Some time ago, there was an opening for a religion reporter-like person to work at something new on the Washington (DC) landscape: A John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. It is named after the former U.S. senator from Missouri who is also an Episcopal priest.
I didn’t know any of the folks who were hired at the center, but recently I stumbled across its site and hit upon some intellectually meaty think pieces. For example, there’s a piece on newly confirmed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos by someone who appears to understand Calvinism and why DeVos probably isn’t a Calvinist at all. There’s a piece on President Donald Trump and “militant evangelical masculinity” by a Calvin College professor.
But what really interested me was another piece; this one on “How an Orthodox Rabbi became an Unlikely Ally of the Christian Right.” It begins:
We are in a third world war,” said Shlomo Riskin, slamming his fist on the table. We were sitting in a windowless room in the D.C. convention center, and Riskin, an Orthodox rabbi, was explaining how he had ended up here, at the annual summit of Christians United For Israel, giving a speech to thousands of conservative evangelicals.
Riskin kept banging on the table. “If you have eyes to see, extremist Islam has taken over Islam. And this is the third world war!”
Riskin is one of the most influential rabbis of his generation. Now an Israeli, he was born and raised in Brooklyn. As a young man, Riskin voted for Democrats. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma. He officiated at a young Elena Kagan’s bat mitzvah and advocated for women’s rights. Over time, he developed a reputation as a religious progressive.
In the last decade, Riskin has quietly developed another project: outreach to Christians, and especially to conservative American evangelicals. His most important partnership is with John Hagee, a Texas megachurch pastor whose organization, Christians United For Israel (CUFI), claims a membership roll larger than that of AIPAC. Like AIPAC, CUFI advocates for policies that it sees as pro-Israel and organizes activists and donors across the country.
I remember Riskin’s controversial move to the West Bank in the early 1980s when he was leading the influential Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan. And I’ve been reporting on Hagee ever since my Houston Chronicle days. And I was covering CUFI long more most reporters even noticed it, such as when Hagee endorsed then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain; McCain repudiated the endorsement on the grounds that Hagee was anti-Semitic and a bunch of Jewish leaders sprang up to endorse the San Antonio pastor.
Hagee and CUFI now carry more heft than ever, which is why The Danforth Center’s Religion & Politics page has a large piece on Riskin.
Riskin is one of a rare breed of pragmatic Orthodox rabbis who do business with evangelical Protestants but he’s not the first. Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who lives near me in the Seattle area, came before him. Both rabbis –- and those like them -– have taken stock of American Christianity, figured out that evangelical Protestantism is where the future lies and learned how to align themselves with it. And it means everything that these evangelicals are fervently pro-Israel.
Meanwhile, CUFI is the new AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee known for lobbying for Israeli interests) and it’s the smart rabbi who goes where the influence is. Here’s how the piece describes one CUFI gathering:
THERE ARE MORE Christians in Texas than Jews on earth. But at CUFI’s annual summit, it is the Jews -- their tortured past, fraught present, and uncertain future -- that are the center of attention. Each summer, a few thousand CUFI members from around the country attend exhibits and hear speeches by American and Israeli leaders. They participate in a Night to Honor Israel that is part fundraising dinner, part revival. In the summit gift shop, they buy metal seder plates, elegant Shabbat candles carved from wood, and CUFI’s signature mezuzot—the small box-bound scrolls that Jews traditionally affix to the doorposts of their homes. A vial of “anointing oil for the royal priesthood” costs six dollars.
Now, I commented here on the fracas that happened last September when then-candidate Donald Trump got draped with a Jewish prayer shawl during service at a Pentecostal church. What people blasted as cultural appropriation back then is encouraged at CUFI gatherings.
The reporter in this Politics & Religion piece correctly summarizes the mixed feelings among Jews about all this philo-Semitism and how evangelicals aren’t basing their romantic pro-Israel convictions on relationships with actual Jews. What’s thrown Jews and Christians together in recent years is not so much shared brotherhood but a common enemy: radical forms of Islam.
It’s a very interesting piece, especially when it points out the difficulties of trying to interview Hagee plus how Christians affiliated with Riskin and rabbis like him have toned down their convert-the-Jews rhetoric. I wish the reporter had interviewed a Messianic Jewish group for their take on this. In the past, Jews for Jesus has looked quite askance at Hagee’s group and those like it for wimping out when it comes to telling Jews of the messiahship of Jesus.
Also, I would have liked to have heard from a more liberal Jewish organization if it thinks Riskin’s alliance with CUFI is a savvy alliance or a pact with the devil. Reporters are always told to follow the money and John Hagee Ministries, the article points out, has contributed generously to Riskin’s Orthodox movement.
It would be interesting to know what would happen to that alliance should that money dry up or when Hagee, now 76, either retires or dies. However, Riskin is the same age.
Are there younger rabbis and pastors willing to keep up this mutually beneficial relationship?
Journalists looking for news: That could be the next story that needs to be done.