Religious freedom, family values, fiscal policy and Israel were the primary drivers of discussion as faith activists and Republican politicians gathered in Washington last weekend for the Road to Majority 2014 conference put on by the conservative Faith & Freedom Coalition. Despite the group’s reputation as mostly evangelical, Jewish speakers, pundits and issues were prominent on the agenda, as was quoting from the Hebrew Bible, an apparent nod to the broad range of inclusion that the group considers its goal.
Held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel from Thursday morning to Saturday night, the conference dished out the bread-and-butter fare of conservative politics, with speakers denouncing President Barack Obama’s foreign and domestic politics, as well as expanding on such staples as abortion, fiscal responsibility and religious freedom. On the foreign affairs front, an active U.S. role in the Middle East and support of Israel as a strong regional ally were popular themes.
Sounding more like an evangelical preacher than the Orthodox rabbi that he is, author and commentator Aryeh Spero kicked off the conference by delivering a fiery invocation answered by shouts of “Amen” from the several hundred people in attendance.
“And David said to the Philistines: Thou cometh to me with a sword and a spear but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, Lord of this holy nation you dare to mock and dismiss,” said Spero. “So my friends, we ask, who are these judges, these bureaucrats, these hedonists of Hollywood, that they should come and taunt America and defy the living God upon whose word this Judeo-Christian nation was founded?
“The brazen and the prideful have stood over us to transform this country by first transforming our language by redefining our historic and biblical understanding of marriage; of life in the womb and outside the womb; our view of freedom of conscience; and especially our right to freedom of religion as opposed to only freedom of worship,” he continued.
This was followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, recited by Sammy, Ezra and Dara Berger—the children of Orthodox Jewish Republican activist, donor and obstetrician Alan Berger of Englewood, N.J.—the boys wearing their kippot on stage.
Other Jewish speakers on the program included Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians; nationally syndicated talk radio host Michael Medved and his wife Dianne, a clinical psychologist and best-selling author; and conservative Jewish comedian Evan Sayet.
“While clearly the overwhelming majority of members of the organization are evangelicals, I believe the values that we’re advocating as a matter of public policy are based on the Bible and natural law and based on biblical principles of the importance of family, of hard work, of individual self-initiative,” Ralph Reed, the organization’s chairman and former executive director of the Christian Coalition, told Washington Jewish Week, adding that all of the coalition’s policy positions are based on Mosaic law.
“I think there’s tremendous continuity between the Old Testament and New Testament on the values that we advocate and while many of our members hold to Christian faith, you’re not required to hold to that faith,” continued Reed. “We have an open membership policy. We’re open to people of all faiths or no faith at all and particularly on issues relating to the security of Israel as the Jewish state.”
Reed estimates that in previous years, between 5 and 10 percent of the conference attendees were Jewish.
According to development director Orit Sklar, the conference did add more specifically Christian geared programing to cater to its core audience, such as a Christian music performance.
“The important thing to us is to make sure that we bring together people who understand the importance of Judeo-Christian values in our society, and that we have programing for both communities,” said Sklar. “We very much have an outreach effort and an interest in growing the membership of our organization within the Jewish community. It goes with the understanding that people of faith were crucial in the founding of this country, and they need to have a voice in government today.”
Public perception of the organization has focused on its evangelism, which according to Sayet, may keep some Jews away for the wrong reasons.
“A lot of Jews wrongly feel safer allied with a party that has no faith over a party that has the Christian faith, and they’re wrong. Because those with no faith hate Judaism as much as they hate Christianity,” Sayet, a nonpracticing Jew, said. “They hate the notion of faith. The people of faith are closer to each other than Jews are to the seculars.”
Of course the big draw of the conference were top tier politicians, many with their sights set on winning the GOP’s nomination for president in the 2016 election. These included Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, TV host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
Christie criticized the Obama administration for its lack of leadership in the world, telling attendees that leadership includes clearly making sure that friends and adversaries know who they are around the world.
“And we are seeing now all across this world that this administration’s pulling back of American influence and American ideas around the world is having catastrophic effects in every corner of the globe,” Christie said. “That’s not anything more than the failure of the American leader to speak clearly, profoundly and inspirationally about what America’s role is, whether it’s drawing a red line in Syria and then not enforcing it; hurting America’s credibility and allowing the Russian leader to fill the vacuum of leadership in a way that will not be good for the world; and then watching how that movement moves from Syria, our lack of engagement, to now causing the issues their causing in Iraq.”
Though Christie has drawn criticism for describing the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria as “occupied territories” at a Republican Jewish Coalition summit in Las Vegas earlier this year, and not mentioning Israel months later at the Champions of Jewish Values Gala hosted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, he praised the Jewish state this time around, and to thunderous applause.
“Worst of all, you have sitting in the midst of this, the beacon of hope, and democracy and respect for human rights in that section of the world – the state of Israel – who now feels at risk because they are no longer convinced that America is their unwavering friend because of the actions of this administration,” he said. “That’s wrong. Israel is our friend. We need to stand up for it and fight for it.”
Almost all of the biblical passages evoked by the speakers came from the Hebrew Bible. Spero told WJW that he considers this to be a historic shift.
“When I was younger, as a kid, Christians generally were all New Testament oriented. Some of the Catholic community had actually rejected the Old Testament and among Protestants, they accepted it but it wasn’t their bread and butter,” he said. “But you’re seeing a tremendous shift here historically into emphasis on the Old Testament, which is wonderful. That’s another reason why they’re very supportive of Israel.”
More rhetorical fireworks came later that day, as the attendees filled a meeting room in the basement of the U.S. Capitol to be addressed by Republican lawmakers. In his remarks to the group, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas invoked the Holocaust, telling attendees that “modern day gas chambers are being constructed as you sit here, stand here, as I talk to you, they’re being constructed. And they’re being constructed by people that say, ‘We’re going to wipe out Israel and we’re going to wipe out the United States’ and they’re building what they need to do that.”
When pressed for clarification, Gohmert said that he was referring to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“The Iranian leaders have made clear they want to wipe the ‘little Satan,’ Israel, off the map and they’ve made clear they consider the United States the ‘great Satan,’ and we need to go, too,” he explained.
Departing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who lost to a tea party challenger in his state’s Republican primary earlier this month, canceled his appearance due to “scheduling issues,” although attendees suspected that he didn’t want to deflect attention from the newly elected majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, who was scheduled to speak the following day.
[email protected] @dmitriyshapiro
JNS.org contributed to this story.