Academic journal article American Jewish History

Billy Graham Receives the Ten Commandments: American Jewish Interfaith Relations in the Age of Evangelicalism

Academic journal article American Jewish History

Billy Graham Receives the Ten Commandments: American Jewish Interfaith Relations in the Age of Evangelicalism

Article excerpt

On October 28, 1977, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, national director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), awarded famed evangelist Billy Graham the organization's first National Interreligious Award. Tanenbaum considered Graham to be "one of the greatest friends of the Jewish people and of Israel in the entire Christian world in the twentieth century," standing he shared with Pope John XXIII and Reinhold Niebuhr. (1) The award, later renamed the Isaiah Award for Exemplary Interreligious Leadership to echo the biblical prophet Isaiah's call for social justice, recognized the recipient's support of Israel, opposition to antisemitism, and promotion of interfaith relations. (2) In spite of opposition from many liberal American Jews who considered Graham's selection a troubling choice, bestowing the AJC's first interfaith award upon an evangelical Protestant made sense to Rabbi Tanenbaum. (3) Since 1969 the AJC had formally partnered with leaders of the theologically conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, to which Graham belonged, to develop greater theological understanding between Jews and evangelicals. (4) Graham's frequent public support of Israel, at a time when prominent American Jews and mainline Protestants openly criticized its government and treatment of Palestinians, further endeared him to Tanenbaum. (5)

In examining the history of interfaith relations with evangelicals throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, this article argues that Jewish organizations' engagement with conservative Christians established a pattern that has had lasting impact. The AJC and other national Jewish institutions acquired valuable experience in interacting with evangelicals--a religious group that had moved from a subculture to the American mainstream in the postwar period--which they later replicated when engaging with other ethnic and religious blocs entering American politics. (6) Indeed the embryonic dialogue established in the years prior to 1977 served as a model for contemporary interfaith relations.

Scholars, who tend to focus more on moments of controversy or questions of ideological and political difference, have often overlooked the alliances that Jewish organizations forged with members of the Southern Baptist Convention. (7) Examining the nascent stages of this dialogue--especially prior to what has become known as the "Southern Baptist controversy" of 1979 when the conservative faction of this evangelical denomination drove the moderates from power, taking over leadership positions in all of its institutions and seminaries--reveals the influence of theological moderates in the establishment of this interfaith partnership. (8) Although frequently understood as a relationship between liberal Jews and conservative Protestants, a more nuanced assessment of this early dialogue shows that the interlocutors from both SBC and Jewish groups constituted more liberal elements of their respective denomination and organizations, a feature that facilitated interfaith relations.

Recent scholarship has investigated the history of Jewish-evangelical dialogue from a range of different perspectives. Whereas American evangelicals' assessments of Jews and Judaism has received consideration, less emphasis has been placed on American Jews' own attitudes towards theologically conservative Protestants. (9) Even less attention has been directed towards Jewish communal organizations' relations with evangelicals, despite the leading roles played by these organizations in facilitating dialogue and in offering guidance to local clergy and lay leaders about duplicating these efforts in their own communities. (10) Past scholarly work has attributed evangelicals' interest in Jews to intertwined theological and geopolitical concerns including missionizing, Zionism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. (11) The study of American Jewish-evangelical relations in the decade prior to 1979 shows that while Israel and conversion mattered deeply to American Jewish organizations, they focused their interfaith dialogue on political interests that were at times complementary and at other points contradictory to SBC pursuits such as abortion, religious freedom, and church-state separation issues. …

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