(photo credit: )
More than a quarter-century ago, Ronald Reagan bestowed his surname on the blue-collar voters who broke partisan lines and family heritage to join his presidential landslide. The so-called Reagan Democrats, a term first applied to auto workers in the Detroit suburbs of Macomb County, have vexed their ancestral party ever since.
As the GOP has captured the White House for five of the last seven elections, as it has controlled both houses of Congress for much of that time, liberals have asked in exasperation why so many working-class Americans vote against their economic interests, supporting the party that busts unions and lavishes tax breaks on plutocrats.
The answer, as expressed by such astute political journalists as Thomas Frank and Tom Edsall and grasped also by the Democratic Party's national chairman, Howard Dean, is that values matter. To the contrary of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, money or its lack does not drive every human decision. Reagan Democrats evolved into Gingrich and finally Bush Democrats, because they viewed the liberal party as indifferent, if not antagonistic, toward their deeply held beliefs in patriotism, piety and personal responsibility.
Well, as the Republicans are going to find out yet again on November 7, the day of a fiercely contested election for control of Congress, the values factor cuts both ways. In its repeated exercise in futility, the GOP has been courting Jewish voters, trying to portray Bush as the steadfast supporter or Israel and the Democrats as the incipient betrayer. In a steady stream of advertisements, the Republicans have trotted out every controversial statement or stand by Jimmy Carter, Cindy Sheehan, John Conyers, John Dingell and any other Democrat whose criticism of Israel can be trotted out to besmirch the whole party.
Expect the gambit to fail. And expect it to fail because Jews will vote their values, values that have them demonstrably more fearful of the Republican alliance with the Religious Right than of some Democratic sell-out of Israel. The differences between the mainstreams of the two major parties on Israel policy are marginal at best - to the consternation of conspiracy theorists like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and their Jewish apologists such as Tony Judt - but the differences between them on the influence of evangelical Christians are vast.
Personally, I happen to agree with progressive evangelicals such as Jim Wallis, politicians like Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and even the left-wing Rabbi Michael Lerner that Democrats need to embrace the compassionate, egalitarian aspects of religion instead of treating it like kryptonite.
But finding room for the social-justice teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel or Dorothy Day is a long way from relying on religious activists as the backbone of the party and advocating the erosion, if not the eradication, of the separation of church and state.
THE SUCCESS story of Jews in America is inextricably bound up with the decision of the Founding Fathers not to establish a state religion. In Christian Europe, where regimes were formally tied to the Catholic or Protestant denominations, Jews had been reviled, exiled and murdered for merely existing. Jews in America did not want or need a national policy of atheism, as some of today's anti-religious zealots seem to think, but they were able to find a tolerant foothold and ultimately a profound acceptance in a country that had no formal, doctrinal basis for coercion or even persecution.
It is all well and good for evangelical Christians, Republican leaders and some Orthodox and hassidic Jews to tout the Religious Right's fervent support for Israel and a shared social conservatism grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Christian Zionism, though, has already proven itself a resolutely mixed blessing, given its opposition to any territorial compromise, culminating in the Rev. Pat Robertson's declaration last year that God punished Ariel Sharon with a stroke for disengaging from Gaza.
As for the purportedly common ground between Jews and Christians on American domestic issues, it is narrow indeed. Research by a variety of scholars and pollsters - Ken Wald of the University of Florida, Eric Uslaner and Mark Lichbach of the University of Maryland, the survey released just last week by the American Jewish Committee - shows a chasm between American Jews and evangelical Christians on issues ranging from the Iraq war to legal abortion to gay rights.
More than identifying the schism on any specific topic, the research describes a visceral distrust, bordering on antipathy, for Evangelical Christians on the part of American Jews. For myself, I find this attitude to be exaggerated, or at least more suited to the past than the present, and yet it is an undeniable political reality. It is the kind of passionate reflex that a political consultant of my acquaintance, who happens to be a Republican, refers to as an "emotional trigger." And in any campaign, he says, you need to find your side's emotional trigger to get people out the door to vote.
As Profs. Uslaner and Lichbach show in their paper, "The Two-Front War: Jews, Identity, Liberalism and Voting," even the majority of those Jews who are conservative on issues display a generalized disdain for the Christian Right. Only 25 percent of Orthodox Jews in their survey express a favorable view of evangelicals.
The major reason, I would argue, is the fear of an official Christianization of American public life and public policy. It is one thing for right-wing American Zionists to enjoy the alliance with evangelicals on Greater Israel. It is one thing for Orthodox Jews to appreciate the solidarity of evangelicals in the campaign to enact taxpayer-funded vouchers for parochial school tuition. It is something altogether different for a population constituting about 2 percent of the American whole to want the country to operate on the premise of "What Would Jesus Do?," as the popular evangelical slogan has it.
"The crucial idea here," says Prof. Wald, an expert in American Jewish political behavior, "is that Jews have prospered in the US precisely because of the liberal state. The liberal state, a state that doesn't take religion into account in granting citizenship or political rights. Although they don't know it, many American Jews actually worship at the altar of Article IV, Section 3" [of the Constitution] - the provision that strikes down religious tests for public office.
"Anything that increases the public role of religion," he continues, "is going to advance a religion that is not Judaism and thus threatens in a fundamental way Jewish membership in the American community."
So it was no wonder that even in 2004, before the Iraq invasion had turned irreparably sour, before the Middle East's upheaval had made Israel less secure, that only 20 percent of American Jews voted for Bush against John Kerry. The Republican Party may make the elephant its symbol. But then as now, deservedly or not, the prominence of the Christian Right in the Republican Party is, for American Jews, the elephant in the room, the inconvenient, unacknowledged, yet incontestable reality.
The writer, a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of six books.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>