uncaring baby-killer,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a convocation address Wednesday to about 9,000 students at Liberty University. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of the country’s most influential and controversial evangelical leaders, founded the school, located in this city, more than three decades ago.
Yoffie, who received a warm introduction from Falwell, was politely received when he cited several areas of common ground between religious liberals and conservatives. However, scattered hisses and boos reportedly could be heard when he defended gay rights. Falwell, who later told the crowd that “nobody ever booed me in a synagogue when I said things opposite to what they believed,” drew the day’s loudest applause when he mentioned his own 48th wedding anniversary.
After the event, students crowded around Yoffie to ask questions before he was whisked away for a press briefing and private meeting with Falwell.
Yoffie, the leader of a politically liberal religious movement that claims to represent 1.5 million Jews, would seem on many levels a strange choice for Liberty, especially given an address he delivered last November, harshly criticizing religious conservatives on several domestic fronts. But his appearance comes at a time of growing political uncertainty for the religious right. President Bush’s approval rating has hit at a new low of 32%, according to a recent CNN poll, and several other influential Republican figures strongly associated with the religious right also have seen their political fortunes fall in recent months.
Less than two years ago, after suffering defeat in the 2004 presidential election, Democrats were the ones speaking about the need to moderate some positions and reach out to centrist voters. These days, however, some religious conservatives also appear to be taking steps to shore up their standing. Liberty’s commencement speaker this year, Senator John McCain, is a 2008 favorite who, in the heat of the GOP primaries in 2000, tagged Falwell as an “agent of intolerance.” Similarly, some observers said, Jewish and evangelical leaders both have good reason to forge a less confrontational relationship.
“There’s a sort of convergence” of interests, said American Jewish Congress’s general counsel, Marc Stern. AJCongress is an organization that fights in court for maintaining a stringent separation of church and state. “Evangelicals are coming off a period where for three or four years, they were in the catbird seat — they were calling all the shots in the administration — and that is clearly no longer the case. On the other hand, the Jewish community has come to realize — I think 25 years too late — that the evangelicals are not going away… and we can no longer brush them aside as a passing bad dream.”
In his remarks, which were made as part of a Wednesday morning prayer service that is mandatory for students and faculty, Yoffie outlined several areas of agreement between evangelicals and Jews, including support for Israel, a commitment to democratic principles, and concern over the perceived sexual licentiousness and materialism of American culture. He proposed that Christians and Jews work together to help push for a uniform rating system for television and to fight poverty at home and abroad.
Yoffie also acknowledged that the two communities have sharply contrasting positions on several hot-button issues, including abortion, civil rights for gays and lesbians, and the role of religion in public life.
“We hear calls, sometimes from evangelicals and sometimes from others, for prayer in the schools and lowering the wall of church-state separation,” Yoffie said. “But let us beware of simple answers. As a Jew, I don’t like it when other Jews find an antisemite under every bed; I don’t believe that Judaism is seriously imperiled, and I don’t think that Christianity is under siege, either.”
After the talk, during a brief session with reporters, Falwell praised Yoffie’s remarks and said that “we can disagree about everything and still find common ground somewhere.” While the evangelical leader seconded Yoffie’s comments on Israel, he seemed less inclined to embrace the rabbi’s proposal to rally behind a campaign for a television-ratings system.
“I think parents have got to take charge and they’re not doing it,” Falwell said. “When 70% of the African American children are born out of wedlock, and over 30 % of Caucasian children are born the same way, the mathematics is that about half the kids in America grow up without a daddy. That’s a huge deficit.”
“So we’d have no differences with Judaism on that subject,” Falwell added. “Family is very important to Judaism.”
Falwell has ignited controversy throughout this long career. After September 11, 2001, when asked why God allowed the attacks to happen, he answered that “the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked… I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the [American Civil Liberties Union], People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”
He later apologized.
In recent years, Liberty University has been growing steeply; it now has nearly 10,000 students living on campus, up from 5,500 five years ago. Administrators aim to increase that number even further over the coming years, to 25,000 on-campus students and 25,000 more off campus. A law school opened two years ago.
Yoffie and Falwell were introduced recently by journalist Zev Chafets, who visited the campus earlier this year to work on an article about the school’s debate team that was published last month in The New York Times Magazine. Chafets claims to have helped broker the visit between the two men, who never had met before. The two clergymen held a private meeting following Yoffie’s speech.
In an interview with the Forward, Yoffie said he decided to travel to Liberty despite his sharp disagreement with Falwell on a range of issues, because it was a chance to address “9,000 young people, the majority of whom have never heard a liberal religious speaker, let alone a rabbi.” He said the trip was a follow-up to the speech he gave last November, in which he criticized the religious right for its “anti-gay bigotry” but also suggested that Conservative Christians and Jews should work to find common ground.
Stern, of the AJCongress, said he supported Yoffie’s visit, as did Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Last, November, in the wake of a scandal over religious conversion at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Foxman drew evangelical ire with a speech that urged Jewish groups to fight a conservative campaign to “Christianize America.”
Yoffie’s own comments, several weeks later, were seen as more conciliatory in tone.