A new effort to mobilize American Christians in support of Israel and to form Christian Zionist pressure groups in each of the 435 congressional districts got off the ground here recently at an unusually diverse gathering of Christian groups.
The representatives of more than a score of Christian organizations were able to gloss over momentarily their deep ideological differences and concentrate on more practical issues such as their ultimately unsuccessful effort to defeat the sale of American AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia. Participants ranged from representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches to fundamentalist TV evangelists.
A unanimous statement pledged renewed Christian efforts "to work for the security and well-being of Israel and for the strengthening of ties between Jews and Christians." It also called on the U.S. government to "take steps to strengthen Israel's position, not to weaken it."
The statement condemned anti-Semitism and "reckless statements that cast aspersions on the Jewish people."
The meeting was organized by the New York-based National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, an umbrella organization that seeks to bring together Christian groups that support Israel.
The meeting was the latest effort in a continuing tug-of-war between pro-Zionist forces and pro-Arabs to capture the sympathies and support of American Christians on the Middle East issue. But the 30 groups that now are included in the organization, according to the Rev. Isaac Rottenberg, director of the conference, have widely divergent reasons for their allegiance to Israel and even more conflicting views on how Christians should relate to Jews.
Fundamentalist Christians interpret Israel's resurgence as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies, a prerequisite to the second coming of Christ. They also believe the New Testament commands them to work to convert Jews to Christianity.
Mainline Christians in the coalition reject this interpretation of the Bible. They support the existence of Israel as a homeland for the Jews after their centuries of persecution, much of it, as the Rev. Robert Drinan outlined to the gathering here, at the hands of Christians. Such Christians view Judaism as a religion on a par with Christianity and reject efforts to convert Jews.
A number of attempts in the past to bring the two strains of Christian thought together for any long-term activity in behalf of Israel have failed.
One local pastor who has been a longtime activist on behalf of Jewish causes refused to participate in the conference because of the ideological differences. "Neither my intellect nor my heart, let alone my conscience, will permit me to affirm or echo the fundamentalist interpretations that see current Israel as a mere proof text" for the imminence of Christ's return, the Rev. John Steinbruck of Luther Place Memorial Church wrote Rottenberg.
In evaluating the conference, Rottenberg acknowledged that the theological diversity is "a basic issue." But he added, "When it comes to Israel, we ought to be able to form a coalition that doesn't get dragged into all sorts of theological and social issues."
Last Monday, a group called Christians United for American Security placed a full-page ad in The Washington Post, calling the proposed arms package for Saudi Arabia "a grave danger to our century." The 29 men and women who signed the ad included TV evangelist Jerry Falwell, several Episcopal and United Methodist bishops and the nun-president of the Roman Catholic Manhattanville College.
Gideon Shomron, the Israeli Embassy's minister counselor with responsibility for relations with U.S. and Canadian Christian groups, said his government views organizations such as the NCLCI "with favor. They definitely help our efforts in the United States," he said. "We wish there were more of them."
Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, interreligious affairs director for the American Jewish Committee and an outspoken critic of efforts to evangelize Jews, also welcomed the support for Israel by Christian Zionist groups. Years of efforts by the Third World and the Communist bloc in the United Nations to isolate Israel have produced such "a sense of desperation among Jews," he said, that Jews are grateful for support wherever it comes from.
"If you are drowning, and someone throws you a life preserver, you grab it and worry later about who manufactured the life preserver," he said.
The American Jewish Congress has expressed a different view. A statement adopted by the board of the Jewish human relations organization last week sharply criticized the evangelical right for using religion "to intimidate and suppress differences" on domestic issues, while trying to blunt Jewish criticism by offering support for Israel.
"The damage done by their efforts to curtail domestic freedom is not made less by their views on Israel," the statement said. "We deplore their willingness to wield religious commitment as an instrument of political coercion, their use of fundamentalist piety as the principal measure of political competence, their readiness to invoke Divine authority -- and thus trivialize Divine sanction -- for every minute, ephemeral political issue which they find of current interest," the statement said.
Two of the best known figures from the evangelical right, TV evangelists Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson, helped underwrite the expenses of the Christian Zionist conference here.