Over the years as we’ve gradually become friends, we’ve come to realize how unlikely and how important our bond is. I’m an observant Jew and a political liberal, and you’re an evangelical Christian and a political conservative, and our peoples have been historical enemies for a long time. We thought we were helping to put that to rest. We thought that in some small, personal way, we were doing for Jews and evangelical Christians something akin to what the Second Vatican Council did for Jews and Catholics: ending the long theological enmity, opening a door to fellowship.
Now, in the wake of the presidential election, I have to wonder what remains of all the progress I thought we were making. It’s not just a matter of 71% of my tribe voting for the Democrat and 81% of yours voting for the Republican. We’re used to disagreeing on partisan politics while trying to find specific issues on which we could cooperate. No, what’s different this time is that you and yours voted for Donald Trump, a candidate who built his campaign on appealing to hatred, including the hatred of Jews.
That’s something we’ve got to talk about, and the talk will not be easy. For me, at least, it’s going to mean calling into question most of what I believed about you. If we’re going to be able to move forward, and I’m not sure that’s even possible now, then we have to reconsider where we’ve already been.
I grew up in a town in Central Jersey that was pretty evenly split between Jews like me and Catholics like many of my classmates and friends — Irish, Italian and Polish, mostly. We had some recent Greek immigrants in town, drawn by a nearby Greek Orthodox Church, and at least one Lebanese Maronite family I can recall.
As for Protestants, I can’t remember any besides the small black community, and I intuitively knew those were a different kind of Protestant from the sort I saw on TV when I chanced upon a Billy Graham crusade while switching channels. Oh, right, there were also those couple of “Jesus freaks” who showed up outside my high school with their stringy hair and gum boots. I can still remember one of the pothead hippie girls from school kneeling on the sidewalk for their blessing. When I got to college at the University of Wisconsin, I was shocked to learn that white Protestants were the majority of the country. Truly, I’d never known.
From our chats over the years, I know the outlines of your upbringing, too. Your father was from a small town in the South, your mother from a farm in the Upper Midwest, two hardscrabble lives made endurable by the church. You were raised in the suburbs of a Sun Belt city, given a more comfortable life thanks to your parents’ hard-earned degrees from the Bible college where they met. Growing up, you hardly knew any Jews, except for a local outpost of Jews for Jesus. Jews were mostly a great quarry for conversion.
Which reminds me of the first evangelicals I really got to know. I was a baby reporter in the western suburbs of Chicago, the area around Billy Graham’s alma mater of Wheaton College. How many times in those years did someone I was interviewing ask me in that leading way, “So what kind of name is Freedman?” or cut right to the chase: “Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”
Back then, nearly 40 years ago, those inquiries rattled me. I didn’t know enough about my own faith to be confident swatting away the evangelical sales pitch. I realize now that those Christians thought they were paying me the highest compliment; as a Jewish friend of mine who does human-rights work with evangelicals likes to quip, “I’m honored that anybody thinks my soul is worth saving.” But in those moments of being evangelized, I acutely felt like you all saw me as a second-class citizen.
Then I grew up some more, started to practice Judaism in a meaningful way, and wound up writing several books and a regular newspaper column about religion. I got to know you and the world you live and worship in. I reported on an evangelical ministry to oil-rig workers and about volunteers with World Vision who were resettling Iraqi refugees. I was wowed by the vacation Bible school I visited at a Houston megachurch, which offered sports, theater, free meals and Christian rock — as well as the expected study of scripture — to 10,000 kids free of charge.
With a good kind of amazement, I saw how a new breed of philo-Semitic evangelicals was adopting Jewish rituals, from seders to ketubot. When I was in a departure lounge in Newark Airport in 2001, bound for Israel only hours after the terrorist attack on the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv, I took strength from the dozens of Christians around me who were on their way to the beleaguered Jewish state. And I noticed that I no longer got the conversion rap from your people. I felt like my Jewishness was being accepted as legitimate on its own.
You wouldn’t believe how often I’ve argued your side in my liberal Jewish circles. The fear of evangelical Christians runs pretty deep there, not only because of our vast divide on issues like abortion and gay marriage, but also in a broader and deeper way about whether church and state need to be separated at all. So many times, I told my Jewish friends and colleagues not to stereotype you. The new generation of evangelicals, I insisted, was different. They shared some positions with us — on immigration, on sentencing reform, on environmental stewardship. They didn’t see our souls as prey to be captured, pelts to be hung over the mantle.
I wasn’t so enthused about your Christian Zionism, to be honest. Your version of Zion includes all the occupied territories, and when Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke, Pat Robertson, the minister who built up the Christian Broadcasting Network, said it was divine retribution for having ordered the Israeli pullout from Gaza. But given a choice, I’d rather have your complicated love affair with Jews — notwithstanding your belief we’ll all die or be converted at Armageddon — than the Christian attitude my father often recalled to me from his childhood in the 1920s and ’30s. More than once, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses near his rural enclave of Jewish anarchists.
Then, though, we came to this election. There’s no need to reiterate at length all the forms of hatred that Trump spewed against Mexicans, Muslims, women, the disabled and others. More to the point of this letter is the way he retweeted an anti-Semitic image and his campaign embraced the anti-Semites of the “alt-right.” I mean, Steve Bannon, the man who ran Trump’s campaign and who has now been named his chief strategist in the White House, has openly admitted that the “alt-right” may include Jew haters. He just likes to shrug that off by saying the far left is the same, which sounds pretty lame to me just about now.
And when the attacks on Jews were coming from Republican conservatives in the Trump movement — not “anti-Zionist” college activists, not Muslims, not African Americans — where were you? Where were you? Some of your people did answer the bell. I can hardly express the extent of my admiration for Peter Wehner in The New York Times, Michael Gerson in The Washington Post, Andy Crouch at Christianity Today, and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention. Repeatedly and eloquently, they made the case against Trump on Christian grounds.
But then there were all the Trump supporters and apologists: Jerry Falwell Jr. at Liberty University, Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse, James Dobson of the Family Research Council, Ralph Reed of the Moral Majority. One of the lowest moments for me during this whole poisonous presidential campaign occurred when I read an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by Eric Metaxas, a best-selling evangelical author. Metaxas invoked the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer — a martyr in the resistance to Hitler — as a role model in urging evangelical Christians to vote for Trump.
Maybe you just don’t realize how profoundly offensive an argument like that was for a Jew like me. Do you think for a minute that someone who gave his life in part to save Jews from the Nazis would support the closest thing America has ever had to a fascist leader? Along the same lines, maybe you didn’t understand why Trump’s last big TV commercial sent tremors through so many Jews. When the ad against this global conspiracy of international bankers not-so-coincidentally singles out three Jews (Janet Yellen, George Soros, Lloyd Blankfein), it doesn’t seem like just another attack on the elite. It is the same old, same old libel: Jews run the world, and they run it for their own benefit.
Listen, my friend, numbers don’t lie. Exit polls show that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. That’s 20 points more than he got from either Mormons or white Catholics. Incredibly, white evangelicals voted for Trump at a significantly higher rate than they did for George W. Bush, who was a genuine born-again Christian with a moving story of recovery from alcoholism and an ongoing church life. How could a crude, multiply divorced, religiously ignorant specimen like Trump be more appealing to you? Could it be that George W. Bush was just too tolerant of blacks and Hispanics? Could it be that the conservatism you prefer isn’t the compassionate sort?
I’m sorry — well, half-sorry — I said that. I can’t assume everyone in the 81% is a bigot. I know, too, that the 81% is an umbrella category that ranges from seriously committed Christians to less-attached ones who use the term evangelical as a kind of synonym for white nationalism. But here’s the thing: Either you didn’t care, or you didn’t care enough, about all of Trump’s moral baggage, including his indulgence and indeed his stoking of Jew-hatred. I guess that, in exchange for the Supreme Court appointment and a “religious freedom” law, Trump offered a bargain worth taking. Talk about the art of the deal.
When I told you the other day how I felt, all you offered in return was the promise to stand with Jews against global anti-Semitism. Well, that sure dodges the point. I don’t need you to help me in Western Europe or in the Middle East. I need you as an ally and a partner and, yes, a friend, right here in the U.S.A. If you can’t do that — if, as a Christian, you can’t call out Trump and Trumpism for its anti-Semitic streak, to say nothing of its sundry other prejudices — then everything you and I thought we were building over the last generation is grievously endangered. If you can’t use your political muscle to oppose Trump when he starts the wall construction and the mass deportations, actions that summon up my historical memory of the ghetto and the Holocaust, then I’m not sure what’s left between us. In the outcry of just the last few days against Bannon’s appointment, why have I heard so little righteous indignation from you?
There are two words that infect my thoughts of you: cowardice and betrayal. I wish I didn’t hear them drumming inside my brain. I hope you can still do something to make that drumming stop.
Your religion, Christianity, is about feeling. Mine, Judaism, is about doing. So spare me your words. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, but not indefinitely. I’ll be waiting to see what you do. Then we can both decide whether our friendship can survive, stronger for being tested, or whether we have to return to being strangers and adversaries again.
Samuel G. Freedman, the author of eight books, is a frequent contributor to the Forward. Follow him on Twitter, @SamuelGFreedman