I can "believe what I believe without calling you a homophobic bigot, and you can do the same without calling me an uncaring baby-killer," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a convocation address Wednesday to about 9,000 students at Liberty University. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of the country's most influential and controversial evangelical leaders, founded the school, located in this city, more than three decades ago.I never thought I'd ever say this, but thank you Jerry Falwell.
Yoffie, who received a warm introduction from Falwell, was politely received when he cited several areas of common ground between religious liberals and conservatives. However, scattered hisses and boos reportedly could be heard when he defended gay rights. Falwell, who later told the crowd that "nobody ever booed me in a synagogue when I said things opposite to what they believed," drew the day's loudest applause when he mentioned his own 48th wedding anniversary.
In his remarks, which were made as part of a Wednesday morning prayer service that is mandatory for students and faculty, Yoffie outlined several areas of agreement between evangelicals and Jews, including support for Israel, a commitment to democratic principles, and concern over the perceived sexual licentiousness and materialism of American culture. He proposed that Christians and Jews work together to help push for a uniform rating system for television and to fight poverty at home and abroad.
Yoffie also acknowledged that the two communities have sharply contrasting positions on several hot-button issues, including abortion, civil rights for gays and lesbians, and the role of religion in public life.
"We hear calls, sometimes from evangelicals and sometimes from others, for prayer in the schools and lowering the wall of church-state separation," Yoffie said. "But let us beware of simple answers. As a Jew, I don't like it when other Jews find an antisemite under every bed; I don't believe that Judaism is seriously imperiled, and I don't think that Christianity is under siege, either."
After the talk, during a brief session with reporters, Falwell praised Yoffie's remarks and said that "we can disagree about everything and still find common ground somewhere."
However, far more interesting than Falwell's plea for basic respect for different viewpoints is the fact that these people are together at all-- as well as the possibility that liberal Jews and conservative Christians playing nice with one another might be something we see more of in the future.
Yoffie, the leader of a politically liberal religious movement that claims to represent 1.5 million Jews, would seem on many levels a strange choice for Liberty, especially given an address he delivered last November, harshly criticizing religious conservatives on several domestic fronts. But his appearance comes at a time of growing political uncertainty for the religious right. President Bush's approval rating has hit at a new low of 32%, according to a recent CNN poll, and several other influential Republican figures strongly associated with the religious right also have seen their political fortunes fall in recent months.
"There's a sort of convergence" of interests, said American Jewish Congress's general counsel, Marc Stern. AJCongress is an organization that fights in court for maintaining a stringent separation of church and state. "Evangelicals are coming off a period where for three or four years, they were in the catbird seat — they were calling all the shots in the administration — and that is clearly no longer the case. On the other hand, the Jewish community has come to realize — I think 25 years too late — that the evangelicals are not going away... and we can no longer brush them aside as a passing bad dream."