It's noon in Seattle, but Michael Medved isn't eating lunch. Instead, he's chewing up the liberal secularists while 40,000 listeners ruminate on what he's saying. And he's got plenty to say. He wants to talk about the Gingrich ethics investigation, and Paula Jones, and drugs, and alcohol, and Hollywood, and local politics. His studio at KVI-AM is a news junkie's dream: Newspaper clippings compete for desk space with listener faxes and copy just pulled from the AP wire, highlighted in pink and yellow. A stack of papers sits in one corner of the room, while a TV in the other corner silently displays the close-captioned news from CNN.
Two guests, a mother and her 15-year-old daughter, sit across the cluttered desk from Mr. Medved. The girl occasionally squeezes a little stuffed bear while she talks about her battle with alcoholism. Listeners call in with their own addiction horror stories and their tales of recovery. "Are you a believer now?" Mr. Medved asks one caller, then goes on to stress the importance of faith in getting clean and sober.
His guests leave during a commercial break, but not before getting a hug and a "God bless you" from the host. Then he's back at the microphone, drawing his conclusions about substance abuse: "Drugs are particularly attractive to those who have some kind of spiritual hole in their lives. Unless you're addressing those needs, you're a sitting duck for those kinds of problems."
It's that kind of spiritual emphasis that distinguishes Michael Medved's show from Rush Limbaugh's, which airs immediately before. Both shows are a mixture of news, entertainment, and--of course--commerce. A sign on the wall opposite Mr. Medved's seat reads "Promote! Promote! Promote!" And promote he does, whether it's an addiction recovery hotline or the 3 o'clock talk show or one of those ubiquitous reading programs for children. But most of all, he promotes spiritual solutions to America's social problems. At the end of this particular three-hour shift, he leaves his listeners with the sad story of a local judge convicted of shoplifting three ties and a bottle of hair gel. Like so many politicians from the president on down, this man thought no one was watching. "But," Mr. Medved points out as the closing music rises in the background, "especially for persons of faith, somebody's always watching."
It's the kind of message you might expect to hear in a church's Sunday school, but you certainly wouldn't hear Mr. Medved deliver it there. The fact is, this outspoken defender of biblical values isn't a Christian at all: He's a kosher-keeping, Sabbath-observing Jew who, like an increasing number of his fellow believers, finds himself in an odd alliance with the most orthodox and doctrinaire wing of American Christendom.
The historical irony of that alliance is not lost on Mr. Medved. Until recently, he notes, "conservative Christians wouldn't have wanted the support of Jews, and any professing Jew would have been terrified to offer such support."
But politics, as the saying goes, makes strange bedfellows. The quickening pace of secularization and its attendant moral decline have made many Jews more sympathetic to evangelical political concerns. Today, Mr. Medved insists, "it's increasingly clear that the real fault line in America is not between religious fanatics and freedom-loving people. It's between those people who want to defend some concept of faith and family against the secular humanist extremism that has taken over our universities and our media. I think this [evangelical-Jewish] alliance has been forced upon us by the aggressive, uncompromising, fanatical secularism that sees all religion as a danger."
Still, liberal Jews like liberal Protestants wouldn't automatically see secularization as a threat. A sizable minority of American Jews, after all, don't even believe in God; only one quarter claim that religion is "very important" in their lives (compared to 50 percent among non-Jews); and most attend synagogue less than five times a year. Given such widespread secularism, perhaps it's no surprise that the Gallup organization identifies Jews as "the most liberal whites in America."
Mr. Medved's experience typifies the religious awakening within Judaism. Although he was not born into a religiously observant family, in the 1970s Mr. Medved underwent a spiritual transformation that he describes as similar "to the experience of born-again Christians who get a thwack on their own road to Damascus." Enough other Jews have also experienced that thwack that it has been given a name: the Baal T'shuvah movement, or Master of Return. Millions of Jews in this movement have returned to orthodox religious practice, which means such things as avoiding any meat on a pizza and not flipping a light switch on the Sabbath.
Although such Judaism makes heavy demands on its adherents, millions of Jews are making the return nonetheless. While orthodoxy is still the smallest of Judaism's three branches (representing maybe 20 percent of America's 6 million Jews), it is the only branch that is experiencing growth, having doubled its numbers in the past 20 years. And as Jews become more religiously observant, they tend to become more politically conservative as well. That's why about 60 percent of orthodox Jews identify themselves as conservatives, while 80 percent of Jews overall call themselves liberals.
Mr. Medved went through such a political conversion. He moved to Venice, Calif., after graduating from Yale in 1970 and spending four years as a speechwriter for prominent liberal politicians. In the wake of an uncle's unexpected death, Mr. Medved began offering daily memorial prayers and seeking to learn more about his religious tradition. In 1976 he met 29-year-old Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who soon founded an orthodox synagogue in funky Venice Beach. Under Rabbi Lapin's teaching, Mr. Medved's own political views took a profoundly conservative turn as he came to distrust government programs and to view the Hebrew Scripture as a "vibrant, timeless system of self-help capable of transforming even the most dysfunctional life."
After 15 years in California, Rabbi Lapin was eager to teach those lessons to a broader audience. In 1991 he founded Toward Tradition, a grassroots educational organization that seeks to convince Jews that conservative rather than liberal policy is "in keeping with Jewish morals and interests and [that] Jewish thought actually serves as the foundation for American conservatism." From its headquarters on Mercer Island, just outside Seattle, Toward Tradition acts as a sort of central nervous system for a network of Jewish conservatives nationwide.
One of the organization's major obstacles is the perception that Jewish opinion is monolithically liberal. To counter that impression, Toward Tradition often finds itself taking on the massive, well-funded groups that claim to speak for "neutral" Jewish thought. In 1994, for instance, when the Anti-Defamation League issued a report on the religious right, "The Assault on Tolerance & Pluralism in America," Rabbi Lapin rounded up 75 well-known Jews including columnist Mona Charen and former Undersecretary of State Elliott Abrams to take out a series of ads in major newspapers challenging the "bigotry ... of the ADL attack on our Christian fellow citizens."
These tactics seldom earn the traditional mazel tov toast for Rabbi Lapin among his fellow Jews, but he is unrepentant. "Foolish people have made the charge that I'm not a real Jew," he admits, then launches into a litany that sounds vaguely Pauline: "My family and I observe the Sabbath, we only eat kosher food, I was circumcised at eight days old according to our law. So compared to the secular liberal, who is the 'real' Jew?
"It's a similar hatred to that which liberal black leadership has for [Supreme Court] Justice [Clarence] Thomas," the rabbi notes, adding that attacks in the media have been especially shrill. "There is a more intense fear and a more passionate ferocity with which they attack me, because Jews are disproportionately represented in the media elite--and being a Jew, I'm allowed to say that," he adds quickly.
Rabbi Lapin believes America stands at an ideological crossroads and that both Jewish conservatives and evangelical Christians would choose the same path for the country. "What makes a nation great is not the facts it knows but the ideas in which it believes. The most important issue facing America is deciding whether we believe in anything, and if so, what." The goal of Toward Tradition is to remind more Jews of what they're supposed to believe in, of those "Judeo-Christian values that underpin Western civilization and the potential virtue inherent in commercial transaction."
The problem, according to Michael Medved, is that most Jews don't in fact believe in much of anything. "For most American Jews, the only belief they hold in common is that Jesus was not the Messiah. That's the one thing that defines you as a Jew. I think that's pathetic. You can't define a religious identity by what you don't believe. In most Jewish families today, parents can live with kids who are into transcendental meditation, Hinduism, Buddhism. But the one thing that no Jewish family will accept is Christianity, because that violates the one belief that they all hold in common.
"This is the reason so many Jews are so terrified of the born-again Christian movement. If your only item of belief is nonbelief in Jesus, then obviously you feel threatened whenever you meet people who deny this one core belief--or who affirm the kind of positive belief that you lack."
Observant Jews, Mr. Medved says, can work easily with Christians because they are more confident in their beliefs and less worried about losing their Jewish identity. Likewise, he says evangelicals can cooperate politically with Jewish conservatives because they share a biblically based moral and ethical outlook. But none of this is to say that core religious beliefs should be subordinated to political goals, or that either side ought to act as though religious differences have disappeared.
"No one should pretend that inherent tensions don't exist, especially readers of a magazine like WORLD," Mr. Medved insists. "Of course it's always awkward when people witness to me, and I'd say that happens every week of my life. It's almost an anguished thing: They'll say 'You seem like such a good person, and you're on our side. I hate it that we're not going to be spending eternity together.' A lot of Jewish people freak out when that happens. I've come to the position that when somebody takes the most precious thing in their lives and wants to share it with you, it's almost always an act of love and respect, and I try to respond in that spirit. Somebody witnessing to me is an indication that they take Christianity seriously, in the same way that my keeping the Sabbath is an indication of my taking Judaism seriously. It's obviously at the very core of what they believe God expects them to do."
Mr. Medved realizes that fighting the culture wars side-by-side with evangelical Christians is not without its risks. What of his children, for instance, ages 10, 7, and 4? What if one of them came back from spending time with his Christian friends and announced he had converted? "My wife and I have talked about that," Mr. Medved admits. "Of course we are expending a great deal of time and energy to school them in our religious tradition. I would choose that my children become observing Jews. But if that doesn't happen, if our efforts fail, I would hope they become Christians.
"The old stereotype is, 'I just want you to be happy.' Well, I want more than that. I do want them to be happy, but I want them to serve a larger cause in their lives. So to the extent that I think my Christian friends serve that cause--" For all his admiration of dedicated Christians, however, Mr. Medved can't quite bring himself to finish that thought. "Well, you fill in the blanks," he concludes quietly.
Mr. Medved's poignant hesitation also points to a lesson for Christians who have tired of the culture wars or questioned the ultimate value of political involvement. The understanding of Michael Medved and Daniel Lapin serves as a reminder that working in a coaltion need not--and should not--obstruct evangelism.