Political Ignorance and Jewish Perceptions of Conservatives and the Religious Right:

In a recent post, co-blogger David Bernstein rightly chides for omitting political ignorance from my post on Jewish perceptions of the religious right. David suggests that Jews may overestimate the prevalence of anti-Semitism among Christian conservatives, and that this may account for part of their distaste for them.

The survey data support David's conjecture. This 2005 American Jewish Committee survey shows that American Jews, on average, view "Evangelical Protestants" as more anti-Semitic than any other group, with the exception of Muslims. 28% of Jewish respondents in the AJC survey thought that "many" or "most" evangelicals are anti-Semitic, and an additional 44% thought that "some" are. Only 23% answered "very few" or "none." By contrast, 19% thought that "many" or "most" African-Americans are anti-Semitic, 15% thought that of Catholics, and only 7% of Hispanics. In reality, ADL surveys show that anti-Semitism among evangelicals is comparable to the national average, and National Election study data show that evangelicals, on average, view Jews slightly more favorably than do other gentiles (though the difference is not statistically significant). By contrast, anti-Semitism among African-Americans and Hispanics is significantly higher than the national average (though a majority of both groups is not anti-Semitic, and among Hispanics the divergence from the national average is largely a result of anti-Semitism among Hispanics born in Latin America, where anti-Semitism is more common than in the US).

Obviously, evangelical Protestants and the religious right are not identical. But there is a high overlap between the two groups, and negative attitudes towards one are likely to be correlated with hostility to the other. If anything, I would bet that the AJC study would have recorded a higher perceived level of anti-Semitism if they had asked Jews their opinions about the "religious right."

As I have argued in my academic work, political ignorance is both rational and widespread. So we should not be surprised that that many Jews might be ignorant about the true prevalence of anti-Semitism among Christian conservatives. Political ignorance is not a specifically Jewish pathology. Rather, it cuts across ethnic, religious and political lines. Surveys of evangelicals and conservatives reveal all kinds of political ignorance among these groups as well.

An interesting question is whether Jews would be less hostile to the religious right and conservatism more generally if they had a more accurate perception of the prevalence of anti-Semitism in those quarters. Some of the hostility might disappear, but not as much as we might think. Even if Jews did not perceive Christian conservatives as more anti-Semitic than they really are, there would still be vast cultural and ideological differences between the two groups that would lead many Jews to be hostile to a political movement closely associated with the religious right. Moreover, some of the Jewish overestimation of evangelical anti-Semitism might actually be a result of the antagonism between the two groups rather than a cause. Many studies show that people tend to devalue or ignore any information that makes their political adversaries look good, while overvaluing anything that looks bad. Some Jews might accept exaggerated claims of anti-Semitism among Christian conservatives in part because they already dislike them for other reasons. Similarly, people tend to reject information that makes their political allies look bad. That may help explain why liberal Jews might underestimate the relatively high rate of anti-Semitism among key Democratic constituencies such as African-Americans, foreign-born Hispanics, people with very low levels of education, and the poor (though it is important to note yet again that the majority of each of these groups is not anti-Semitic).

A second way in which ignorance might affect Jewish perceptions of conservatives and the religious right is that Jews may overestimate the extent to which these groups want to establish Christianity as a quasi-official religion, persecute religious minorities, ban the teaching of evolution, and so on. While some Christian conservatives seek to make the US an officially "Christian nation" and otherwise subordinate minority faiths, many others have far more limited objectives, such as legalizing government-sponsored religious displays, permitting voluntary prayer sponsored by public schools, and so on. Even the more moderate version of the Christian conservative agenda is at odds with the social liberalism of most Jews (and my own views as well). But understanding the true nature of the mainstream religious right agenda might lead some Jews to be more willing to ally with conservatives on economic and foreign policy where a large minority of Jews might agree with them. However, it's hard to say how important this factor is without looking at actual survey data on Jewish perceptions of the religious right political agenda.

In sum, I think a more accurate understanding of the religious right would lead only to a modest reduction in Jewish distaste for them. But it might cause some Jews who agree with conservatives on economic and foreign policy issues to be more willing to ally with them in spite of a continuing dislike of the religious right element of the conservative political coalition. It's unthinkable for many Jews to even consider allying with a group perceived as a bunch of troglodyte anti-Semites who want to make Christianity the official religion. An alliance of convenience with people who are not anti-Semitic theocrats, but merely (from secular Jews' point of view) badly mistaken about various social issues, is less inconceivable.

UPDATE: It is perhaps worth noting that the AJC survey linked above does show that Jews perceive a comparatively high degree of antii-Semitism among African-Americans, with 73% answering that at least "some" African-Americans are anti-Semitic, very similar to the 72% who said the same of "Evangelical Protestants." Only 24% stated that "very few" or no blacks are anti-Semitic (23% said the same of evangelicals). However, a much larger percentage of Jews (28%) believe that "many" or "most" evangelicals are anti-Semitic than say the same of blacks (19%).