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The Jewish Jihad for Jesus

Writing in Time a few months ago, Andrew Sullivan coined the term “Christianism” to describe the archconservative evangelical wing of the Republican Party. Sullivan distinguished Christianists, who traffic in a malign fusion of scripture and public policy, from Christians, who follow the teachings of the Gospels but respect the separation of church and state. As the non-violent ideological twin of Islamism, Christianism has been endlessly dissected in polemical new books, like Sullivan's own The Conservative Soul and David Kuo's Tempting Faith. Yet one aspect of Christianism continues to elude discussion: the prominence of converted Jews in its upper ranks.

Some, like Marvin Olasky, are converts to the cross; others, such as White House advisor Michael Horowitz, still go to temple but are so closely affiliated with right-wing evangelical causes that they qualify as fellow travelers. Should we be shocked that some of today’s born-again power brokers were originally born Jewish? Not at all.

The reason why these Jews have found Jesus can actually be traced back to the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, which encouraged the tribe to abandon the shtetl and participate in the wider, secular world. The seminal Jewish experience of the past two centuries has been a flight from the physical and psychic ghetto. Modern Jews have sampled everything from assimilation and out-marriage to offshoot religious and political movements that awkwardly seek to reconcile traditional beliefs and rationalist values. For those who have stayed with the tribe yet avoided the return to insular orthodoxy, post-Haskalah Judaism offers a religion sapped of its messianic fervor.

Jews have spent the modern era desperately trying to recover that fervor with a variety of substitute causes, but today, most are of these obsolete: Communism and socialism fell to the losing side of history; the counterculture and the New Left evaporated with the sixties; civil rights are legally assured from coast to coast; Zionism burned up most of its momentum by having its one aim realized. Christianism is, paradoxically, one of the only contemporary movements to offer Jews the chance for a revolutionary struggle.

Both Christians and Jewish converts find in Christianism a life-orienting dogma bound to collective action; a way to re-envision the world in teleological terms and upend the status quo. Just as the 19th century Great Awakenings were inextricable from abolitionism, suffrage and prison reform, Christianists in the 21st engage in foreign missionary work, federal lobbying, homeschooling, “Left Behind” apocalypse filmmaking, anti-abortion rallying, mega-church construction, and regular intercessions into public education (evolution, school prayer) and healthcare (Terri Schiavo, stem cell research).

Agency is the term a communist would have used to describe such methods of putting a totalist doctrine into daily practice. Who better, then, than an ex-Red like Marvin Olasky to lead the Christianist pack? Olasky is the editor-in-chief of World magazine, the most widely read evangelical weekly in America. Twenty years before he invented the phrase “compassionate conservatism,” he was a member of the Communist Party and a Jewish atheist. Olasky says he converted to Protestant fundamentalism after reading the New Testament in Russian, a language he learned in order to better communicate with his “Soviet big brothers.” Whereas he once believed that political struggle would culminate in a classless society, he now believes that it will culminate in a sinless one. Like other former leftists, Olasky has swapped the “God that failed” for the one that polls better.

Other forms of radicalism besides communism have served as Hebraic gangplanks to Christianism. Robert Schenck is a paradigmatic example of those who’ve made the transition from Jewish burnout to born-again. Schenck grew up in the 1970s in Grand Island, New York, as a hippie teenager who enjoyed free love and pot, hated the Vietnam War, and started a “Stop Pollution” campaign. When he attended a local church with a bohemian congregation, Schenck had his moment of revelation. He was soon eschewing peace rallies for anti-abortion sit-ins.

Schenck later became an ordained minister and founded Faith and Action, a “missionary outreach group” in Washington whose chief objective is to “[b]ring the Word of God to bear on the hearts and minds of those who make public policy in America”mainly by distributing the Ten Commandments to members of Congress.

Like Schenck, many young liberals who fancied themselves heirs to a fading 60’s counterculture were seduced by New Age mysticism or evangelicalism, and for roughly the same reason: it offered clarity and purpose in a world gone mad. And as Tom Wolfe wryly observed in his essay “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” churches became hip to the Dazed and Confused generation because hymning the body electric was a safer alternative to tripping on drugs psychedelic.

The reactionary aspects of Christianism appeal to Jewish converts like Howard Phillips. His parents sailed to Boston speaking only Yiddish, but Phillips has carved out a place for himself in the elite ranks of the Eastern WASP-ocracy. A Harvard graduate, he served as the executive overseer of the Office of Economic Opportunity under that great philosemite Richard Nixon, and is currently the chairman of the Conservative Caucus, which inveighs against globalization, gay rights and public healthcareespecially public healthcare.

Phillips claims he found Jesus after reading a polemic against socialized medicine written by Dr. R. J. Rushdoony, the founder of “dominion theology,” sometimes known as Christian Reconstructionism. This rather gothic, millenarian sect – Rushdoony really does look like Ayatollah Khomeini – unabashedly champions theocracy; by its lights, democracy equals “mob rule.” Phillips went on to play an instrumental role in the founding of the religious right in 1977.

Olasky, Schenck, and Phillips dream of an evangelical America, but it is Christianism’s internationalist vision that attracts Jews like Michael Horowitz. A neocon policy wonk at the Hudson Institute and former chairman of Reagan’s Domestic Policy Council, Horowitz is something of an intermediary between The 700 Club and Commentary sets. He has helped shape White House positions on everything from the civil war in southern Sudan, to (Muslim) Indonesian aggression against (Christian) East Timor, to the crackdown on global sex trafficking. A Southern Baptist magazine named him one of the “Ten Most Influential Christians of 1997”—just behind Mother Teresa and Billy Graham—even though Horowitz is still Jewish.

The people who invented tikkun olamand the much smaller group who today see neoconservatism as its most promising toolwill inevitably be lured by a force that can mobilize massive numbers and do urgent human rights work neglected by governments and secular organizations. Horowitz makes no apologies for the alliance he has forged and he has received no shortage of recognition. When he won the Wilberforce Award—the Christianist Humanitarian of the Year—ex-Watergate baddie Charles Colson, who underwrites it, introduced him by saying: “God sent a Jew into the world for the Gentiles to know God and be at peace with God. He sent a Jew into our midst in 1996 to awaken us, a sleeping church.”

Christianism may seem an unlikely ideological sanctuary for Diaspora Jews. Yet any philosophy that aims to save the wretched of the earth and guide humanity to salvation will appeal to the people who first dreamed of a messianic age. It may be, as the Nov. 13 issue of Newsweek signaled, that the “Politics of Jesus” has reached its sell-by date. But this is not the first utopia Jews have sought out, nor will it be the last.

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Do: Got a better explanation for why Jews are the machers in the Christian Right? Leave your feedback in the Comments section below. Go: Curious? Of course you are. Find a megachurch near you! Read: Evangelical Christian and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson (also, incidentally, part Jewish) calls for a new "faith-based agenda" in Washington. Why are evangelicals more and more voting Democratic? In Foreign Affairs, Walter Russell Mead examines the impact of evangelicalism on U.S. foreign policy.

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