In 1994 the Republicans blazed in with their Contract with America, and it became evident that their most powerful backers were the fundamentalist folk of the religious right, represented most notably by the Christian Coalition.
For a Jewish guy from New York City, this was one of the most frightening developments imaginable. Pat Robertson, the group's moral leader and guiding force, is a flake who has expressed complicated, detailed beliefs in the New World Order and conspiracy theories. Though he is superficially perceived as a friend of the Jews because he believes that a re-gathering of Jews in Israel will preceed the Rapture, he also endorses Protocols of Zion-type theories in which wealthy Jews play a role in a global conspiracy.
Most significantly for me, when the Republican presidential candidates dutifully lined up to address the Christian Coalition at its national meeting in 1995, there was one who was not invited: Arlen Spector, the only Jewish candidate. Spector, who certainly did not want to make his Jewishness a foremost issue, made excuses, but I noticed.
There are, of course, a large minority of Jews in this country who are conservative Republicans. I asked one of them how he felt about supporting a party apparently captive to a group whose newsletter was boldly called Christian Nation. He said that a little reminder that we are not everyone's best friend is a good thing for the Jews, to help build our identity and save us from assimilation.
It was an awful answer, made possible by the fact that something profound happening behind the scenes was being overlooked or answered by denial. The First Amendment says that there shall be no establishment of religion in this country. Meanwhile, a conservative party was claiming to launch a revolution restoring us to first principles, to the Constitution as the Founders intended it and before it was radically misinterpreted by decades of liberal jurisprudence. But in reality, admitted by nobody, they were attempting a truly revolutionary act: to rewrite the Bill of Rights so that we would emerge a Christian nation.
I grew up in this country as an American first and Jewish second, no different in that respect from friends who were Catholic or Protestant. It was particularly easy to do so because I lived in New York City, where about one quarter of the population was Jewish, and in a neighborhood where most people were. I might have grown up feeling rather differently elsewhere, like my friend from Atlanta, who remembered contributing a dollar to a charity for which a classmate was collecting, then hearing the classmate say to another: "Even the Jew gave more than you did." Massive denial was necessary in order for Jews---and anyone else who valued the nation's secular identity--not to ask, "What will the Jewish role be in a Christian nation?" The only answer would be that depending on Pat Robertson's predilections, or on those of some future powers-that-be, we would be either a protected but very separate group, like in certain Islamic countries in the Middle Ages, or way out on a limb, like in most Christian countries of the same period. In either event, it would be a terrible disaster for the Jews, who would lose their identity as Americans in the most secular and benign of nations, the only one in which they have assimilated without first encountering a history of pogroms and torment.
The answer, of course, is that the Contract Republicans of 1994 were not building a secret majority in this country. They were a radical minority within Congress' halls beholden to a radical minority outside. Last month's elections revealed the pendulum swinging back to the center, as it always does sooner or later. The Contract-ual assault on the Constitution has quite faded away, and we know now that even its leader, Newt Gingrich, didn't believe in it but regarded it only as a means to power. Today I feel more confident again that we are living in the United States I always knew: not a Christian nation.