This article was first published in The Jewish Independent, on March 17, 2006
While visiting Southeast Asia for half a year, Ellen and David Newman were deeply moved by the religious diversity surrounding them. “We saw many practising Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims,” David Newman recalled. “It led us to an even broader notion of many paths.”
Upon their return to the United States, the couple not only had culture shock but also felt hit in the face by what seemed like a sudden invasion of the Christian right into personal, medical and educational matters – demonstrated by the highly publicized Terry Schiavo case, the Pharmaceutical Bill of Rights (where pharmacists were refusing to fill birth control and morning after pill prescriptions) and the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case (the battle over a school board trying to replace a standard biology book with an intelligent design book based on Christian Science).
All told, Newman said, “It seemed like an America we didn’t recognize. We felt that, as Jews, we needed to be more informed [about what was happening].” In response, Newman – president of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco – approached the leaders of the Lifelong Learning Committee at his congregation, suggesting the idea for what became a day-long symposium, Being Jewish in Christian America, held on Sunday, March 5, at the synagogue.
The day included an historical overview of the rise of the evangelical movement in America; a panel addressing the evangelical movement’s new overall agenda, shifting attitudes towards women’s roles and their impact on the Supreme Court; a presentation on the myths and facts about science and intelligent design; an historical overview of the founding fathers’ intentions and motivations with regards to religious freedom; workshops on the religious right’s impact on national ideology, government and politics, science education and university life; an exploration of possible common ground between the Jewish and evangelical communities; and a closing discussion about Jewish attitudes towards “the other.”
The idea, said David Perlstein – synagogue board member and chair of the Lifelong Learning Committee – was to provide ample background information on the religious right’s influence in America.
“It’s giving some perspective on things we’re worried about – church and state, what’s going on with Christian fundamentalism,” remarked conference attendee
Jeremy Benjamin, a professional fund-raiser for the local Jewish federation. “Especially as Jews, we are feeling threatened. As Jews, we always feel in a precarious situation. We want to make sure this situation doesn’t threaten the ability of Jews to live well in America.”
One panelist and workshop leader, Rev. Richard Cizik – vice-president for government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) – was especially popular with symposium attendees and found himself mobbed after speaking and during lunch. Participants seemed hungry for information about the religious right and, as someone representing the NAE to Congress, the White House and Supreme Court, Cizik was just the spokesperson they were looking for.
During a morning panel, Cizik asserted that there is a tremendous amount of stereotyping and misunderstanding of evangelical Christians, and said he wants to open people’s eyes to the diversity of the movement. “The agenda is no longer just prayer in public schools,” he said. “We are promoting religiously based dialogue as a cover through which religious people from different faiths can discuss issues.”
For example, he said, the movement is pushing for justice around environmental issues and world hunger. For evangelicals, this mission springs from the Scriptures’ command to protect God’s creation. “Today, policymakers don’t understand religious traditions; don’t understand that religion can be a solution,” Cizik said. “Through religiously based dialogue, we may even be able to prevent Iran from becoming another Iraq.” Later, he heartily encouraged participants to, “Join us in our campaigns!”
Though Cizik’s arguments were compelling on the surface, said Dan Weiss, co-founder of the Lifelong Learning Committee, “[His] statements don’t ring true to me, because the fundamental position and stance of everything they do is to convert everyone to their beliefs. And this is their way of life. It is behind everything they do. They are saying, ‘There is a way we can legitimize ourselves to the greater population, then win them over – leverage the Christian agenda through this platform.’
“I’ve never heard an evangelical Christian say, ‘Judaism is just as valid a life as Christianity and I’m doing everything I can to make sure you can always practise Judaism.’ I see them say, ‘Judaism is a beginner religion, but your way to God is through Christ.’
“There are code words, like ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament.’ What does that mean? Their bottom line message is, ‘You’re wrong, I’m right.’ Not, ‘We’re both right, because there are many ways to live, and together we can do wonderful things.’ ”
Challenged with why Jews should join hands with the evangelicals – considering that Christianity was born out of the rejection of Judaism and the vilification of Jews, and that the evangelical movement has a penchant for “saving souls” while feeding the hungry – Cizik responded that any Jews suspicious of evangelicals should join an equivalent Jewish movement working on global issues. “Can we allow human slavery, disease and trafficking victims?” he asked. The idea, he continued, is to focus on common goals.
“Even if I believe non-believers are going to hell, does that give me rationale not to work with other faiths on these issues? An excuse?” he continued. “That would be the worst thing. There were evangelicals who didn’t get involved in the civil rights movement because Jews were leading it. My father’s generation sat on their hands on one of the most pre-eminent issues of the 20th century. Defining ourselves by what we’re against, not for, is a prescription for failure.”
Still, what about missionaries who offer food and medical supplies to vulnerable, indigenous communities, at the price of their mass conversion to Christianity? Why bolster the evangelical efforts within any given social justice movement? Cizik never gave a straight answer.
“He evaded a number of key questions,” noted Sherith Israel’s Assistant Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller, “both in his public talk and in individual conversations. Or rather, he reframed them – questions which we as Jews are troubled by. He chose answers that we have the most common ground on. He came here wanting us to feel good about [evangelical Christians], not to argue with us…. He knows our stereotype [of evangelical Christians] is pretty bad.”
Though evangelicals may take the heat for turning America into a Christian country, Dr. Paula Nesbitt – an Episcopalian priest, author and visiting professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley – revealed to conference participants the more subtle forces that have made America Christian de facto, if not by law. While the explicitness of Christianity has been removed from many American ideologies and practices, she explained, the religion is still an axis around which American life revolves: America is the New Israel, under God’s judgment, and Americans are the new Chosen People, watchdogs of the world, responsible for taking care of other societies – thus the rhetoric and moral conviction of America’s foreign policy. These ideologies have been invoked by the past four presidents in their national addresses, Nesbitt said. She read excerpts of addresses by Bill Clinton and those before him to demonstrate her point.
Christian celebrations have been made “user friendly,” Nesbitt continued, by being referred to as “holiday celebrations” during the “holiday season” – seemingly inclusive of other religions but in practice, having no relevance to them. Nuclear submarines are given names like the Corpus Christi and the Trinity. American money has “In God We Trust” written on each bill.
All these elements, Nesbitt said, add up to a civil religion – a blurring between church and state, Christianity and secularism that slips by unnoticed – far more insidious than a clear threat to religious difference. “Assuming unity reduces the integrity of difference of view,” Nesbitt elaborated. “That difference becomes seen as deviant. You have to take on the whole instead of part of the whole.” In other words, rather than objecting to Christian influence in America, one has to object to the fundamentals of American national identity – a far more daunting and isolating task.
But could the tide be changing? “Bush’s addresses are moving away from explicitly Christian speech,” Nesbitt offered, reading part of a presentation that had what she called “multi-religious rhetoric.” The change, she said, began after Sept. 11: “Post 9/11, there is a new civil religious understanding – with the theme of diversity. The memorial service after 9/11 had diverse religious leaders taking part, to speak to the pain of people. Themes coming out of that are a loss of innocence [and a] recognition of the inevitability of religious diversity.”
Diversity in North America is “growing at an exponential rate,” Nesbitt added. “Migration poses the question of how we will accommodate this diversity.” In addition, she concluded, “diversity is growing more radical. People are less interested in being part of the melting pot than [in] maintaining their identity through religion.”
For the closing presentation, Rabbi Larry Raphael – senior rabbi at Sherith Israel – shared the historical backdrop of the Jewish experience in America: Most arrived here, he said, to escape religious persecution. The upshot of that background, plus our 4,000- year legacy around the world, is that our attitude towards “the other” is, “they are either trying to kill us or convert us.”
While the presentation from Nesbitt, Cizik and other speakers from Christian organizations offered much to chew on, there was little expression of the Jewish experience within Christian America. For some, the symposium thus mirrored the hegemony it was addressing: While there were plenty of opportunities for Jews to discuss Christian issues, there was seemingly no framework for Christians to process Jewish issues – making the conference just another trip down a one-way street.
“When you tell me the topic is Being Jewish in a Christian America, this is not what I came to hear!” a frustrated synagogue member, Francine Bondell, blurted out during one workshop. “None of you have addressed anti-Semitism or the issues like not getting off work for Jewish holidays. The whole morning was very nice, but has nothing to do with my life.”
“We’re getting a lot of background,” Perlstein said, defending the symposium format. “The most important thing is not to have a session talking about all our gripes. We already know what they are. We as Jews frequently don’t understand that Christians have many different beliefs.
“Before we can analyze our position in Christian America, we have to understand what it is and isn’t. We get incensed at Christian ignorance of who we are, but we can’t be ignorant ourselves about Christianity. The founding fathers were Christian, so we need to understand it.”
Loolwa Khazzoom has written for Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, Marie Claire and many other international publications. She is working on her forthcoming book, Arabs, Jews and Hip Hop: Middle East Politics in da House