This week the Republican Jewish Coalition held its presidential candidates forum, and the visiting contenders engaged in transparently obsequious rhetoric to demonstrate their love of Israel. Media accounts made the event sound rather embarrassing, but it’s almost poignant, if you think about it. Because despite groups like the RJC, the reality is that Jews vote overwhelmingly for Democrats and identify overwhelmingly as either Democrats or Independents. All the groveling about Israel is unlikely to shift the balance if the GOP doesn’t get smart about one crucial issue: religion.
No matter how they try to downplay it with veiled language, the GOP is a Christian party with a Christian message. When pols appeal directly to that base, they may forget (or perhaps not care) that Jews are out there too watching TV and hearing what’s being said.
Rick Perry began airing an ad this week that should make Republican Jews cringe. He says, “I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a Christian. But you don’t have to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion, and I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.”
The ad doesn’t even pretend to religious plurality, and while Perry has made headlines this week for his pledge to increase aid to Israel, many American Jews will understand this ad for what it is: a battle cry to Christian Americans who want to protect America’s one “religious heritage.” (The word “heritage,” in particular, has widespread cachet among the white pride crowd.)
If the Evangelical Perry was too feckless to sugarcoat the Christian-nation message the same week he courted his party’s Jewish contingent, the rest of the candidates have been fairly dextrous at avoiding overt mention of imposing those values—especially because it doesn’t work in their favor. Romney’s brand of Christianity is too strange; Gingrich’s is too poorly observed. Still, all the Republican candidates subscribe to the idea that the country would be better if it were less secular. And even if you’re not fluent in Politispeak, you can translate that one.
There are some things the GOP would do well to remember when they’re fixating exclusively on Israel to garner the Jewish vote. For one, Jews tend to have a radically different interpretation of religion than Christians do, according to a 2008 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life report. At the time the study results were released, the Forward boiled it down like this:
Compared with the major Christian denominations in the United States, American Jews are affiliated but remarkably secular. … Jews are far less likely to pray, read the bible or believe in God.
These results were among Jews who thought of themselves as religious.
But those results were tepid compared to what Harvard’s Robert Putnam and Notre Dame’s David Campbell found in researching their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Putnam lays this out in an article in Moment magazine, in which editors asked 14 Jewish thinkers to consider the question “Can there be Judaism without a belief in God?” (The fact that Jews continue to ask that question—and have done so since the 19th century—should be telling in itself.)
Putnam writes, in part:
Of self-identified Jews in the nationally representative surveys David Campbell and I did for our book American Grace, 50 percent say they have doubts about the existence of God. That figure is much higher among Jews than any other major religious group in America. (Among members of all other faiths, only 10-15 percent express any doubts at all about God’s existence.) Indeed, the fraction of atheists among self-described Jews is not much lower than among so-called “nones,” people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. Of the “nones,” 53 percent have doubts about God’s existence.
There’s also a new book out from Princeton University Press called Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought that discusses the fact that certain Hebrew texts we may think of as religious either omit or downplay God’s existence. Russian Jewish immigrants are generally secular, as are Israeli immigrants (and Israelis in general).
This is to say that there are many, many American Jews who are disinterested in religion or unimpressed by references to prayer, “faith,” God and belief. When Perry or other Republicans preach a faith-based (i.e., Christian) nation, it sounds to us like they’re advocating the exclusion of a people—and that’s alienating at best and frightening at worst.
If there are some Jews naive enough to think Rick Perry has their best interests at heart simply because he has kind words for Israel during a campaign, most will not be taken in. Until Republicans embrace religious pluralism, Jewish voters will keep their distance.