Jesus Day Flap

The dust-up over Jesus Day is turning into a firestorm. Thanks to the Internet, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush cannot shake continuing criticism for the role that his religious faith might play in his presidency.

Bush, the governor of Texas, signed a proclamation calling June 10, 2000, Jesus Day in Texas. The American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) said the proclamation violates the “spirit and intention of the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

Bush’s proclamation stated that “throughout the world, people of all religions recognize Jesus Christ as an example of love, compassion, sacrifice and service.”

Bush has previously been criticized for remarks he made stating that only Christians go to heaven and his naming Jesus as the political philosopher or thinker with whom he most identified. After the signing, Bush officials and some Jewish groups engaged in heated back and forth. The matter might have been dropped by all sides were it not for the Internet. A paragraph taken from news reports on Jesus Day has been flying from e-mail to e-mail. The paragraph relates only the fact that Bush signed a Jesus Day proclamation, but fails to bring up the pointed criticism of liberal Jewish groups, the Bush response, or the larger national context.

The principal problem with the Jesus Day proclamation, said AJCongress Executive Director Phil Baum, “is not that it acknowledges the important civic contributions of a particular faith, but that it assumes the profound regard in which the teachings and person of Jesus Christ are held by the Christian community are the norm for all the residents of the state of Texas.

“Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, members of other faith groups and nonbelievers, all of whom are entitled to equal respect, would have difficulty responding to the governor’s call to practice civic responsibility by ‘following Christ’s message’ on June 10,” said Baum.

AJCongress notes that while such proclamations have become “customary and routine” – saying that Congress and many states have, for instance, issued proclamations commemorating the life and teachings of the late Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Schneerson – “all such statements are offensive and erode the protection afforded minority beliefs” by the First Amendment.

A spokesperson for Bush’s office provided a number of examples of other recent Bush proclamations concerning religion.

They included proclamations honoring the 100th anniversary of the Baha’i faith in North America and the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Khalsa, “a community of Sikhs committed to defending and upholding their faith.”

Bush also has signed proclamations declaring Honor Israel Day and a week of Holocaust remembrance, and honoring the Austin Chabad House.

A Bush campaign spokesman said that while Bush is “sensitive” to AJCongress’ concerns, “he does not fully share them.”

“The governor recognizes the importance of the separation of church and state,” said Ari Fleischer. But he said “it is a long American tradition” and “an appropriate function for governors to issue proclamations honoring groups both religious and secular in nature for important events, adding, “It doesn’t mean the governor endorses those causes.”

AJCongress called the proclamation “a recent and egregious example” of the common practice by elected officials “to seek to accommodate the religious view of their constituents by issuing proclamations endorsing or commemorating the view or practices of various sectarian groups or denominations.”

Eric Fingerhut is a staff reporter for Washington Jewish Week.