Survey of American Jewish Opinion

Religion and the Public Square:
Attitudes of American Jews in Comparative Perspective
-- A Follow-Up Study


This survey is a follow up to an extensive survey of American Jewish and non-Jewish attitudes toward religion and the public square released in June 2000. In August 2000, Peter Steinfels, writing about the initial study in the New York Times, suggested that Jews and the American Public Square commission a second survey to gauge the impact of Senator Lieberman's nomination and campaign on Jewish opinion. Our first study showed quite clearly that American Jews, far more than their non-Jewish counterparts, had deep suspicions about letting religion play too great a role in American public life. How would Sen. Lieberman, chosen in part for his public persona as a traditional moralist, affect American Jews? Would his dramatic use of religious rhetoric and traditional moral themes alter Jews' abiding discomfort with public religion?

To answer these questions, Prof. Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew University prepared a follow-up questionnaire. During September and October 2000 over 1300 respondents, all of whom participated in the first survey, responded to it. A concise analysis of the relevant data is presented here.

Although the survey did not detect any dramatic shifts in attitude, one can detect some interesting variations. On certain issues, such as the involvement of churches and synagogues in political matters or support for tuition vouchers, both Jews and non-Jews seem to have become more skeptical. The data arguably show an increased wariness, at least among Jews, regarding the presence of religion in public affairs. The high visibility of religion in the campaign may have occasioned a small backlash. Far from having moved them toward more tolerance for religion in public life, Sen. Lieberman's campaign seems to have convinced many Jews to continue to oppose it.

I would like to thank Prof. Cohen for his preparation of these materials under the pressure of a pre-election deadline. I would also like to thank The Pew Charitable Trusts for their support of Jews and the American Public Square. The findings expressed in this study are the views of its author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Trusts.

Alan Mittleman, Director
Jews and the American Public Square

Summary of Main Findings

Follow-up Survey of
American Jewish Attitudes Toward
Religion in the Public Square,
In the Aftermath of the Lieberman Nomination

September/October 2000

Sponsored by the Center for Jewish Community Studies

Investigator: Prof. Steven M. Cohen
The Hebrew University

American Jews reacted highly favorably to the nomination of Senator Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic candidate for Vice-President. Nevertheless, they remain as committed as before the nomination to the strict separation of church and state. More than others, they seek to keep religion out of public life in general, and politics in particular. In fact, if anything, the over-time evidence points to a possible small intensification of separationist attitudes among American Jews (and non-Jews) following the Lieberman nomination.

These findings emerge from a survey of a national sample of American Jews (N= 837) and a demographically adjusted sample of non-Jews (whites only, fewer Southerners, more highly educated than the American population generally; N = 501) in September/October, 2000. The same respondents answered a comparable mail-back survey in February, permitting a comparison of over-time trends. (The response rates in the fall were 84% for Jews and 73% for the non-Jewish respondents. All those receiving the fall questionnaire had responded to the previous survey in February.)

Jews more enthusiastically welcomed the Lieberman nomination than non-Jews. At the same time, Jews remain insecure about their acceptance in American society, perceiving antisemitism substantially more frequently than non-Jews. More than non-Jews, they oppose candidates expressing fervent religious commitment in public, even when expressed by a candidate so admired as Senator Joseph Lieberman.

In particular ...

With respect to seven questions on religious accommodation/separation in the public schools (Table 1), both Jews and non-Jews today register small changes from the February baseline findings. However, the changes are non-uniform (in both directions). For example, slightly fewer respondents support vouchers for private and parochial schools (declines of five percentage points for non-Jews and just two points for Jews), but somewhat more (three and five percent for non-Jews and Jews respectively) support allowing students to say non-sectarian prayers at sporting events (a practice that the Supreme Court recently held to be unconstitutional). Most critically, non-Jews remain far more accommodationist (i.e., less separationist) than Jews. For example, 85% of non-Jews as compared with 49% of Jews favor a moment of silence for public school students to pray if they want to.

Table 1
(Percent who favor selected policies)

Non-Jews Feb. Non-Jews Sept. Jews Feb. Jews Sept.

Allowing schools to display the Ten Commandments 65 58 38 34
Allowing school students to say non-sectarian prayers at sporting events 69 72 28 33
Allowing non-denominational prayers to be read in the classroom 59 53 20 20
Allowing schools to set aside a moment of silence each day for students to pray if they want to 84 85 48 49
Allowing schools to teach Christmas carols, as long as they also teach Hanukah songs 77 73 56 55
Providing government aid (vouchers) to families for tuition in private, non-religious schools 40 35 24 22
Providing government aid (vouchers) to families for tuition in private schools, including religious schools 43 38 22 18

In questions about religion in public life (Table 2), the results also point to relative stability. To illustrate, both Gentile and Jewish respondents hold essentially the same views as in the previous survey toward the need for more laws governing moral behavior, the availability of abortion, and the desirability of Congress opening its sessions with a prayer. On all these matters, more non-Jews express accommodationist or "conservative" views than Jews, not surprising in light of Jews' continued greater self-identification as liberals and as Democrats. For example, fully 75% of non-Jews approve of Congress opening with a prayer as contrasted with just 31% of Jews.

Table 2
(Percent who favor selected policies or agree with selected attitudes)

Non-Jews Feb. Non-Jews Sept. Jews Feb. Jews Sept.

Democracy in the US works better if Americans are religious 42 45 11 13
There's too much separation of Church and State in America 41 9
I am worried that we're going to reduce the separation of Church and State.32 47
We need more laws governing our moral behavior 45 46 28 27
I am pleased when political leaders affirm their belief in God 70 68 30 37
It's good for Congress to start sessions with a prayer 71 72 28 31
Religion should play an important role in shaping American values 76 75 51 44
Abortion should be generally available to those who want it 58 59 88 90
I would like to see organized religion stay out of politics 56 60 88 88
It's OK for the Right to Life movement to use religion in the debate on abortion 42 41 15 19
It's OK for a city government to put up a manger scene on government property at Christmas 80 80 43 35
It's OK for a city government to put up candles on government property for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah 79 77 46 37
Television, newspapers, magazines and radio are fair in their treatment of very religious people 46 39 43 44
Clergymen can discuss political candidates or issues from the pulpit 30 32 34 32
Churches and synagogues should keep out of political matters 36 42 44 49
I think the influence of religion in American life is increasing 20 21 30 35
I would like to see the influence of religion in American life increase 65 62 30 26

With respect to excluding churches/synagogues and organized religion from politics, or the related matter of the desirability of increasing the influence of religion in American life, small changes among both groups emerge. Both Jews and non-Jews express somewhat less support for such religious institutional involvement in politics than they did in February, although the differences from one survey to the next are small. For example, the proportions supporting the view that churches and synagogues should keep out of political matters grew from 36% to 42% among non-Jews, and from 44% to 49% among Jews.

The survey also questioned respondents about their views of the national election campaign (Table 3). Jews are somewhat more engaged in following the campaign from a variety of news sources. More Jews than non-Jews said the outcome is very important to them (64% versus 52%), and by a small margin, more had made a financial donation to a party or campaign.

Table 3

I have been obtaining news about the race for President from: Jews Non-Jews

TV news broadcasts 93 88
TV convention coverage 46 34
Newspapers 83 74
News magazines 31 24
Friends 28 20
Other sources 22 25
I have followed the news about the race for President very closely. 31 19
The outcome of the election for President is very important to me. 64 52
I have made a financial donation to a political party or electoral campaign since June. 12 10

Jews lean heavily toward the Democrats (Table 4). The non-Jews are divided between Bush and Gore, though lean slightly toward Gore, reflecting their special demographic character in this study. (The Gentile sample was constructed to resemble Jews in terms of their regional and educational distributions.) In contrasting their September voting intentions with those they recalled prior to the selection of Vice Presidential candidates, both groups report a small inferred shift in favor of the Democrats (eight points among non-Jews and eleven points among Jews). Jews have strong favorable impressions of Gore and Lieberman, and largely unfavorable impressions of Bush and Cheney (Table 5). On balance, non-Jews report favorable impressions of all four candidates. For both Jews and non-Jews, Lieberman garners the largest ratio of favorable to unfavorable impressions.

Table 4

I will vote for: Jews Non-Jews

  George Bush 10 33
  Al Gore 72 39
  Ralph Nader 2 2
  Pat Buchanan 0 0
  Undecided 16 26
George Bush's selection of Richard Cheney for Vice President made the Republican ticket more appealing to me. 8 22
Al Gore's selection of Joseph Lieberman for Vice President made the Democractic ticket more appealing to me. 68 31
Before the Vice Presidential candidates were selected, I was planning to vote for:
  George Bush
12 36
  Al Gore 63 34
  Ralph Nader 2 1
  Pat Buchanan 0 0
  Undecided 23 29

Table 5

impression of:
Jews Non-Jews

George Bush 13 / 64 39 / 36
Al Gore 75 / 12 46 / 30
Ralph Nader 20 / 38 13 / 40
Pat Buchanan 1 / 84 6 / 58
Richard Cheney 12 / 49 29 / 26
Joseph Lieberman 77 / 5 39 / 15

Jews are far more disturbed than non-Jews by the high profile of religion in the presidential campaign, both globally and with respect to specific actions of each of the four major candidates (Table 6). For example, almost four times as many non-Jews as Jews approve of Richard Cheney's support for prayer in schools (59% versus 16%), and a similar ratio among non-Jews and Jews support politicians speaking about their faith in public (52% versus 16%). Concerning Lieberman's references to God and quoting from the Bible, twice as many non-Jews as Jews express approval.

Table 6

Jews who approve Jews who disapprove Non-Jews who approve Non-Jews who disapprove

Politicians speaking out against sex and violence in movies and on TV. 66 19 74 14
Politicians speaking about their faith in God and quoting the Bible in public. 16 62 52 31
George Bush's proclamation of "Jesus Day" in Texas. 3 90 24 45
Al Gore's comment that he never makes a major decision without asking himself what Jesus would do. 10 67 42 30
Joseph Lieberman's references to God and quoting from the Bible in his speech in Tennessee after being selected by Gore. 21 52 45 29
Richard Cheney's sponsorship of a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in schools. 16 69 59 23
Religion in the campaign disturbs me. 53 25 30 45

Few Jews or non-Jews are prepared to criticize Lieberman for being too liberal or too conservative (Table 7). Although, by small margins, more Jews think he is too conservative, and more non-Jews think he is too liberal. Both groups see Lieberman as more of an asset than a liability to the Gore campaign, and more Jews than non-Jews hold that view. Both groups, on balance, are happy that a Jew was nominated for high office (84% of Jews, 45% of non-Jews) and especially a religious Jew (55% and 39% respectively), but the differences between Jews and non-Jews are instructive. Among non-Jews, the positive reactions to a "religious Jew" as a candidate are almost as frequent as those to "a Jew" being nominated (39% versus 45%). Among Jews, however, a substantial gap separates the very large degree of happiness over a Jew being nominated with the more limited enthusiasm they express for a religious Jew (55% versus 84%). The results suggest that a substantial number of Jews are happy that a Jew was nominated, but they did not feel especially happy that he was a religious Jew. In contrast, very few non-Jews expressed this configuration of sentiments. The majority of non-Jews who were happy that a Jew was nominated, were also especially pleased that he is a religious Jew.

Table 7

Jews Non-Jews

Many potential voters for Gore were turned off by his choice of Lieberman as his running mate. 2016
Gore's choice of Lieberman improved his chances of victory in November. 52 36
I might have voted for Gore, but I won't now because I don't like his running mate. 1 5
The Lieberman nomination has brought a large amount of financial donations to the Democratic campaign from Jewish supporters. 24 21
Lieberman's religious commitment enhances his moral stature. 64 53
Lieberman is too conservative. 13 7
Lieberman is too liberal. 6 11
I was happy that a Jew was nominated for high office. 84 45
I was especially happy that a religious Jew was nominated for high office. 55 39

Table 8

Non-Jews Feb. Non-Jews Sept. Jews Feb. Jews Sept.

Identifies as a liberal 19 19 32 31
Identifies as a conservative33 31 21 17
Party identification: Republican 34 34 14 12
Party identification: Democrat 31 33 59 64

Jews retain the same levels of concern for antisemitism in America (Table 9) as they did in February (although presumably, such concerns have risen since the outbreak of violence in Israel). The only noticeable change in their views seems to be an increased assessment of antisemitism among Southern Baptists and possibly declining concern for antisemitism among Fundamentalist Protestants (Table 10).

Table 9

Jews Feb. Jews Sept. Non-Jews Sept.

Antisemitism is currently not a serious problem for American Jews 9 10 16
Virtually all positions of influence in America are open to Jews 31 30 48
I have worried about antisemitism expressed after the nomination. 64 32
I have become more open to the idea that religion can play a helpful role in life. 26 40
A more religious America means a more antisemitic America 30 38 17
Jews would be better off in a more religious America 11 8 21

Table 10
(Entries are percent who think most or many
members of the group are antisemitic.)

Jews Feb. Jews Sept.

Southern Baptists 4763
Fundamentalist Protestants 59 51
Blacks 36 40
Conservatives 31 31
Catholics 30 32
Republicans 25 28
Mainstream Protestants 23 26
Hispanics 21 18
Liberals 7 5
Democrats 6 5

The survey asked non-Jews (Table 11) for their views on the prevalence of antisemitism in the U.S. (not asked of them in February). Fewer non-Jews than Jews perceive antisemitism or, express concern about the issue. Twice as many non-Jews as Jews (40% versus 22%) believe that Jews have been fully accepted in America. Following the Lieberman nomination, twice as many Jews as non-Jews worried about antisemitism (64% versus 32%; Table 9).

Table 11

Jews Non-Jews

Jews no longer need to abandon the practices of their faith in order to succeed. 60 66
Jews have been fully accepted in American. 22 40
Antisemitism in America has declined to levels lower than they were thirty or forty years ago. 32 44
Jews can be observant and still do things like other people. 70 70
Being a Jew is no longer seen as a significant political liability for politicians. 43 58
Orthodox Judaism is obsessed with ritual to the exclusion of matters of the spirit. 23 11
Jews are at the forefront of every movement for sexual liberation. 9 5
Jews dominate the entertainment industry that promotes freedom from all sexual restraint. 6 9
Many leading Jews in America are devoid of religious sentiment, if not openly hostile to religion. 12 8

Significantly, very small numbers of Jews or non-Jews endorse statements seemingly critical of Jews, even those that may have some empirical plausibility. Hardly anyone (Jew or Gentile), would agree that Jews dominate the entertainment industry that promotes freedom from all sexual restraint (6% and 9%).

Majorities of both groups (with small differences between them) think that Jews need not abandon their practices or their observance to succeed in American society (Jews: 60%; non-Jews: 66%). At the same time about half (more among Jews, fewer among non-Jews) are not sure that Jewish politicians are hurt by their being Jewish.

In sum, the results point to ongoing and relatively stable attitudes among Jews and non-Jews since the earlier survey in February. More than non-Jews (then and now), Jews are liberal, Democratic, and separationist on matters of Church and State. Moreover, more Jews were positively moved by the Lieberman nomination. In addition, more Jews than non-Jews are concerned with antisemitism in American society.

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