What the Evangelicals Give the Jews
Many Jewish voters this November will find themselves at a crossroads: Will they accept their deep disappointment with Barack Obama and vote for his reelection, or will they overcome their own discomfort with Christian evangelicals and vote for the Republican candidate? The irrepressible argument about the appropriate relationship between the Jewish community and Christian conservatives has returned with a vengeance, forcing a fresh response to a fundamental question: Should Jews view our born-again fellow citizens as natural allies or inevitable adversaries?
Unfortunately, the familiar grounds of this debate rely for the most part on inaccurate assumptions and proceed inexorably to illogical conclusions.
Advocates of cooperation and coalition-building—call them Collaborationists—cite Christian evangelicals as an indispensable source of support for Israel, without whom U.S. policy in the Middle East could easily tilt toward the Palestinians and Arab nations more generally. According to the Collaborationist argument, Jews and evangelicals should ignore profound differences in their core values and put aside sharp disagreements on American domestic issues in order to make common cause against the existential threat of Islamofascism.
Meanwhile, skeptics who seek to maintain the traditional Jewish wariness toward fervent Christian believers—let’s designate them Rejectionists—insist that the ardent evangelical embrace of the Zionist project only encourages the most intransigent and fanatical elements in Israel, thereby undermining chances for a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians. The doubters, moreover, question the theological sources of Christian Zionism, insisting that sunny proclamations of brotherhood actually mask dark intentions of mass conversion, married to apocalyptic visions that inevitably include the unappetizing prospect of large nuclear explosions in the vicinity of Jerusalem. As if that weren’t enough, Christian conservatives (or, in the preferred locution of their leftist critics, “the American Taliban”) stand accused by the Rejectionists of seeking to impose the sort of ruthless theocratic rule that would make life intolerable for all religious minorities.
The clashing narratives of both friends and foes of the tentative Jewish-evangelical alliance require considerable correction, or at least corrective context.
Collaborationists make their first mistake in assuming that conservative Christians’ support for Israel separates them significantly from their non-evangelical neighbors. David Frum examined public opinion surveys in 2000 and 2004 from the Annenberg Foundation, American National Election studies, and the National Jewish Democratic Council, and he found a “surprisingly small gap in the attitudes [toward Israel] of evangelical Christians as compared [with] other non-Jews.” His conclusion: “Yes, Evangelicals are a little more positive. But only a little.”
Given the overwhelming support for Israel by the public at large, that’s hardly surprising; in fact, Gallup’s most recent survey on the subject (February 2011) showed sympathy for the Jewish state at a “near record-high….All major U.S. population subgroups show greater sympathy for the Israelis than for the Palestinians.” The biggest differences in attitudes toward Israel involved political rather than religious orientation: 80 percent of Republicans backed Israel over the Palestinians, compared with 57 percent of both Democrats and Independents.
Wide-ranging American identification with Israel’s struggle against Islamist terrorism (notably more intense, according to the polls, since the terrorist attacks of September 11) works against Collaborationist claims that evangelical support is so indispensable that American Jews must subordinate their disagreements on core principles in order to maintain an alliance of necessity.
The much larger problem with this line of thought is that the supposedly fundamental splits on basic core values between Jews and Christians do not actually exist. In which areas, exactly, can committed Jews identify irreconcilable differences with serious Christians when it comes to most significant questions of morals, ethics, and righteous behavior? Does anyone suppose that our Baptist neighbors cherish the centrality of the family less passionately than we do, or display a weaker commitment to acts of compassion for the poor, or express a more feeble determination to repair a broken world in the tradition of tikkun olam? Anyone who honestly believes that born-again believers neglect their obligation to “love your neighbor as yourself” hasn’t visited their churches and schools and service organizations to witness the prodigious acts of loving kindness that sometimes put our communal efforts to shame. Aside from such impressionistic evidence, there’s a wealth of data in Arthur C. Brooks’s indispensable 2006 book, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, which shows that evangelicals honor the great Jewish tradition of tzedakah at least as well as we do.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Christian conservatives share the common attitudes of the Upper West Side on explosive social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, or gun control, but it would be difficult to claim that those purportedly enlightened approaches are somehow inherently and authentically Jewish. Talmudic law may take a slightly less restrictive view of abortion (particularly when preserving the life of the mother) than do some of the more unbending Christian interpretations, but long-standing Jewish religious tradition still lines up with National Right to Life far more closely than it does with Planned Parenthood.
When it comes to same-sex marriage, leaders of Reform Judaism (and, increasingly, Conservative Judaism as well) may insist that conscience impels their support, but this ethical position derives from a contemporary liberal worldview more than any scriptural outlook that counts as Biblical or Rabbinic. Concerning gun rights, the majority of Jews (who reliably align with the Democratic Party) may believe there’s something disturbingly goyishe about the Second Amendment and the NRA, but our normally voluble sages were eerily silent over the centuries on defining an authentic Jewish position on private ownership of firearms.
Yet those sages most certainly spoke out on the dignity of commerce and the value of wealth creation. And that is worth remembering at a time when the free-market convictions of conservative Christians are likewise held to be in opposition to basic Jewish values. In point of fact, business ethics are one of the principal concerns of Jewish law from the Torah onward, shaping a culture known for millennia for its enterprise and industry in the marketplace.
This heritage may come as news to Jewish activists, graduate students, and museum curators, for whom the romance of ancient Jewish tradition almost exclusively involves bearded immigrant agitators, labor organizers, and embattled leftist intellectuals. But there is no denying that the history of Jewish radicalism in Europe and the United States played out over the course of only 250 years—a brief (if colorful) interlude in a historical panorama of honorable, unstoppable money-making that goes back at least 10 times as far.
In terms of the distinctly American experience, the role of socialist ideals and institutions has been vastly exaggerated in the popular imagination, obscuring the dominant impact of business on the rise of the Jewish population into the middle class (and beyond) within two generations of Ellis Island. Even in the heyday of leftist, Yiddish-speaking New York, Jews aspired to bourgeois respectability far more than they longed to establish an American Workers’ Paradise. In 1904, Eugene Debs ran as the Socialist Party candidate and drew an impressive 3 percent of the national popular vote, but he failed badly in his efforts to carry Jewish New York. In the famous Eighth Assembly District of the Lower East Side, Democrat Alton B. Parker crushed Socialist Debs by nearly 3 to 1, but the “all-American” Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, beat them both and easily swept the neighborhood. After World War II, the ability of millions of Jewish Americans to move to the suburbs (and, ultimately, to provide Ivy League educations for their kids) owed little to Marxist pamphleteers, union bosses, or New Deal bureaucrats and everything to the dynamism of small business.
The long-standing, undeniable connection between Jewish-American progress and the free-market system means that Jews in no way betray their own past by accepting (or, better yet, embracing) the pro-business attitudes of conservative Christians. Like the Puritans in both England and Massachusetts that they claim as inspiration, today’s evangelicals feel unembarrassed by making money and tend to see the process of getting rich as a sign of God’s blessing rather than proof of Satanic corruption. Many privileged, prosperous American Jews may never share the limited-government, free-market inclinations of evangelicals, but it’s absurd to view such attitudes as alien to the Jewish experience.
Contrary to the Collaborationist paradigm, working together for Israel won’t force Jews and Christian conservatives to set aside the values that keep them apart; it’s far more likely that making common cause for Israel will lead them to recognize the shared values that should bring them together.
For Rejectionists, any talk of such cooperation on behalf of Israel or other causes amounts to a betrayal of the very essence of Jewish identity—providing aid and comfort to a potentially lethal enemy of the pluralism that allows unpopular religious minorities to thrive in the United States. For a half century, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has been warning of evangelical efforts to “Christianize America”—as if the nation hadn’t already been thoroughly “Christianized” since its founding (by patriots almost entirely Christian)—and suggesting that emphasis on that proud religious heritage amounts to “defamation” of someone else. Alan Dershowitz, one of Israel’s most effective and impassioned defenders in public debate, wrote a 2007 book called Blasphemy: How the Religious Right Is Hijacking Our Declaration of Independence. Note the possessive adjective “our” in the subtitle—as though the “religious right” represents some outside force attempting to swipe a treasure that belongs to us, and to which they hold no legitimate claim.
While accusing born-again Christians of stealing items of our national heritage, Rejectionists also charge them with supporting Israel for the most dangerous imaginable reason: a sense of religious imperative. This indictment rests upon the highly questionable assumption that allies who join your cause out of political calculation count as more reliable and honorable than those who defend your interests because they believe God commanded them to do so.
Nevertheless, skeptics explain their well-developed fear of Christian Zionism by citing the apocalyptic visions occasionally promoted by some of its leading advocates—prominent among them Pastor John Hagee of Christians United for Israel, the most important Christian Zionist group. It’s only natural to feel uncomfortable with impassioned exhortations to speed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple in order to hasten the imminent vaporization of Zion (and the rest of the world) as part of an especially gruesome series of end-times expectations.
But the Armageddon element has been vastly overplayed as an explanatory factor in the deep, broad evangelical support for Israel. In fact, American Christians endorsed Jewish return to the Holy Land long before the development of Theodor Herzl’s modern Zionist movement—or the birth of nuclear weapons. In his fascinating 2007 book Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, Michael B. Oren (now Israel’s ambassador to the United States) sketches vivid portraits of Christian dreamers and doers who committed themselves to restoring the Jews to their ancestral home more than a century before the reborn Israel joined the family of nations. In 1844, Warder Cresson became America’s official consul in Jerusalem; he held the stalwart conviction that God had created the United States specifically to facilitate the restoration of a Jewish homeland and that the American eagle would “overshadow the land with its wings” in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
In the same year, an influential Biblical scholar and professor at New York University authored The Valley of Vision; or, the Dry Bones of Israel Revived. In that book, George Bush (a very distant relation to the two future presidents of that name) called for “elevating” the Jewish people “to a rank of honorable repute among the nations of the earth” through “the literal return of the Jews to the land of their fathers.” Bush, meanwhile, took a decidedly dim view of the many celebrated preachers and teachers among his Christian contemporaries who anticipated Christ’s “second coming” as imminent or predictable—he denounced their calculations as “one of the most baseless of all the extravaganzas of prophetic hallucination.”
For critics of evangelical involvement with Israel, the obsession with Biblical prophecy in any form counts as not only distasteful but dangerous, serving to encourage the most intransigent segments of the settler movement and other right-wing forces in the Israeli polity. Zev Chafets, who spent 33 years in politics and journalism in Jerusalem (including service as chief press spokesman for Prime Minister Menachem Begin) sets the record straight in his 2007 book A Match Made in Heaven. “The evangelical-Israeli alliance is not a pact between Christian and Israeli religious nuts,” he writes. “It is a well-established relationship between the leaders of evangelical American Christianity and mainstream Israel. Every prime minister since Begin has relied on the support of the Christian right.” Chafets goes on to point out that Ehud Barak, the last prime minister from the Labor Party, authorizes his name to appear as part of the faculty at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
One of the reasons for this close working relationship between evangelical activists and Israeli leaders of every stripe involves the key difference between Christian Zionists and their American Jewish counterparts: Christian conservatives feel no compulsion to tell Israelis how to run their country. Unlike leaders of major Jewish organizations, the born-again brigades provide the elected leaders of Israel with virtually unconditional support, even when they may harbor deep doubts about certain policies. In 2005, Ehud Olmert (then deputy prime minister) arranged an off-the-record meeting with skeptical leaders of the conservative Christian community in order to make the case for the then pending “disengagement” from Gaza. The participants not only provided a respectful reception for Olmert’s message but even suggested a kosher caterer for the extended meeting—a gesture that the visiting Israeli dismissed as unnecessary.
It’s not only the leadership class in Jerusalem that embraces the alliance with evangelicals but also ordinary citizens of all religious and political perspectives. “The dislike and contempt for evangelical Christians that is so integral to American Jewish cultural and political thinking is almost wholly absent in Israel,” writes Chafets. “The average Israeli—even the average anticlerical secular Israeli like me—appreciates evangelical support.”
American Rejectionists naturally respond that it’s easy for people in Tel Aviv to pocket tourist dollars and relish warm sentiments from Christian conservatives because they face scant personal jeopardy from evangelical schemes to impose rigid theocratic rule on the United States. To highlight the purported dangers facing the Jewish community and other non-Christians in America, alarmists (such as journalist Michelle Goldberg in her 2006 book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism) focus breathlessly on colorful, crackpot, fringe operations to suggest that their radical views characterize all or most of the nation’s 50 million evangelicals.
Fortunately, the hysteria over looming theocracy has receded significantly since George W. Bush went home to Texas. We hear far less today of bold, secularist Paul Reveres riding through the countryside to warn the populace, “The Christians are coming! The Christians are coming!” The obvious problem with the demonization of evangelicals is that their agenda involves no radical transformation of the long-standing status quo or any decisive break with American tradition. In high-profile battles over public expressions of religiosity, it’s almost always the antireligious who seek to eliminate some faith-friendly legacy from prior generations—removing Ten Commandments memorials from police stations, blocking student-led prayers before football games, or making sure that Christmas decorations give no hint as to the New Testament origins of the winter festival.
For those who fear the dreaded Christian right, the most legitimate nightmares involve a chilling return to the 1950s, with tough legal restrictions on abortion, nonsectarian prayers in public schools, universal acceptance of the death penalty, no government sponsorship for same-sex marriage, cultural disapproval of out-of-wedlock birth, and less graphic sex, violence, and language in popular entertainment. Twenty-first century sophisticates may shudder at the recollection of such horrors, but they hardly characterize an alien, dystopian dictatorship. Nothing in the mainstream evangelical agenda seeks to refashion America in a way that would make it unrecognizable to someone with memories (or knowledge) of pre-1960s society. If we accept the claim that Christian conservatives aim to impose an un-American theocracy, then that means accepting the idea that Dwight Eisenhower presided over an un-American theocracy.
The decades since Ike’s retirement certainly brought dramatic advancement for the cause of secularism, but it’s far less clear that all the changes served to advance the cause of Judaism. The intermarriage rate, for instance, generally seen as a crucial indicator of communal coherence and vitality, skyrocketed from 10 percent a half century ago to a current estimate of half of all Jews who marry. In part, this reflects a welcome reduction in anti-Semitic attitudes; as the late Irving Kristol famously quipped: “The biggest problem with Christians used to be that they wanted to kill our children. Now it’s that they want to marry them.” But in addition to the decline of bigotry, the surge in intermarriage also stems from an increase in secularism in both the Jewish and Christian communities. Two unaffiliated, agnostic young people from contrasting religious backgrounds will be far more likely to commit their lives to each another than would, say, a Sabbath-observing, kosher-keeping modern Orthodox Jew and a church-going, Bible-studying, born-again Christian.
Religiously committed people on both sides are more apt to require conversion as a precondition of making a life together, which raises another visceral fear on the part of those who decry Judeo-evangelical cooperation: Christian conservatives will use any partnerships with Jewish organizations or individuals as a means to satisfy their “Great Commission” to win increased acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior. For suspicious Jewish Americans, the apparent attraction that evangelicals feel toward Jews is actually the attraction of predator to prey. “Sure, they look at us fondly,” says one of my good friends, who lives in Manhattan and works on network TV. “The same way Michael Moore looks fondly at a cheeseburger.”
Oh? A fascinating 2009 paper by Tom W. Smith of the American Jewish Committee highlighted “Religious Switching Among American Jews” based on 26 surveys by the National Opinion Research Center between 1972 and 2006. The numbers showed that those identified as Jewish at birth were slightly more likely to remain Jewish than born Catholics were to remain Catholic (76.3 percent to 72.6 percent), and slightly less likely than born Protestants (80.8 percent) to keep their religious affiliation. But when it comes to the destination of the religious switchers leaving their faith community, Jews stood out, with the overwhelming majority of departures (59.6 percent) to the religious affiliation known as “none,” rather than to any other organized religion. Less than half of 1 percent of the Jews in the survey altered their religious identity to join a Protestant denomination commonly counted as “evangelical” (such as Southern Baptist).
What’s more, the “gains” to the Jewish population through conversion into the faith (9.1 percent) actually made up a bigger portion of the current community than the percentage of converts among either Protestants or Catholics. And although departing Jews shifted mostly to the unaffiliated/atheist/agnostic categories, the great bulk of those converting to Judaism came from one of the recognized Christian denominations (71.5 percent). In other words, Jews gain far more from Christians becoming Jews than we lose from Jews becoming Christians—with an especially insignificant loss to Christian evangelicals. The interaction with the unaffiliated or the disengaged—the 15 percent of contemporary Americans who affirm no religious commitment at all—shows an opposite impact on Jewish numbers, with losses to Jews four times greater than gains.
As these figures strongly suggest, rampaging secularism represents a far greater threat to Jewish identity than does intensifying Christianity. As Dov Fischer, a California rabbi, trenchantly observed some three decades ago, we have less to fear from “Jews for Jesus” than we do from “Jews for Nothing.”1 This means that Jewish leadership made a disastrously bad bet some 50 years ago when it aligned the community with ardent secularists and militant separationists in pushing for a less distinctively Christian America, as if moving the nation in that direction would facilitate greater Jewish pride and affirmation. The fatuous illogic of this approach becomes apparent at the end of every year with the public agonizing over the “December Dilemma.”
Most Jewish leaders seek two clearly contradictory goals—agitating for the treatment of Christmas as a purely secular celebration at the same time that they try to discourage their fellow Jews from abandoning their distinctive identity and embracing Christmas traditions. It’s far easier to install a Christmas tree (or “Hanukkah Bush”) in a Jewish home if that seasonal symbol has been denuded of all religious meaning. As a celebration of the Resurrection, Easter has been far harder to secularize than Christmas, so, not surprisingly, relatively few Jews feel impelled to give up their Passover seders in order to attend sunrise services or Easter egg hunts. In fact, no one worries over an “April dilemma,” because all serious Christians observe the inescapably religious commemorations of Holy Week and Easter, and even nonserious Jews find their way to festive meals with matzo, wine, and bitter herbs.
Contrary to popular belief, religious vitality isn’t a zero-sum game: A more vibrant and engaged Christian community in no way undermines Jewish commitment. By raising significant religious questions within the society at large, conservative Christians urge Americans of all ancestries and outlooks to conduct their own explorations. If your Jewish family lives in a community where the great majority of your neighbors attend church on Sunday, you are probably more—not less—likely to consider venturing into synagogue on Saturday. In his 2006 book A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed, Mark Pinsky, religion reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, described how the Christian community he covered as a reporter led him to stronger identification with his own religious heritage. Even though he describes himself as a “Daily Show Democrat, voting for the furthest left candidate on the ballot,” he found that his interaction with deeply religious Christians (particularly the late Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ) led him to deeper involvement in his local Reform temple and to his wife’s conversion to Judaism after 24 years of marriage. “It’s made me a more committed Jew,” he told the New Jersey Jewish News.
If conservative Christians raise serious issues of faith and morality in the public square, and normalize activities such as communal worship and Bible study, they will strengthen rather than suppress the healthy impulse of unaffiliated Jews to reconnect with their own traditions. Vivid memories of church-based Jew hatred in Europe led too many American Jews to the mistaken assumption that we would benefit from a society that dismissed religious enthusiasm and in which faith in general played a less potent role. For Rejectionists, the continued commitment to this demonstrably dysfunctional assumption has produced the instinctive allergy to any alignment with evangelicals.
Nearly all Jews feel an urgent impulse to connect in some way with the values of our revered forebears, and for the assimilated and irreligious this instinct produces a powerful urge to reassert the two cherished family traditions that still remain: distrusting Christianity and voting Democratic. Both ancestral imperatives serve to make any cooperation with fervently religious Christians feel like the worst sort of apostasy. On the other hand, Jews who practice Judaism in some form can find better ways to honor their memories of Bubbe and Zayde. In that sense, working with evangelicals facilitates greater Jewish religiosity, and greater religiosity facilitates comfortable collaboration with evangelicals.
Collaborationists who have put their ideas into practice universally suggest that associating with Christian conservatives has made them more Jewish, not less. In that context, it’s no longer necessary to promote the idea that Jewish Americans must overcome their horror at Christian influence for the sake of Israel’s security. The stronger argument insists that evangelical Christians deserve our friendship and cooperation because they aren’t just good for Israel; they’re good for America.
And even more unexpectedly, they’re good for American Jews.
1 Recent publicity for so-called Messianic Jewish congregations only intensifies these concerns, with members attempting to combine traditional practices (particularly involving the profligate deployment of prayer shawls and shofars) with worship of “Yeshua HaMashiach” (Jesus the Messiah). The claims for growth in this movement are laughably inflated: One promoter of “Messianic Music” named Joel Chernoff has declared that “Jewish population studies in the U.S. estimates [sic] between one to two million Messianic Jews in the U.S. alone.” It’s tough to cite more accurate figures with any assurance, but no one with real-life involvement in today’s Jewish community actually believes 1 out of every 3 American Jews identifies himself as a follower of Jesus. Boasts of rapid growth, moreover, obscure the dirty little secret of most Messianic congregations: Many if not most of their members were born Christian with no Jewish ancestry but felt drawn to the sect due to the appeal of ancient rituals Jesus himself might have recognized.