A few months ago, I wrote on Beliefnet that Jews should disengage from conversations with Southern Baptist leaders who were behind efforts to convert them. Not from interfaith activities with local Baptist churches; just from work with Baptist leaders who were dedicated to converting Jews. It's easy to make too much of such evangelical activities, and I doubt that they convert many Jews, if any. But they are taken by Jews as a kind of disrespect for Judaism, and the targeting in particular is painful.
And then, during the primary season, came the controversy about the Christian right's support for Gov. George W. Bush, its assaults on Sen. John McCain, and McCain's denunciation of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Of course, those fights didn't really involve Jews, but they made Jews nervous, because they seemed to make religion a political issue.
If Robertson was arguing that McCain was unfit for high office because of his beliefs (or lack of them), what would he say about Jews? An overreaction perhaps, but just at that moment, Bush adviser Marvin Olasky weighed in with a newspaper column confirming Jews' fears. Olasky argued that Bush represented those who wanted faith to inform our politics, while others were the "Party of Zeus"--people who had "holes in their souls" and worshiped the state. And just by coincidence, all three people Olasky named as being in the "Party of Zeus" happened to be Jews.
Now, Olasky claims that he didn't know they were Jews, but that's not very persuasive. One of the three is Bill Kristol, the well-known publisher of The Weekly Standard, frequent TV commentator, son of the neoconservative guru Irving Kristol, and someone Olasky must surely have known was Jewish. For Jews watching all this, Olasky's column was a nightmare come to life: Jews being attacked in the public square for having no faith, or the wrong faith--an attack made, no less, by a former Jew who had converted to evangelical Christianity. And this attack came at just the moment when Robertson, one of America's leading evangelicals, was assaulting a candidate many Jews found attractive--John McCain--and was supporting the candidate who said his favorite philosopher was Jesus Christ. What a mix!
The main problem here is not that the participants in this fray were injured but that evangelical-Jewish relations were injured. Jews, always nervous about where we fit into the evangelical vision of America, are more nervous still. Some evangelical friends have told me they wonder why Olasky is taken as their spokesman, or for that matter why Robertson is.
Similarly, an evangelical with a child at the College of William and Mary asked me how Bob Jones University came to characterize the evangelical view of education or social policy. Jews who have worked with Christian conservatives have conversely been appalled at the close-mindedness of Bob Jones U. (still a major evangelical institution, after all), the failure of evangelicals to see the dangers of Robertson's forays into politics, and the nasty attacks on Gary Bauer for the apparent crime of endorsing Sen. McCain.
For anyone who cares about the role of faith in our society, better understanding among Jews and evangelicals is important. For Jews, the sympathy and understanding of the millions of Americans who are born-again Christians is invaluable. The lesson of the past year should be, let's stop and take a breath before things spiral further downward.
Surely we must isolate these sensitive relationships from politics, where they will inevitably be bent to serve someone's short-term needs. It's now time for quiet, off-the-record meetings among key Jewish and evangelical leaders to discuss the events of the past year and prevent relations from being rubbed raw during this election year. Here is a case where religion and politics mix only if you're seeking to cause an explosion. If we want to avoid one, let's keep these volatile elements separate.