Politicization of morality worries Jewish officials

washington | It’s like one of those family fights that devolves into shouts of “You just don’t get it.”

Conservative Christians wonder if “blue-state” voters get the values that drove them to the polls in unprecedented numbers to re-elect George W. Bush.

People who voted for John Kerry — among them, three quarters of the Jewish electorate — wonder if “red-state” voters who went Republican understand why those values make them nervous.

In election exit surveys conducted by the American Jewish Committee, Jews who voted for the Massachusetts senator on Nov. 2 consistently cited the Democrats’ position on church-state separation. Now, President Bush’s claim that he has a mandate from the 51 percent of voters who chose him has many Jewish officials worried.

They worry especially that a plurality of Bush voters — 22 percent — cited “moral values” as the primary reason for their votes. Such moral values include opposition to abortion rights, a greater role for religion in government and opposition to gay marriage.

“The message that the Christian right think the election is a success for them has caught people’s attention,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella body for Jewish community relations councils nationwide. “Whether or not it really is a success, their proclamation that they have increased the power has caused a great deal of discomfort to the community.”

Certainly, there has been no lack of preening by some Christian leaders.

“Christian Evangelicals Made the Major Difference in the 2004 Presidential Election” was the headline of a post-election release from the Christian Coalition, a massive lobby group that opposes gay marriage and abortion.

Rich Galen, a strategist for the Republicans, told the BBC this week that red-state Americans felt left out of the traditional power centers and expressed their frustration with their votes.

“When people say ‘values,’ I think it is an uncomfortableness with what I like to call the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Hollywood being the arbiters of what is right and what is wrong,” he said.

That triumphalism may presage a stronger push to bring Christianity into the public square, and many Jewish officials — especially those in the red states — are ready for a backlash.

“People are questioning where the line is,” said Deborah Lauter, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League in Georgia, and a former San Francisco attorney and activist. “There has been an increase in stealth evangelism. We’re seeing it everywhere.”

Lauter says that when she trades battle stories with other regional directors, the others deal primarily with anti-Israel activism, while much of her work has to do with stemming Christian influence.

Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the fervently religious Agudath Israel of America, said Orthodox Jews voted in similar patterns to believing Christians because they were concerned by the same perceived government imbalance toward liberal policies on abortion and gay marriage.

“Moral concerns do not equate with Christian concerns,” Shafran said. “Many of these concerns are shared with Jews, in the Orthodox community and beyond.”

The key, he suggested, is for Jews not to slavishly join one camp or the other, allowing them to point out differences with either side when they arise.

“There may well be crazies, people who want to see total dismantlement of the wall between church and state,” Shafran said of the Christian right. “That doesn’t mean I have to mitigate my concerns.”

He cited abortion as an example.

“We feel there must be a right to abortion, but we feel an unfettered right to abortion, as a post-facto birth control, does not send the right message,” he said. “We would argue for tighter controls on abortion, as a last resort.”

On the other hand, if the fundamentalist view that life begins at conception were to gain legal traction, Orthodox Jews would make the case against that as well, Shafran said.

JTA correspondent Yigal Schleifer contributed to this story from Istanbul.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief