Representative Scott Allen, a Republican member of the Wisconsin Assembly, videotaped a seasonal message in the Wisconsin Capitol building and sent it via a state e-mail system to constituents and other members of the state legislature.
That would seem unremarkable, and it is, but for the fact that the 50-year-old freshman legislator offered holiday wishes that went beyond joy and good will. Quoting the Christian bible, he urged non-Christians to consider converting to his faith.
There is nothing wrong with a candidate or elected official wearing his religious beliefs on his sleeve. In many cases, it signals how the person will regard legislation with potential impact on religious Americans, including religious Jews. But proselytizing is another thing altogether.
Mr. Allen, however, has no regrets about his greeting. He says his message was aimed not at people of other religions but at those “who feel lonely or lost or don’t have a particular faith.”
“Political leaders,” he said, “have a responsibility to give a message of hope and faith. I’m not ashamed of the message.”
That’s a nice sentiment, but it does seem to violate at least the spirit of the Establishment Clause, part of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, ratified in 1791. The Establishment Clause forbids Congress from passing legislation respecting an establishment of religion.
Interestingly, one intention of the Establishment Clause was to prevent Congress from interfering with state establishments of religion — there were at least six — that existed at the time of our nation’s founding. Subsequently, though, under what has come to be known as the Incorporation doctrine, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, have been considered by courts to apply not only to actions of the federal government but state governments as well.
Still, it is far from assured that a court would regard Representative Allen’s sectarian words, even though he apparently used state resources to promote them, as a violation of the Establishment Clause. He was, all said and done, offering a personal message, not seeking to enshrine his religious convictions in legislation.
The legality, though, of Mr. Allen’s words aside, their proselytizing tone stands out like the most inflamed of proverbial sore thumbs.
What is more, his choice of a Christian verse to share, while it spoke of “love and good deeds,” is followed in the text from which he was quoting by a threat — which Mr. Allen did not quote — that those who do not accept the message of the book will be destroyed.
It would seem obvious that were a Hindu, Muslim or atheist legislator to solicit constituents to convert to his or her faith, it would be deeply offensive to many Christians and Jews. A Christian proselytization invitation is no less offensive to others.
Mere weeks ago, the Vatican released a new document about Catholics’ relationship to Jews that expressly condemned missionizing to “the chosen people of Israel.” The Roman Catholic Church, however, is only part of the Christian world, a rather small part, in fact. The various Protestant denominations are not on its memo list. Nor is the non-denominational church to which Mr. Allen belongs.
Some of the largest evangelical denominations, in fact — including the Southern Baptists and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod — have increased their efforts in recent years to “reach” Jews. It has been asserted that there are over 900 Christian groups in North America actively involved in trying to convert Jews. Many millions of dollars are allocated annually for that cause.
And so, the spectacle of an elected American legislator inviting people to join his faith should serve to remind us of a larger problem: that there are many American Jews, in particular immigrants from former Soviet lands, who have very limited Jewish knowledge, and a very large number of American Christians who see them as proselytization targets.
Those of us over whom such missionaries would be wasting their time should be impelled to recognize the important role kiruv groups play in helping educationally deprived Jews understand their ancestral faith, and support them.
And we should recognize, too, that, no matter the wonderful freedoms we enjoy as citizens of this great country, no matter the protections afforded us by the Bill of Rights and no matter the astounding growth in Torah, chessed and shemiras hamitzvos we have merited to see, we remain, for now, in galus.