Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the Pew Center for People & the Press report released yesterday, “How Americans Feel About Religious Groups,” is just how popular Jews are. For the survey, Pew had respondents rate how “warm” or “cool” they feel about different different religious groups on a “thermometer” that went up to 100.
Jews, despite the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and elsewhere, garnered a higher average ranking than any other group: 63. And only 10 percent of respondents ranked them 33 or colder.
Here’s a chart laying out who (dis)likes whom:
There’s a lot to unpack, and Science of Us got some valuable help from Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute. Here are five key takeaways:
1. Race is probably a big factor here.
“Just a few generations ago, Jews weren’t automatically included in the ‘white’ category,” said Jones. “That difference has gone away today.” This matters, potentially a lot, because race is a big part of the overall assimilation/integration equation.White immigrants have generally had an easier time being accepted by Caucasian Americans, who are still a majority. Most American Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims are not, while most American Jews are. (Atheists and Mormons, the two remaining groups, don’t fit in this category but have complicated stories of their own.)
In short, newly arrived religious or ethnic groups that happen to be able to pass as white tend to have a leg up, and Jews have been able to take advantage of that. (Of course, as the demographics of the U.S. change, so too will the flimsy notion of what it means to be a “real” American.)
2. Evangelicals have an unrequited love affair with Jews.
Evangelicals rate Jews 69, which is one of the highest numbers on the chart. Jews rate Evangelicals at 34, which is one of the lowest. What gives? A big part of it is theology. Some evangelicals believe that Jews need to control Israel in order for Jesus to return and the end times to begin, and that in the long run most of them will be wiped out or converted as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. “I think that plays a real role in those warm reviews,” said Jones.
Many Jews, in turn, understandably aren’t that thrilled about Evangelicals professing their love — partially because they don’t share the same apocalyptic religious beliefs (I can speak personally to my parents scoffing at the notion of evangelicals “supporting” Israel because they believe Jewish control of it will invite the apocalypse), and partially because there tend to be pretty big cultural differences between the groups. Evangelicals can get over those cultural differences because Jews play such an important role in their theology; Jews have no such spiritual beliefs pertaining to Christians to fall back upon.
3. A lot of people don’t know any Jews personally, but seem to be taking their cues from pop culture and other mass media.
Sixty-one percent of respondents said they personally knew a Jew, which is a surprisingly high number given that Jews make up only about 2 percent, but that leaves 39 percent who don’t know a single Jew. And yet Jews came out atop the popularity pile, which suggests many people who didn’t know Jews are nonetheless rating them highly.
That could be partly owed to the fact that there are a number of high-profile Jewish performing artists, academics, and other media figures. “The cultural exemplars that people point to, they have a positive association with,” said Jones. When people don’t have a lot to go on, they’ll think of whoever pops into their head. With Jews, that’s likely someone like Jerry Seinfeld or Steven Spielberg. Is this a particularly sophisticated form of tolerance? No. But it shows how much familiarity, even at a distance, can help.
4. If you’re Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or an atheist, younger people are your friends.
All four of these groups garnered an average rating of 53 or lower, with Muslims the least liked at 40. But the age breakdowns tell a very different story:
Young people are more tolerant of these groups than their parents and grandparents, which makes sense in light of common-sense (and accurate) notions that young people are more socially liberal.
The interesting exception here is Mormons, who are slightly less popular with younger folks. It’s speculation, but the facts that (1) Mitt Romney is far and away the most famous Mormon in the country, and (2) young people are not Romney fans could help explain this.
5. Full integration and assimilation take time.
Jones explained that while the first major wave of Jewish immigration came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that’s not true for most Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims in the U.S. “For many of these religions, it wasn’t until the immigration laws changed in 1963 that we had sizable groups moving in,” he said. So in addition to the racial barrier, these groups have to deal with the fact that they’re still an unknown quantity: just 38 percent of Americans know a Muslim, 23 percent know a Buddhist, and 22 percent know a Hindu.
This is in part driven by geography, Jones explained. These groups are more tightly clumped in ethnic enclaves today than they will be in a generation or two (think of the proportion of Jews in the Lower East Side versus the rest of the country in the early 1900s). That reduces other Americans’ exposure to them and likely accounts for some of the cooler feelings toward them.