Religion and the 2004 Election

A Special Supplement to Religion in the News
Fall 2003

                                          by Jerome A. Chanes

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Table of Contents

Special Section: Introduction

The New Religion Gap

Hispanic Catholics

Non-Hispanic Catholics

Evangelicals: Inside the Beltway

Evangelicals: Outside the Beltway

Mainline Protestants

African American Protestants


Arab Americans: Muslims and Others












































































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The story is told of the 19th-century Hebrew author, Y.L. Gordon, who paid a call on Leopold Zunz, the grand guru of 19th-century Wissenschaft—Wissenschaft des Judentums. Zunz asked Yalag, "What do you do?" "I'm a Hebrew poet." "Oh? When did you live?"

It's an instructive story. The story tells us much about the baggage that used to be carried around by Jews, maybe in some cases yet is, in our encounters. While there has always been a healthy mixture of history and memory in how Jews parse the agenda, few Jews in the first decade of the 21st-century would give Leopold Zunz's response. When it comes to the public-affairs agenda, American Jews are interested in the future of the Jewish past.

What are the stories in the 2004 election for the American Jewish community?

First, what does the Jewish community look like? How many Jews are there? Who cares?

Any Jew who is not living in a coal mine in New Zealand is aware of the Sturm und Drang surrounding the counting of American Jews. What's the problem with counting Jews? Like any other people, you count up births, you count up deaths, and—voila!—you have a number. The fact is you don't. No, you have bupkes.

No demographer wants to be put in the position of determining the answer to that most sensitive question in contemporary Jewish life: Who is a Jew? Marketers have created any number—seven or eight—of Jewish identity constructs: individuals of Jewish parentage, religion Jewish, Jews by choice (English translation: converts into Judaism); the list is endless and spread wide.

The National Jewish Population Survey, using similar numbers, estimated anywhere between 5.5 million and 6.84 million in 1990 and from 5.2 million to seven million in 2000. Other estimates figured fewer than four million and up to eight million. Nobody wants to say who is a Jew.

One other observation about the demographics—one of the salient questions for the American Jewry is that of population growth. The American Jewish community, generally speaking, is way below zero population growth, with a birth rate of about a half child per family.

What do American Jews think about issues? To quote Milton Himmelfarb's old saw, "Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans." The English translation: Jews have traditionally voted Democratic.

But this formulation of the classic positioning of American Jews bears some scrutiny. Yes, Jews have traditionally voted for Democratic candidates; and yes, Jews' support of a social-and-economic-justice agenda has often run counter to their economic interest. Their primary motivation has been the Jewish tradition of social responsibility and concerns for Jewish security.

Does this trend yet pertain? Recent data suggest that the answer is a forthright "Maybe." On the one hand, according to the authoritative AJC's 2002 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion, Jews are much more likely to describe themselves as liberal than as conservative.

On the other hand, recent exit polling suggests that in national elections the Jewish flavor may be increasingly Republican. Three things have kept Jews from voting Republican in the recent past. First is residual loyalty to a social-economic-justice agenda. Second is strong support on the part of most Democratic administrations for the State of Israel, going back to JFK. Third is the alliance of Evangelicals and Republicans.

Today, of course, the antipathy toward Evangelicals comes up against Evangelical support of Israel, whatever motivates that support.

On the third hand, when asked about their views on public-policy issues, Jews’ responses to the classic indicators—church-state separation, reproductive choice—fall squarely in the liberal column. A notable exception is the death penalty—a majority of Jews continue to support capital punishment.

On immigration, there appears to be some softening of the traditional liberal Jewish position. Immigration has turned from a civil rights issue into a security issue in the post September 11 world. Today, the Jewish grassroots, traditionally strong on immigration, has become more conservative than the Jewish organizations that represent them on this issue. American Jews are a second, third, fourth and fifth generation community—very far removed from those who got off the boat. The issue was once crucial for American Jews. In the 1950s it was the Jewish community that played a leading role in immigration reform. The post September 11 world of 2003 is not the world of 1953.

The September 11 dynamic is crucial in another area—civil liberties. While American Jews, both on the street and in the organizations, still express strong support for civil liberties protections, Jewish groups have been tweaking their traditional stances in this arena. Re-examination is too strong a word; recalibration is what is happening.

Another item on the domestic agenda—again small, but very important—growing out of the findings of the 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population authorities is the aging of the Jewish community. How old are we? We are really old. Jewish voters will be looking toward the party that has care for the elderly, prescription drugs, and those kind of issues on the platform and the candidates who articulate these concerns.

It is in the church-state area that the culture wars within the Jewish community are most dramatically played out. The endogenous agenda has resulted in an increased emphasis on Jewish education. This plays out in calls for vouchers for parents sending their children to Jewish day schools and other such measures of questionable constitutionality. Many feel that in an era when Jewish continuity is the priority for American Jews, Jewish education must have priority over church-state concerns.

Others maintain that vouchers are a quick fix, appropriate for the 6:00 news, but they mask the real problem—the reluctance of Jewish Federations and other funding arms to look at the hard question of reallocations.

Another arena in which these culture wars are being played out is the candidacy of Joe Lieberman. Lieberman, a Democrat, has adopted a number of positions in the constitutional arena that are giving unreconstructed liberals heartburn. Most Jews still oppose charitable-choice and voucher programs, for example, but the story is one of growing polarization between Jews often—not always, but often—along an Orthodox/heterodox divide. This is a candidate who has placed his Orthodox Judaism front and center (which plays very well with many religious Christians).

That is good news with respect to Jews in this society. There is no end to the surveys that show that Americans, when asked, “Do you have any problem voting for a Jewish president?” overwhelmingly—over 90 percent—say No. And I believe them. The bad news is that Senator Lieberman has chosen to fish in some very murky waters.

Here is a question for reporters. Unless I'm missing something, I have not seen any big "Jews for Lieberman" campaign out there. Is Lieberman taking the Jewish vote for granted, or is the opposite the case? It's something that I would like to know about.

On the obverse side of the coin, does George Bush feel aware of Jewish voters? And to what degree?

I am not going to talk about the issues on the Israel agenda. But, Christian fundamentalists’ support for Israel illustrates a larger issue of interreligious relationships.

The last time I participated in a discussion here at the Greenberg Center, I gave the following definition of interreligious relationships: Interreligious relationships are an unnatural act engaged in by partially-consenting adults following an open prayer. The issue has been dramatically illustrated during the past few months by the support of Israel by Christian Fundamentalists.

In its barest form, the question is: Ought American Jews make common cause with Fundamentalist Protestants around their support for Israel, even as (A) such support is based on highly dubious and perhaps unfriendly theological grounds from a Jewish perspective and (B) Jews part company radically with Fundamentalists on virtually every other issue on the public affairs agenda.

This question is illustrative of a larger matter—in this case, the progress that has been made in interreligious relationships over the past four decades. Take the difference between Fundamentalist-Jewish and Catholic-Jewish relations. Catholics have traveled many miles down many roads in the years since Vatican II. Whatever the fault-lines in the relationship, those fault lines are not deep fissures. There is a formal acceptance on the part of the Catholic Church of the legitimacy of Jews as a discrete faith community.

Whatever the protestations to the contrary, there is no clarity or assurance that such is the case with respect to many of the fundamentalist communities, for whom conversion of Jews remains at the forefront of the agenda.

In terms of advocacy, there is a lot of grass-roots advocacy on every issue, at every level in the Jewish community. The structure of the Jewish community is informed by American pluralism and federalism, and there are many different voices. This is the strength of the community, but a problem for journalists. There is no central hierarchical structure like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Some groups are shooting for that level of influence—arrogating to themselves powers that their founders never intended. We all go to the Presidents Conference for quotes and sound bites. But the mandate of the Presidents Conference is to carry the message of the American Jewish community on Israel to the administration, period. It's not a policy-making body. However, in recent years the Presidents Conference, under very aggressive leadership, has begun to represent itself as coordinator of policy and the official voice of America's Jews, which it is not. [Part of the problem, in terms of presenting the story, is that journalists traditionally go to a couple of people they love and who have traditionally represented, with some exceptions, more hard line positions, and more nuanced views simply don't get expressed.]

American Jews are a product of and vehicle for pluralism. Conventional wisdom has it that the community is disorganized, with multiple organizations expressing themselves raucously in a cacophonous cluster of voices. The American Jewish polity speaks with many voices. The Jewish community is not in a danger of being organized. Most Jews in America do not concede to any one organization the right to express their views. They'll look to any number of organizations.

I keep in my Rolodex three or four legal directors of the national Jewish organizations and the telephone number of the associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Personally I get more knowledge from these guys.