Surprise as America's "most popular" religion

Posted: Sep 13, 2006 12:02 AM
Surprise as America's "most popular" religion

With all the recent talk about anti-Semitism, who would have thought that Jews would prove so popular?

A new Gallup Poll (released September 7, 2006) asked respondents how they felt about ten different religious groups, ranging from “Fundamentalist Christians” to “Atheists.” By every measure, Jews drew the most favorable reaction, with the highest “positive” rating (58%) and the lowest “negative” rating (only 4%). By contrast, Americans expressed decidedly mixed feelings about Mormons (with a net negative rating, 29% to 28%) and Muslims (30% to 26%). The least popular religious groups in the survey proved to be Atheists (an overwhelmingly negative 44% to 15% rating) and, most especially, Scientologists (a stunning 53% negative, to just 11% positive – thank you, Tom Cruise!).

It’s perhaps not surprising to see Jews rated higher than much-publicized, controversial groups like Scientologists, Atheists or Muslims, but the Gallup Poll (of 1,001 adults) also found Jews scoring higher than Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, “Evangelical Christians” or “Fundamentalist Christians.” In other words, more Americans declared favorable reaction to the tiny Jewish community (just 2% of the national population) than to vastly more substantial groups in the society, and fewer expressed negativity at any level of intensity. Only 1% of respondents expressed “very negative” views of Jews, while 11% declared a “very negative” attitude toward “Fundamentalist Christians.”

These figures should serve to reassure the perpetually worried, defensive leaders of the Jewish community and they certainly underscore America’s status as by far the least anti-Semitic society on earth. Nevertheless, three factors help to explain the startlingly positive ratings of Jews in the survey and they provide important perspective on the positive numbers.

First, it’s all but certain that some of the respondents—perhaps many of them – simply lied when describing their favorable (or even neutral) feelings toward Jews. There’s a stigma attached to open expressions of anti-Semitism (just ask Mel Gibson) and it’s only natural that people try to make a positive impression on pollsters in part by avoiding identification with any opinions that seem radical, outrageous, or unworthy of respect. For the same reason, public opinion surveys regularly understate racism: with ordinary folks want eager to avoid association with the bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan, just as they want to escape identification with the anti-Semitic ravings of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadina-whackjob. At the same time, numerous surveys (by the Anti-Defamation League and other groups) measuring essential elements of the classic anti-Semitic outlook show up to 20% of the public agreeing with statements like “Jews only care about money” or “they want to run everything” or “they only care about their own” or “they’re not really loyal to America.”

Second, in a bitterly divided nation it’s easy to think positively about Jews because everyone – liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat –can claim (with some justification) that Judaism agrees with his or her point of view. The Jewish community, small as it is, remains bitterly divided on a host of political and religious issues. For instance, the left-leaning Reform movement in Judaism endorses gay marriage and “abortion rights,” while the traditionalist Orthodox Jewish denomination remains disapproving of homosexuality and staunchly pro-life. There is no Jewish Pope and no clear-cut position on the great issues of the day. While respondents to the Gallup Poll might react to Baptists and Catholics, say, based on their well known, official, conservative positions on marriage, abortion and other moral issues, the Jewish community features prominent rabbis from every point on the political and cultural spectrum. This helps to explain the stunningly favorable view of Jews by self-identified Republicans—despite the fact that more than 75% of the Jewish community regularly votes for the other party. Republicans show an overwhelming 70% positive rating for Jews (compared to only 51% by Democrats, who are less favorable to all religious groups except Atheists). One can only assume that members of the GOP demonstrate such positive attitudes to a notoriously liberal group in part because when they think of us they don’t focus on the likes of Barbra Streisand or Barbara Boxer or Al Franken, but instead remember politicians like Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota or RNC chair Ken Mehlman, religious leaders like Rabbi Daniel Lapin, or radio commentators like, well, Michael Medved and Dennis Prager. A religious group with no unified point of view can achieve popularity by appearing to offer all things to all people.

Third, Jews may draw high ratings in a poll like this one because Judaism in the United States isn’t dynamic or aggressive enough to represent a threat to anyone. It’s intriguing that the groups in the survey with the highest negative ratings (aside from Atheists) are precisely those with the most energetic efforts at proselytizing – Mormons, Fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and Scientologists. Jews, by contrast, make it downright difficult to convert to Judaism: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews don’t agree on much, but we do recognize a common obligation to discourage any prospective convert three times before he or she is welcomed into the faith. Jewish individuals are certainly prominent in the United States but Jewish religious ideas most certainly are not: most gentile Americans (and perhaps most American Jews) couldn’t answer with clarity or certainty what Judaism believes about the afterlife, the nature of forgiveness, the coming of the Messiah, or achieving closeness to God. Overwhelming majorities know little or nothing about Jewish doctrine, and it’s hard to object to teachings you’ve never heard. The prevailing ignorance about authentic Judaism automatically absolves Jews of the charge that we’re trying to force our faith on others. Even within the Jewish community, so few of us count as passionately, proudly, energetically engaged in religious practice that Judaism looks to outsiders uniquely non-threatening, even irrelevant.

And that’s the bad news for Jews behind the superficially flattering numbers in the Gallup Poll: people across the country rate Judaism positively not because the messages of our faith come across with so much strength and influence in our society, but because those teachings seem so confused, uncertain, and obscure. In this context, the nearly invisible negative reactions to Judaism (only 1% “very negative” and 3% “somewhat negative”) provide evidence of our religion’s problems, not our vitality. Any faith community that’s speaking out on the issues of the day in a clear, firm voice, or displaying the sort of dynamism and ambition capable of drawing numerous new adherents, will end up offending some people and inspiring occasional negative responses.

For many of us who have tried to revitalize the traditional faith components of American Jewish identity, it would be well worth it to accept a “very negative” rating higher than a mere 1% in return for a religious message that was more compelling, competitive and challenging – enough so to inspire both favorable and unfavorable reactions that counted as more informed and impassioned.