Evangelical's Spat With Jewish Activist Goes Public

A colorful war of words has erupted between a national evangelical leader and the Jewish activist who is suing the federal government over alleged Christian religious coercion at the U.S. Air Force Academy, after a friendly e-mail exchange between the two turned sour.

Mikey Weinstein, the New Mexico businessman who is suing to stop Air Force officers from evangelizing, first became angry when Pastor Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and founder of the New Life Church, one of the country's largest ministries, suggested that Weinstein's suit was endangering Jewish-Christian relations. "I just wanted you to know," Haggard wrote, "that I'm constantly involved in trying to protect Israel and other international Jewish interests, and find it difficult to defend Jewish causes around the world and, at the same time, have men like yourself trying to use increased government regulation to limit freedom here at home."

Weinstein replied: "How DARE you try to assert that me and my supporters are making it MORE difficult for YOU to fight 'global antisemitism'!!!!!"

After the exchange became public, the two unleashed a new wave of verbal barbs. In an interview with The Associated Press, Haggard described Weinstein as "frothing at the mouth." Weinstein, who boxes for recreation, told the AP he was ready to "fight" Haggard "behind the junior-high gym."

The spat threatens to heighten the growing tension between leaders of the Christian right and Jewish activists as Jews have pressed the evangelicals over matters relating to church-state separation. Haggard has added his voice to a small but growing chorus of evangelicals who have suggested that the Jewish community's tactics in the church-state debate could weaken Christian conservative support for pro-Israel causes.

After Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman gave a speech last November warning of a broad-based conservative campaign to "Christianize America," a top official of one of the leading Christian groups, Focus on the Family, told the Forward that evangelical groups might temper their strong support of Israel in light of Foxman's sallies.

"If you keep bullying your friends, pretty soon you won't have any," said Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family's vice president of government and public policy.

The Rev. Donald Wildmon, the leader of another Christian group, the American Family Association, seconded Minnery's remarks in a radio broadcast last month, saying, "[T]he more [Foxman] says that 'you people are destroying this country,' you know, some people are going to begin to get fed up with this and say, 'Well, all right then. If that's the way you feel, then we just won't support Israel anymore.' "

Christian leaders also looked askance at a speech given last month by the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, at the group's biennial convention in Houston. Yoffie lambasted evangelicals for "bigotry" and "blasphemy."

The recent feud erupted last week when Haggard sent Weinstein an e-mail with a joke circulating in the evangelical community. Describing the joke as a "response to the debate about additional government supervision of religious expression in the military," Haggard wrote that he hoped Weinstein would "get a kick" out of it.

The satirical seasons-greeting offered "best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low-stress, non-addictive, gender-neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice."

In an e-mail reply, Weinstein wrote that it was "a real shame we are at war with each other."

Before the exchange, the two men had sparred during joint television appearances. Still, following the TV appearances, they spoke cordially by telephone after being introduced by a common friend, according to the AP report.

Weinstein, a 1977 Air Force Academy graduate, began his campaign against proselytizing in the military after his son, Casey, and dozens of other cadets complained of religious coercion and slurs at the academy last year. The academy, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. — the same town as Haggard's ministry and many other evangelical operations — at first denied the validity of the claims, despite reports by watchdog groups backing up the students' assertions. After some months, however, the Air Force conceded that the coercion was a "systemic problem" and developed guidelines to deal with it. Evangelical groups and their Republican supporters in Congress charged that the new rules damaged Christians' free-speech rights.

Weinstein told the Forward that Haggard was a "coward" who had "set Jewish-Christian relations back to the Stone Age" by publicizing their exchange.

Haggard was unavailable for an interview, but, according to his spokeswoman, Carolyn Haggard, his niece, he disputes Weinstein's contention that he released the exchange first. "Weinstein sent out an e-mail to his distribution list before we released it," she said. Haggard publicized the exchange, she continued, because it was important to highlight "the content of the e-mail and the manner of the dialogue."

In his last missive to Weinstein, Haggard wrote that Weinstein was "falling into a trap of believing that the use of government regulation to restrain opinions you disagree with will be beneficial. We are a pluralistic society that needs to embrace differences, not squelch them. In order for this to work, we need to live in an atmosphere of mutual respect. These are the ideals for which I am an advocate, while you are working to muzzle freedom of expression under the guise of separation of church and state."

"I am a strong supporter of the establishment clause, but it can be easily misconstrued," Haggard continued. "I think you might not have as many enemies as you imagine. Regardless, this will in fact be a great year for the Constitution."

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