August 15, 2000

Bound by Belief

RIVERSIDE, Ill. -- Not all evangelical Protestants take their political signals from the organized religious right, but the majority do vote Republican. The entry of Senator Joseph Lieberman into Campaign 2000 won't change that, but it has brought to light some surprising interplays between orthodox Jews and evangelicals. And it has made Jews, who altogether make up only 2 percent of the population, and evangelicals, who approach 25 percent, the two most visible groups on the scene of religion and politics.

It still surprises some people when evangelicals and observant Jews occasionally team up or smile at each other. Old stereotypes lump conservative Protestants into a single camp in which Jews are seen as Christ-deniers. So when evangelicals speak well of Mr. Lieberman as an observer of the sabbath and exponent of family values, one wonders: How deep can the cultural bonds of sympathy and common purpose go?

Often these developing sympathies belong to the same "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" school that causes many evangelicals who once called the pope the antichrist to celebrate John Paul II as an ally in the anti-abortion cause. There is also the "at least they believe in something" syndrome. The orthodox and the evangelicals are both at war against wishy-washy relativism. Evangelicals, who used to make much of Sunday a day of rest, are awed when Mr. Lieberman reminds the country that real believers are willing to inconvenience themselves by keeping the sabbath.

And there are deeper bonds. The evangelical movement includes on its right premillennialists who believe that biblical prophesies say there must be a nation of Israel, whose boundaries match those from the time of Christ, before Jesus will return to earth. Knowing about premillennialism helps the public understand why fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell have received awards from Israel, and why they are so anti-Palestinian.

Also clustered under the single name evangelicals (think followers of Billy Graham when you hear that word) are pentecostals, "Holy Spirit-moved" believers who also see themselves as friends of Jews, and especially the orthodox. Pat Robertson is a pentecostalist. Finally, there are Southern Baptists, the biggest Protestant group. They alienate Jews when their leaders aver that God does not hear Jews' prayers or when they target Jews for conversion. But among them, too, are many who admire the values of modern orthodox Judaism as embodied in Mr. Lieberman.

Like evangelicals, orthodox Jews are not all hard-line. The modern orthodoxy with which Mr. Lieberman identifies himself is on the moderate side; moreover, he reads it as permitting abortion in certain circumstances. His commitment to help keep abortion legal angers those conservative Protestants who think orthodoxy must mean anti-abortion.

Yet most evangelicals see Mr. Lieberman's selection as enlarging the space for themselves in American culture. He is celebrated for being different from mainstream culture while they have been criticized for it. They mention God in public and draw sneers; he does, and is admired. Will the acceptance of his views lead to greater acceptance of theirs?

For one reason, a double standard may remain. Nonevangelical Americans do not fear that orthodox Jews will try to convert them, or impose their beliefs on the nation. But many people do see a threat in the efforts by evangelical Christians like Pat Robertson to change laws to conform to their beliefs and in effect produce a uniformly Christian America.

The Lieberman candidacy has done evangelicals and others a favor by forcing new debates over religion in politics. There are dangers ahead, dangers of the use and misuse of religion. The founders of the nation, all of them religious, gave plenty of signals that when it comes to faith and politics, the watchwords are handle with care. But handle this combination Americans must and will, and with new forces, Mr. Lieberman and modern orthodoxy, added to the mix.

Martin E. Marty, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, is author of "Politics, Religion and the Common Good."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company