At the end of his presentation last week in a panel titled "Christian America?" Rev. Richard Cizik, an Evangelical lobbyist in Washington, was confronted with an unexpected question: Does he believe Jews go to heaven?
Caught off guard, Cizik, who is vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, said his practice was to "do my best to avoid answering that question because it leads us to a place where we don't necessarily need to go."
The question prompted by the 2002 declaration of James Sibley, head of the Southern Baptists' Mission to the Jews, implying that Jews can only reach heaven through Jesus may have seemed awkward and the answer evasive, but both were in the spirit of the two-day conference on Jews and Evangelicals that took place last week at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Participants said it was important to outline issues on which they could not agree in an effort to define the boundaries of their relationship.
Set against the backdrop of recent negative pronouncements by national Jewish leaders about what they term the dangers of Evangelical groups who support Israel while seeking to convert Jews, the forum, titled "Uneasy Allies," analyzed the growing ties between the two groups and took aim at mutually held stereotypes.
"The goal was not advocacy of deepened relations between Evangelicals and Jews, but to provide for studying the relationship the way it is," said Alan Mittleman, director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies at JTS, which was one of the program co-sponsors. "We tried to be very balanced between people who do want to enhance the relationship and people who are very skeptical and wary of it."
Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Judaic scholar at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, who participated in a forum on Evangelicals and Israel, said afterward that he believed interfaith dialogue "is not about accepting that we have irreconcilable differences, but it begins with mutual sacred rejection. That rejection should be done respectfully and warmly but each party rejects the core elements of the faith of the other. That is the beauty of America, that we disagree and our streets don't turn into Bosnia."
The program included sessions on whether the United States is a Christian country, on Christian support for Israel and on Jews and Evangelicals in public life. But some of the most provocative discussion took place in between the lectures.
One Evangelical leader declared that "There are millions of Evangelicals who are quite embarrassed by Pat Robertson." And another participant noted the irony of concern by Jews about proselytizing at a time when their largest denomination, Reform, recently endorsed a greater embrace of converting Christians. Several Evangelical Christians struggled to accept Rabbi Poupko's pronouncement that the teaching of biblical prophets as understood by Jews applied only to the circumstances at the time and do not necessarily tell us anything about contemporary life.
In the initial session, two demographers presented survey data that illustrated how wide a gulf exists between the two communities, although perceptions of each other have improved. The University of Akron political scientist John Green compared statistics from 1996 to the present and found that a better mutual understanding of both groups had emerged as a result of growing exposure of Evangelicals to mainstream American society and better education.
Barry Kosmin of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., found in his survey that 97 percent of Evangelicals agreed with the statement "G-d helps me," as opposed to just 34 percent of Jews and 71 percent of adults in general. Economically, the two groups were not found to be dissimilar; 73 percent of Jews and 75 percent of Evangelicals said they owned their own homes and 58 percent of Jews and 49 percent of Evangelicals were college graduates.
A majority of Jews, 56 percent, said they were Democrats while a majority of Evangelicals, 58 percent, identified as Republicans. "Clearly, Jews are literally and figuratively blue-state Americans while Evangelicals are red-state," said Kosmin. "The source of the gap lies in political and social reasons more than economics." Geographically, 47 percent of Evangelicals and 60 percent of Jews said they lived in suburbs.
In his comments, Jack Wertheimer, provost of JTS, noted that "the great asymmetry of these two different communities is at the heart of what this conference is all about. The Evangelical population is surging while the Jewish community is in decline. The Jewish community does not define itself as necessarily religious. As a result of those differences in self-definition, these two communities approach points of public policy that are defining issues and concerns in very different ways." For example, he said, while Evangelicals see opposition to same-sex marriage as a religious imperative, Jews, as a minority, are more likely to see the prohibition of such unions as undermining minority rights.
But speaking to what he called the "commonality" of both groups, Wertheimer said, "Some of the agenda of both of these groups is motivated by fear and anxiety about where the country is going. On the Evangelical side the fear is over the extent of moral decay in society and the radicalization of public opinion. On the Jewish side, there is a fear of a drift that will prove inimical to Jews."
Addressing the recent assertions by Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman and Reform movement leader Eric Yoffie that the Christian right was out to destroy the wall between church and state, Lawrence Grossman of the American Jewish Committee noted that concern about Evangelical Christians is a relatively new item on the Jewish agenda.
"Fifty years ago it didn't exist," he said. "All of this changed in 1967, a watershed year for American Jews." Israel's victory in the Six-Day War sparked a new level of support among Protestant Christians, he said.
In subsequent years, pronouncements of faith from prominent Christians in public life like Jimmy Carter and controversial statements from preachers like Bailey Smith, who proclaimed in 1980 that doesn't hear the prayer of a Jew, have made Jews defensive and uneasy, Grossman said, while worried about their own continuity.
There was also discussion of the growing sense of connection between Evangelicals and Israel. George W. Mamo, executive director of Stand for Israel, an advocacy institute of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said he sees Christians keeping older cars or smaller apartments in order to have money to donate to pro-Israel causes, like resettling Soviet Jews. "I've raised over $3 million, $75 at a time," said Mamo. "They see Israel's opponents as thugs and dictators and self-appointed kings." But he said he still confronts the stereotype among Jews that "we only have one motivation to steal your children. That we have to get a certain number of Jews to Israel and then, boom, Jesus will come back."
Mamo, who has twice spoken at national meetings of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said he wanted Jews to know that "some of your suspicions are well founded. The sages rightly say suspect the stranger in your midst. But the non-strangers among us want you to know we are not all Elmer Gantrys, and most of us have never owned a white suit."