Initially it was entertaining to witness the public joust between a couple of local preachers over who can legitimately celebrate the traditionally Jewish festival of Purim. The fact that one of them was an evangelical Christian made the spectacle even more titillating. But somber reflection soon set in. Do we really need this kind of controversy in a community which is notable for its sense of unity and religious tolerance? But maybe the cordial interaction between people of different faith has been putting some bean-counting preachers into a cold sweat. "How many souls did I save/lose this month and how am I going to explain the budget shortfall to the Accountant in Chief?"
In the relatively short time since Chabad was established in town, the amiable Rabbi Paltiel has become a familiar sight. He has not shrunk from publicizing his institution and has actively made friends in many places while encouraging Jews to be more observant. It therefore came as a surprise to read his public outburst against Pastor Thomas' evangelism. But Pastor Thomas's lengthy riposte was not at all surprising since the rabbi had now set the perfect scene for an evangelical event.
The rabbi seems to have made at least one other strategic error in his campaign to restrain Pastor Thomas' outreach to the Jewish community. According to Pastor Thomas, the rabbi specifically invited a speaker to declaim against "Christians who share their faith with Jewish people." Not surprisingly this provoked the pastor, who first tried to hand out promotional leaflets and then managed to get himself invited to the meeting where he was able to offer a rebuttal. The rabbi's recent letter suggests religious activism has overwhelmed good judgment a second time.
By any normal yardstick of acceptable ecumenical behavior, Pastor Thomas is pushing the limit. He knows his efforts to preach the gospel of Christ to Jews is going to drive at least one rabbi crazy and yet he still goes ahead full bore on the evidence of his letter. On the other hand he is a card-carrying Evangelical, and witnessing for Christ is what Evangelicals do. But whether he should target the Jewish community in this town is another matter. If Pastor Thomas succeeds in convincing a Jew that Jesus is the promised Messiah and is his personal savior, he has not just expanded the spiritual awareness of a Jew, he has effectively converted him to Christianity. At a time when it is well known that many Jewish leaders are concerned about falling membership, Pastor Thomas' activities must look banditry to some.
Doubtless for many people in town this battle for souls is an irrelevant fringe activity. But anyone who read Sunday's NYT Editorial "The Religious Tyranny Amendment" might then reflect on the preachers' earnest wrangling and begin to feel distinctly queasy. Believe it or not the House Judiciary Committee has actually "approved a constitutional amendment which would strip the promise of religious neutrality by government from the Bill of Rights." This monstrosity is a product of lobbying by the Christian Coalition and others of their ilk. With any luck, the so called Religious Freedom Amendment will not pass in the Senate, but it might and then what?
According to the Times editorial, the amendment "clearly aims to create a new right to practice religion in public institutions and on government property. It would permit inherently coercive programs of group prayer in public schools and mandate the use of public funds to support private religious schools and other religious programs. It would also allow government officials, including teachers and judges, to display religious symbols in classrooms, courtrooms or other public spaces and communicate their personal religious beliefs while on the job, say by reciting a prayer at the beginning of a public school class or legal proceeding."
The preacher's squabble is perhaps a hint of what could happen even in this enlightened community if the Washington politicos are misguided enough to pass the Religious Freedom Amendment. It is not hard to imagine the rabbi and the pastor leading groups of righteously indignant parents to future School Board meetings to fight over the wording of group prayers in the public schools. And imagine the flow of leaflets, advertisements and public relations initiatives if public funds were to swell the coffers of their respective institutions. Political canvassing might be transformed into religious crusades. It could really happen unless wisdom prevails. (Which it probably will!)