As part of a bid to revive his Reagan-era conservative powerhouse, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Moral Majority leader, is urging Americans to “vote Christian” in 2008.
“As national chairman of the Moral Majority Coalition, I am committed to lending my influence to help turn out at least 40 million ‘faith and values’ voters in 2008 to assure that Sen. Hillary Clinton, or someone of her ultra-liberal ilk, will never be president of this nation,” Falwell wrote in a recent mass fund-raising letter.
The letter comes with a car window sticker declaring “I Vote Christian.”
Falwell wrote that his goal “is to utilize the momentum of the sweeping conservative mandate of the November 2, 2004, elections to maintain a faith and values ‘revolution’ of voters who will continue to go to the polls to ‘vote Christian’ and call America back to God.” He added, “Everyone now knows that the stage is set for the church of Jesus Christ to turn this nation back to the faith of our fathers and the Judeo-Christian ethic.”
Many Republicans have been happy to accept Falwell’s support, and some have echoed his calls. At the 2002 Christian Coalition convention in Washington, D.C., for example, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas urged activists to back candidates who “stand unashamedly for Jesus Christ.”
Falwell’s initiative, however, comes at a tricky time for the Republican National Committee. Under its chairman, Ken Mehlman, who is Jewish, the RNC has been striving to make the party more inclusive by reaching out to Jews, among others. Mehlman and other Jewish Republicans ridiculed the recent claim of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean that the GOP is a “white, Christian party,” calling the remark divisive.
Democrats, however, pointed to Falwell’s letter as evidence that it is GOP supporters who are engaging in divisive tactics.
“Democrats are working to build bridges between Americans of all faiths, while Republican leaders like Falwell are building walls between people of faith and then using those divisions for their personal political benefit. Falwell’s cynical and selfish tactics have no legitimate place in mainstream American politics.”
The Moral Majority is widely credited with creating the groundswell of evangelical Christian voters that helped deliver the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. Now Falwell is rallying voters on a platform of “confirmation of pro-life, strict constructionist” judges, “passage of a constitutional Federal Marriage Amendment, forever defining the family as one man married to one woman,” and the election of a “socially, fiscally and politically conservative” president and Congress — goals that match those of many GOP activists and mirror the platform on which Bush ran in 2004.
Falwell started the Moral Majority in 1979, before disbanding it in 1989. In his fund-raising letter, part of an ongoing campaign launched late last year, Falwell said that God “led” him to revive the movement after Bush’s re-election.
Falwell was in meetings and not available for comment by press time.
In parts of his letter, references to “Church of Jesus Christ” aside, Falwell appeared to try his hand at an appeal that is religious but ecumenical.
Recounting the history of the Moral Majority, Falwell writes that the organization enlisted “a few rabbis” in its earlier years. He noted that “we were pro-life, pro-family, pro-Israel and committed to strong national defense.”
Falwell has faced some legal trouble because of his closeness to the GOP. According to The Associated Press, the Federal Election Commission recently cleared him of a claim that he broke federal election law by exhorting followers last year to re-elect Bush. A complaint to the IRS that Falwell used his nonprofit corporations for the same purpose is still pending.
This week, RNC spokesman Danny Diaz rejected the notion that Falwell’s initiative would undermine his organization’s outreach efforts.
“Voters vote for the candidate and party that represent their beliefs,” Diaz said, adding: “They base their decision on our record. The record speaks for itself.”
Polls have repeatedly found that American Jews — except for some segments of the Orthodox community — overwhelmingly oppose the key elements of the agenda listed by Falwell and express anxiety over efforts to portray America as a Christian country.
When told of Falwell’s campaign, with its sticker, Deganit Ruben, 31, a Conservative Jew in Brookline, Mass., said she was upset by such explicit attempts to use any one religion to advance a political agenda.
“I respect their right to express how they vote and express their opinions, but I disagree with that association,” Ruben said. Reacting to the sticker, she said, “The immediate association between an American flag and Christianity would put me off, because the whole point is that the American flag represents religious freedom and is not representative of any one faith.”
Sidney Benaim, a 32-year-old Modern Orthodox Jewish New Yorker, was unfazed when shown Falwell’s latest material. “It wouldn’t make me feel insecure,” Benaim said while working behind the counter of a kosher pizza joint in Manhattan. “If someone’s Christian and voting Christian, fine.”
In a similar split, Jewish political partisans battled it out over the relevance of Falwell’s mailing.
“My first reaction was to laugh, but the more appropriate response is to cry,” said the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman. “I just hope my Republican Jewish friends will see this and begin to understand that the rampant spread of the right-wing evangelical agenda is not a benign phenomenon.” Forman also pointed to Bush’s insistence this week that public schools should teach “intelligent design” — the theory that the universe must have been created by an intelligent being — as another example of Republicans advancing the evangelical agenda. Republican Jewish activists, however, shrugged at the letter.
“There are religious people in both major political parties,” said Bruce Bialosky, a major GOP donor from California. “There are also people from both parties who believe God is on their side. What Reverend Falwell is doing is no different than what has gone on in synagogues and churches across this country for scores of years. Reverend Falwell’s call to ‘Vote Christian’ may be an interpretation of support of the Republican Party, but it is no different than Reverend [Jesse] Jackson’s calls to support the Democratic Party. It places no higher burden on Jews of either party.”
The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks, said that letters such as Falwell’s did not hurt the GOP’s appeal to Jews.
“We made a case to our constituency on how the president was standing up for the interests of Israel and the Jewish community,” Brooks said. Falwell is simply “appealing to his constituency much in the same way various Jewish organizations appeal to their constituencies.”