Christian rights contract blurs line separating religion, politics

Last month's unveiling of the Christian Coalition's "Contract with the American Family" confirmed the popular view that the group, the largest political organization in the country, is also one of the slickest and most media-savvy. Predictably, a long list of Jewish leaders responded to the plan with salvos criticizing its expropriation of the concept of "family values," and its emphasis on a "religious equality" amendment to the Constitution that would go well beyond simply legalizing prayer in the public schools.

But the Christian Coalition's "contract" is significantly more; what it involves is a sophisticated attempt to blur the line between religion and politics.

It's the stuff that ultra right-winger Pat Buchanan will happily trump in his run for the GOP presidential nomination. No doubt, he will join the Christian Coalition in claiming that the contract is not a right-wing manifesto but a pro-American family message.

Depending on your perspective, the 10-point plan is an ultra-conservative political agenda wrapped in a veneer of religious morality or a narrowly sectarian agenda framed in the vernacular of contemporary politics.

Either way, Jewish leaders worry, this latest strategy from the religious right, crafted with the aid of sophisticated polling and focus group data, represents a turning point in the ever-more complex battle to maintain a sharp line between religion and government.

Of the contract's 10 points, the call for a religious equality amendment to the Constitution has drawn the most fire from Jewish groups.

Such an amendment would reverse at least three major Supreme Court decisions limiting prayer in the schools, banning religious symbols in some public places and limiting prayers at public events like school graduations.

Jewish activists point out that it would force schools to allow all kinds of prayers, from those of mainstream Christians to Satan worshipers — or else force school administrators into the impossible position of determining which prayers should be allowed in their facilities and which should be banned.

That, Jewish leaders point out, is a curious position for a group that argues vehemently that government has become too intrusive.

"This revolutionary, radical amendment would alter our fundamental First Amendment rights for the first time in 204 years," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. "Above all, it would eviscerate the Establishment Clause, set by the framers as the first of our First Amendment liberties."

The contract also calls for educational vouchers to assist parents who choose to send their children to private or parochial schools. Some Orthodox groups have supported voucher plans in the past. But most Jewish organizations have opposed vouchers as a dangerous breach of the church-state wall and as a major attack on our faltering public school system.

The contract also demands restrictions on access to pornographic materials on cable television and computer networks, and it calls for rejection of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a favorite target for religiously minded conspiracy theorists.

The Christian Coalition carefully framed these proposals in bland terminology that suggests that effective, rational public policy is their only motive.

"But this is clearly a religious design on how government should work — and a highly dogmatic, sectarian design," said Steve Gutow, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, a group that supports Democratic candidates.

"It's a synthesis of religious concepts and pure politics, modified by polling and political considerations. That's what makes this so dangerous; they've learned to use these political concepts to couch their religious dogma."

But the Contract goes still further.

It calls for the abolition of the Department of Education. If enacted, it would cut off federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal aid to poor clients, as well as the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

The contract would eventually turn over welfare programs to private charities, a proposal that Jewish federation leaders, who are responsible for an array of social services funded by a combination of government and private money, fear would destroy what remains of the nation's social safety net.

Here, the Christian Coalition document gets into a highly political, ultra-conservative agenda that has less to do with religious values than with an ideologically driven desire to dismantle large chunks of a federal government that American Jews have traditionally regarded as a major element in their security.

"This `contract' has to be seen for what it principally is — a political response to a set of social, political and economic problems," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

"Nobody begrudges the Christian Coalition the right to involve themselves in the political debate," he added. "The rub is that it comes in such a way as to blur distinctions between religion and politics; they are trying to entangle religion and politics in ways that ultimately may be unhealthy."

Jewish groups have traditionally used the framework of religious values to guide their activity in the political realm.

But the Christian Coalition contract, Jewish leaders fear, goes much further by merging political and religious ideology in ways that obscure the line between government and sectarian religion, public policy and religious doctrine.

That deliberate blurring, even more than the specific issue of a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in schools and graduation ceremonies, will make opposition to the contract a top priority for most Jewish groups in the months to come.