The Faith Wars Heat Up

It’s nothing less than a revolution; in states across the country, an empowered Christian right is changing laws, rewriting textbooks, transforming the judiciary and even redefining science.

The nation’s culture wars have taken another leap in intensity. Since the 2004 elections, empowered religious conservatives have become more organized, more energized and — critics say — more extreme. They want action on their key issues, and heaven help politicians who defy them.

And the Jewish community, with a lot at stake, has been restrained in response. The growing entanglement of religious conservatism and partisan politics scares Jewish groups worried about keeping their tax-exempt status; so does the threat of losing new supporters of Israel and access to the political high and mighty.

But Jewish voters aren’t so ambivalent, which is why the long-predicted Jewish partisan realignment remains fiction, not fact.

Last week the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), a partisan group, issued a joyously indignant press release pointing out several recent examples of religious-right extremism and how they could impact a Jewish community that still believes in church-state separation and the rights of religious minorities.

In North Carolina, a Baptist pastor expelled church members who didn’t support Republican candidates. The pastor reportedly endorsed President Bush from the pulpit and demanded that congregants who planned to vote for his opponent should “repent or resign.”

In Colorado, Jewish and other nonevangelical students at the Air Force Academy have reportedly faced strong pressure to convert and overt religious discrimination.

This week there were reports that Kansas, on the front lines of anti-evolution efforts, is now considering redefining science to downplay observation and research and give more credence to religious belief — something that could result in the teaching of biblical explanations in science classes.

These and other controversies come on the heels of the Terri Schiavo affair, in which judges were branded anti-Christian and supporters of Schiavo’s husband were accused of warring against “people of faith.”

Their goals may be more extreme, but Christian conservatives have adopted more pragmatic political strategies, and the results are clear: Issues that once appealed only to a small fringe now dominate American politics.

The debate over teaching evolution in the schools is an old one, but it’s been repackaged, this time as a pseudo-scientific argument for “intelligent design.”

No longer do preachers go to court and argue against evolution in school textbooks because it’s not in the Bible; now, it’s scientists and Christian think tanks that offer “evidence” they say proves that creation should be given equal weight to evolution in the classroom.

Jewish groups are braced for a new push by the religious right on school prayer, which has been relatively dormant in recent years. But now the debate is couched in terms of protecting the religious liberty of all, even though in practice, public school prayer clearly discriminates against minority faiths.

The religious right has recognized that the future of its domestic agenda depends on sweeping changes in the federal judiciary, which is why groups on both sides have made the current fight over Bush’s nominations to the federal bench — widely seen as the warm-up for impending Supreme Court nomination battles — their top priority.

All of that has put Jewish groups in a difficult position.

The Christian conservative cause and partisan politics have become tightly bound together; more and more, Jewish groups that value their nonprofit status are reluctant to criticize Christian right positions out of fear of being accused of attacking the Republican Party.

In an era when megachurches and Christian advocacy groups look a lot like arms of the GOP, finding ways to legally criticize their positions is getting harder for Jewish nonprofit groups.

There is also the impact of an increasingly influential Orthodox Jewish community that agrees with the Christian conservatives on many hot domestic issues, starting with public funding for religious institutions.

Orthodox groups have not changed the relatively liberal views of the majority of Jews, but in some cases they have been effective in blunting the efforts of umbrella groups like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in fighting the sectarian surge.

Jews, themselves victims of religious discrimination, are reluctant to speak too harshly about another faith group, especially one that continues to define itself as a suffering minority even as it dominates the nation’s politics.

And a lot of the dilemma has to do with Israel.

Some pro-Israel leaders worry about antagonizing the conservative Christian groups that have become Israel’s new best friends by fighting too hard against their top domestic priorities. The Jewish state has few enough friends, they say; Israel should trump domestic issues in this time of crisis for Israel.

But a clear majority of American Jews disagree — which, many analysts say, is why Bush garnered only 22 percent of the Jewish vote despite an impressive record of support for the Jewish state.

Friends of the Christian right say it’s all about Israel, but most Jewish voters continue to say the domestic battles that will more directly affect their daily lives — battles that are reaching new levels of intensity — are even more important.