Organizations of the New Right, whether secular or religious, constitute a continuing threat to the American political process and the American political process and the Jewish community, leaders of the American Jewish Committee told delegates to the organization's 75th annual meeting here.
Efforts by some in the New Right to make Christian beliefs the law of the land and to turn this country into a Christian republic endanger constitutional guarantees of separation of church and state, said Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, director of interreligous affairs for the committee. Jews and other non-Christians traditionally have feared that such a development would bring about restrictions on their religious freedom.
Tanenbaum, who was among a series of speakers addressing a session on "The New Right and the Moral Majority" at last week's meeting of the committee, also pointed to "a meanness" developing in political debate that he said results from the New Right's bringing to the political arena its "apocalyptic rhetoric -- everything becomes a conflict between the children of light and the children of darkness.
"You not only defeat the devil, you drive Satan from the scene, and in the process you defeat civility."
Robert Jacobs, a Chicago attorney who is a member of the committee's board of directors, condemned "the extremism" in the political process," he said.
"They play political hard ball; they raise welts. . . . They are angry; they are seeking power, for what purpose and to what end is yet to be answered," was the way Milton Ellerin, director of the committee's trends analyses division, characterized the New Right.
"We are not dealing with a passing phase or a media event which will disappear when the media turns its attention away from it," Tanenbaum said.
"One of the reasons for the success of [the Rev. Jerry] Falwell and the Moral Majority is that they address themselves to a real problem, namely the moral malaise of the American people, and we discount that to our peril."
"It really has been the failure of liberals" and their preoccupation with social questions in recent decades "who have allowed that vacuum to be created, and they [Moral Majority] filled it," he said.
Both Tanenbaum and Ellerin warned against oversimplified generalizations about the New Right. Ellerin said there are at least 30 secular organizations that fall into the New Right catagory and more than a dozen religious ones. Although there is to some extent an "interlocking directorate" and the leaders of the New Right "meet regularly here in Washington to exchange information on strategy and tactics," Ellerin said, the New Right "is not a monolith and you can't make sweeping charges against the entire movement on the basis of one part of it."
Tanenbaum noted that the emergence of the religious New Right coincided with "the entry of the 40 or 50 million evangelical Christians into the mainstream of American political . . . social and cultural life." But he emphasized that Moral Majority and other New Right religious groups do not represent the "mainstream" of the evangelical Protestant movement.
Tanenbaum warned that for Jews to assume that Falwell is typical of the whole evangelical community "is to confuse the issue" and to "alienate" the heart of the evangelical movement, which, he said, has throughout the nation's history supported religious liberty freedom of conscience and seperation of church and state.
Speakers agreed that the most specific threat to the Jewish community from the New Right is the effort in some quarters to establish this country as a Christian republic. "There is a danger . . . that they may succeed in legitimating and legalizing the notion that the Constitution and the political process may be used to institutionalize Christianity" in the nation, said Sheila Suess Kennedy, an Indianapolis attorney who also is a committee board member.
But there was a difference of opinion as to how such organizations as the American Jewish Committee should deal with the New Right. On the one hand was Kennedy's counsel. "We need to identify the Jewish issues and leave the other fights to the others," she said. "We need to define where Jewish self-interest lies and follow up on that."
There seemed to be more support, however, for the approach recommended by Jacobs, who advocated that Jews form a "coalition with moderate and mainline evangelicals, other Protestants and Catholics for our priority: strengthening the vital centers" of democracy in the nation.
But Jacobs was critical of the frontal attack strategy used last winter by Rabbi Alexander Schindler, national leader of Reform Judaism, when he accused Falwell and the Moral Majority of anti-Semitic learnings.
"This confrontational style makes us feel good for the moment but it does not help in the long run," he said. "We should answer them but not in a way that backs the New Right into the corner and makes martyrs of them."
He called for "quiet dialogues . . . quiet efforts to dismantle, to disarm the New Right, to bring them back into the fold. That may be the most valuable contribution the American Jewish Comittee can make."
Ellerin was careful to distinguish between the New Right and ultra-right-wing groups. "They are not paranoid Birchers . . . not the anti-Semites of the Liberty Lobby," he said. "From a particular point of view the secular New Right has gone out of the way to be respectable . . . to keep the hate group at arm's length."