Last week, born-again Christian, gay marriage opponent, former all-star pitcher and likely senate candidate Curt Schilling poured out his bewilderment to CNN host Jake Tapper. “I don’t understand how people of Jewish faith can back the Democratic Party,” Schilling declared, “which over the last 50 years have been so clearly anti-Israel.” Tapper, who is Jewish, looked like he had entered the twilight zone. But he kept his cool, replying that, “I don’t speak for Jews and I don’t support the Democratic or Republican Party. [But] I would imagine, just to try to answer your question, one of the reasons many Jews are Democrats has more to do for social welfare programs and that sort of thing than it does for Israel.”
Several pundits declared Schilling's question anti-Semitic, but that’s ridiculous. Asking someone of a given religion to explain the proclivities of his co-religionists may be statistically unsound. But it’s not bigoted. People of goodwill do it all the time. Schilling's premise - that the Democratic Party, led by Barack Obama, who just handed Israel a $38 billion, no-strings-attached aid package, is “clearly anti-Israel” - is clearly nuts. But it’s not anti-Semitic either. Plenty of right-wing Jews believe it too.
In fact, social scientists have been posing a version of Schilling's question for more than a half-century now. Why is it, Milton Himmelfarb asked decades ago, that Jews “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans?” The real answer has little to do with Israel. And it doesn’t have much to do with “social welfare” either.
Tapper is right that most American Jews don’t vote on Israel. An August J Street poll of Jewish voters in Florida found that only eight percent chose Israel as among their top two issues. Only two percent cited Iran. Surveys in 2012 revealed the same thing.
Why is this? It’s partly because American Jews are a highly assimilated population, most of who have never even been to Israel. American Jews do care about the Jewish state. If they really believed Democrats were anti-Israel, some might abandon the party. But because most non-Orthodox American Jews are doves—they mostly backed the Iran nuclear deal, support the two state solution and oppose settlements—they don’t view Obama and Hillary Clinton as anti-Israel. Which frees them to vote on other things.
What other things? Tapper answered “social welfare programs.” That’s a common view, and it fits the story American Jews often tell about ourselves: We were yesterday’s underdogs; now we want government to help the underdogs of today. But it’s probably wrong. In 2005, the American Jewish Committee commissioned a researcher named Tom W. Smith to measure Jewish distinctiveness from other religious and ethnic groups on a wide array of political and social issues. He found that “Jews and non-Jews differ little on extending social welfare policies” and that “Jews and non-Jews do not differ on the government doing more to improve living standards.”
What most distinguished Jews weren’t their economic views. It was their views on cultural issues—especially regarding sexuality and gender. Seventy-seven percent of American Jews said the government should allow women to have abortions for any reason. That was almost forty points higher than the national average. Four in five Fundamentalist Protestants said gay sex was morally wrong. One in two Catholics agreed. Among Jews, it was one in five. Smith found this pattern again and again. In their personal lives, Jews were fairly traditional: They divorced at lower rates than the population at large. But ideologically, they were the most progressive and permissive: more accepting of female equality, premarital sex, extramarital sex, birth control, the legalization of pornography, suicide and euthanasia than any other religious group, by far.
The reason: Jews are secular. Views on sexuality and gender closely track religiosity. And by American standards, Jews are astonishingly irreligious. In Smith’s survey, 82 percent of Fundamentalist Protestants said they knew God exists. Among Catholics, it was 65 percent. Even among liberal Protestants, the figure was 58 percent. Among Jews? 27 percent. When it came to religious practice, the discrepancy was just as stark. Jews were one-quarter as likely as Catholics to say they attended religious services every week. They were less than half as likely as even liberal Protestants to say they pray every day. In fact, the group whose level of religious observance and belief most resembled Jews wasn’t a religious group at all. It was atheists. “The distance of Jews from other religious groups,” concluded Smith, “is underscored by the fact that their beliefs are much closer to those without any religious preference than to those of any of the other faith groups.”
In the twenty-first century, religiosity is the clearest political dividing line among white Americans. The closer your ties to organized religion, the more likely you are to vote Republican. (GOP partisanship is so ingrained that even Donald Trump, a biblical know-nothing with the sexual ethics of Caligula, will win a majority of white churchgoers). Politically, what matters about Jews isn’t that they’re Jewish. It’s that they’re secular. Secular Americans vote Democratic. Jews vote Democratic because they’re more secular than almost anyone else.
There are two ways to prove this.
First, take the least secular Jews: The Orthodox. They mostly vote Republican.
Second, take the most culturally tolerant Republicans: those whose views on abortion and gay rights most appeal to secular voters. They win lots of Jewish votes. Candidates like Rudy Giuliani and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman did far better among Jews than most other Republicans. Jews, it turns out, are quite willing to vote for candidates who slash “social welfare programs” if they are pro-choice and pro-gay rights.
Why is it so hard for Schilling to understand this? The answer lies in the way he formulated his question: “I don’t understand how people of Jewish faith can back the Democratic Party.” But for most American Jews, Jewishness is less a faith than an identity. And politically, it’s a secular identity, one forged in opposition to the moralistic, intolerant religiosity of the Christian right.
Why don’t more Jews vote Republican? Hate to break it to you, Curt, but it’s because they’re afraid of people like you.
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