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Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews Split on Stem Cells

The political coalition of Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians is being tested by differences over stem-cell research, but representatives of both sides say the disagreement won’t prevent them from working together in the future.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the largest umbrella group of Orthodox Jewish synagogues in America, has joined forces with evangelical Christians on a host of recent issues, including foreign policy toward Israel, banning same-sex marriage, public displays of the Ten Commandments, the provision of school vouchers and federal spending on religious charities.

But the UOJCA’s support for a House bill that would expand federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research — legislation that most evangelicals opposed — underscores the theological divisions that separate the two groups.

Evangelicals “respect the fact that our policy positions are guided by our principles and our faith, just as theirs are,” said Nathan Diament, the UOJCA’s public policy director. “This allows us to work together when we have common interests and values and respect each other when we disagree.”

Stanley Carlson-Thies, the director of social policy studies at the Center for Public Justice, an Annapolis-based research organization with a nonpartisan Christian agenda, said that the UOJCA’s break from evangelicals on this issue came as no surprise.

“To the outsider, religious-based alliances look like well-oiled machines,” he said. “But to the insider they are clearly coalitions.”

Political collaborations between evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews are a recent development, said John Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron who studies religion and politics. These coalitions, Green said, emerged only in the past decade and were forged by similar conservative positions on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion.

Still, Green said that the division over stem cells is not uncharacteristic of a coalition of religious groups with sharp theological distinctions.

“Although they’re allies politically, they have never agreed religiously,” Green said.

Carlson-Thies argues that the division over stem-cell research will not prevent the two groups from working together in the future.

“We’re sorry that they don’t share our opinions on every issue, but we still respect them,” he said. “I’d be surprised if this led to a really huge problem.”

Diament, too, said that he’s optimistic that evangelicals will not perceive the UOJCA’s support for embryonic stem-cell research as a betrayal.

“It can lead to some uncomfortable conversations, but it’s a respectful disagreement based on deeply held religious beliefs on both sides,” he said.

Historically, Jewish voters have tended to vote heavily for Democratic candidates and have become a crucial part of the Democratic Party’s base, in part because of a tradition of liberalism on social issues.

However, Jewish voters who rank U.S. policy toward Israel high on their personal agenda have increasingly gravitated toward the Republican Party, which under President Bush has offered strong support for hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

While exit polls showed that a majority of Jews supported Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic nominee, over Bush in the 2004 election, Orthodox Jewish voters did give Bush a majority in the election. Orthodox Jews constitute about 7 percent of the entire Jewish population, according to the American Jewish Committee 2004 annual survey. (The remainder was split almost equally between Reform, Conservative and “just Jewish.”)

In addition to sharing concerns over Israel’s future, many Orthodox Jews — who practice the most traditional form of Judaism — have found some common ground with Christian conservatives on certain social issues. But agreement is not universal — including, as is now clear, on stem cells.

Diament agreed that such differences within religious-based coalitions are hardly unique to the alliance of Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians.

“I don’t see this as any different [as cooperation] between Catholics who don’t support the death penalty and Southern Baptists who do,” Diament said.

Carrie Gordon Earll, a senior analyst for bioethics at Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based conservative Christian organization, agreed that the split would not harm the working relationship between her organization and the Orthodox Jewish community.

“I don’t think it will have a negative impact at all,” she said. “We would absolutely coalition with them on issues that we agree on in the future.”

Bill Saunders, a senior fellow for human life studies at the Family Research Council, a Washington D.C.-based conservative Christian organization, agreed. “I don’t think we’d hold it against them,” he said. “Ultimately, if they’re going to make a religious call, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Saunders said.

In addition, Diament said the UOJCA’s break with Evangelicals over stem-cell research would have no bearing on the issue of federal judicial nominees. The UOJCA, he said, has an organizational policy not to support or oppose judicial nominees except in “extreme cases.”

Such an “extreme case” came in 2003, when William H. Pryor’s nomination came before the Senate. The UOJCA objected to Senators questioning Pryor’s ability to serve as an objective arbiter of justice despite his “deeply held personal beliefs.”

The UOJCA wrote a letter to the committee objecting to the line of questioning, which raised concerns among Orthodox Jews, who feared that nominees with deep religious convictions of any denomination could be ostracized.

However, UOJCA involvement in the federal judicial nominee process remains rare, Diament said, and he has no reason to believe that his organization would get involved any time soon.

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