Warning of a growing campaign to “Christianize America,” the national director of the Anti-Defamation League is calling on Jewish organizations to join him in coordinating a communal strategy for confronting the political and cultural initiatives of religious conservative groups.
In a speech last week at the ADL’s national conference in New York, Abraham Foxman blasted several conservative organizations, including Focus on the Family, The American Family Association and the Family Research Council. He declared that such groups “had built infrastructures throughout the country… intend[ing] to ‘Christianize’ all aspects of American life, from the halls of government to the libraries, to the movies, to recording studios, to the playing fields and locker rooms of professional, collegiate and amateur sports, from the military to SpongeBob SquarePants.”
“Today we face a better financed, more sophisticated, coordinated, unified, energized and organized coalition of groups in opposition to our policy positions on church-state separation than ever before,” Foxman stated. “Their goal is to implement their Christian worldview. To Christianize America. To save us!”
Foxman said the conservative effort was “not an assault” on Jews as a community, but he warned that Jews “may become… its major victims.” He proposed that Jewish advocacy groups, including ADL, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, as well as the major synagogue movements convene in Washington to hash out a common strategy.
The bid is likely to reopen questions about Foxman and the ADL’s effectiveness, as well as shine a spotlight that many communal insiders have described as a breakdown in cooperation and coordination among powerful Jewish organizations, especially on domestic issues.
This is the second time in recent years that Foxman, arguably the community’s most influential leader, has taken direct aim at segments of the Christian right. In 2003, he found himself out front in criticizing Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” saying that its graphic depictions of the killing of Jesus and reliance on traditionalist Catholic anti-Jewish sources would foment antisemitism around the world. That effort met with pushback from Gibson and conservative Catholic and evangelical activists.
After the movie was released, many film critics and news commentators criticized it for its depiction of Jews, but Foxman found himself being roundly condemned by conservative activists who accused the ADL leader of anti-Christian bigotry and of “crying wolf” when no wave of antisemitism materialized. Some officials at other Jewish organizations said that Foxman had miscalculated. On the other hand, some Jewish communal leaders noted, there seemed to be no forum for all of them to get on the same page with one another, or with the ADL.
Religious conservative groups, Foxman said in his speech, have stepped up their coordination in recent years.
In his recent speech, Foxman cited the Arlington Group, a consortium of more than 50 conservative Christian leaders and organizations — all staunch Bush Administration allies — formed in 2002 to agitate for a ban on gay marriage. He identified the consortium as the locus of the “Christianization” effort.
The Web sites of members of the Arlington Group “document, in considerable detail, their agendas on a wide range of issues, including judicial nominations, stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, abortion restrictions and the faith-based initiative — and their expectations of success on these issues because of their perceived political strength,” Foxman said. “No effort is made to hide their goals or their ambitions, and their vision of an America far different from ours.”
The sally was poorly received by Christian right groups.
Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s vice president of government and public policy, called Foxman’s speech “perplexing.” Noting that the evangelical groups Foxman cited are staunch supporters of Israel, Minnery told the Forward, “If you keep bullying your friends, pretty soon you won’t have any.” He suggested that Foxman is prone to exaggeration. With his effort against “The Passion,” Foxman “predicted the sky would fall, and the sky has not fallen,” Minnery said.
Minnery also defended his group’s domestic agenda as being compatible with civil liberties for Jews and others. “To the extent that America remains Christian, it remains free for non-Christian belief to flourish,” he said. “You don’t see that in other parts of the world.”
William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, released a statement denouncing Foxman’s speech.
Foxman’s effort also drew the condemnation of some Jewish social conservatives who are close to the evangelicals and to the White House.
“ADL’s latest assault on Christians is classic Foxman: fund raising by fearmongering,” Jeff Ballabon, founder and president of the Center for Jewish Values, said in an e-mail. “It’s repugnant from the standpoint of Jewish values and indefensible from the point of view of Jewish interests. Around the world, Islamic fundamentalism has Jews in fear for their lives and the only significant friends and allies those Jews have are American Christians. So, of course, Foxman attacks our friends using innuendo and bigotry. And what’s their crime? They want religious freedoms in their own country. Let’s set the record straight: The policies ADL attacks are policies embraced by non-Christian groups, including Jewish groups. Responsible Jewish leaders should repudiate Foxman’s bigotry.”
In his speech, Foxman cited a new poll commissioned by the ADL as evidence that the Christian groups were intent on imposing what he called “the tyranny of the majority.” According to the survey, which will be released next week, almost 64% of Americans think religion is under attack (57% think Christianity is being assaulted) and 56% think creationism should be taught in schools. In addition, 64% think religious symbols such as the Ten Commandments should be displayed in public buildings, and almost half think the courts have gone too far in removing religion from American life. Those numbers rise steeply for those who attend church once a week or who describe themselves as evangelicals.
“If 60% think religion is under attack, who do they think is attacking them? Hollywood, the media and the ACLU? And who is behind those three institutions? The Jews, right?” Foxman told reporters after the speech.
In a telephone interview, Foxman said he raised the alarm because he sees a “mood change” nationally in which talk of God and religious values has been replaced with talk of Jesus and Christian values. This Christian “arrogance” is threatening traditional church-state separation in a variety of areas, he said, citing the controversy over Christian proselytizing at the U.S. Air Force Academy and a case recently won by the Salvation Army. The case had the support of the Bush administration, allowing it to engage in religious-based employment discrimination. Foxman also pointed to the debate over abortion and the Supreme Court.
Even though the groups that Foxman identified are close allies of President Bush and the Republican Party, he said that both parties had been pandering to the religious right since the 2000 election. But he rejected the notion that the Supreme Court — or the confirmation battle over Bush’s nomination of Samuel Alito — was the venue to address the phenomenon. ADL does not take positions on judicial nominees, preferring to makes its concerns known by formulating questions for senators.
Some Jewish groups welcomed Foxman’s call.
Phyllis Snyder, president of the National Council of Jewish Women — which has opposed both of Bush’s Supreme Court picks on pro-choice grounds — said her group was planning a daylong symposium on religion and state for March 2006. “We’re very cognizant that the radical right has brought forth initiatives that don’t allow minorities to have all rights,” she said.
The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, said he would likely attend any parley Foxman convened, but he urged caution.
“I’m fundamentally sympathetic to the concerns, many of which we have raised,” he said, “but we have to avoid apocalyptic language and… giving the impression that we are subjected to immediate danger to our well-being. America is big, diverse. Some of these people are our potential allies. We don’t want to be perceived as attacking religious people.”
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that Foxman had “put his finger on the problem” but “sometimes overacts.”
“I’m always amenable to discussing, but I’d want to see the nature of the effort,” Epstein said.
Other Jewish groups, however, appeared to approach Foxman’s call with skepticism.
“It’s unclear to me how times are different than three, four, five years ago,” said Eugene Korn, director of Jewish affairs of the American Jewish Congress. Korn said he would like to see some statistical comparisons to Foxman’s data.
“The question is not what the sentiment is, but to what extent are people actively trying to implement this legally and impose it on America,” said Korn. Reported disagreements with Foxman caused Korn to leave ADL. “Jews should have no problem at all with Christians talking about God. But putting prayer back in schools? It’s not clear to me that it’s a thrust. Creationism? The debate needs to be played out.”
Nathan Diament, the Washington representative of the Orthodox Union, often has partnered with Arlington Group members on issues of mutual concern.
“It is needless to say the Orthodox Union does not support efforts to ‘Christianize America.’ However, that does not lead us to the same policy positions as the ADL on the religion-state relationship,” Diament said. “In this we are in good company. As you will recall, the ADL didn’t like Senator Lieberman’s [more conservative] positions on religion-state issues during his 2000 campaign, either.”
The executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, was traveling and did not respond to a request for comment.