Thursday was an unusual news day with two major stories dominating virtually all news outlets---the Malaysian airliner which was shot down over the Ukraine killing nearly 300 passengers and crew and Israel Defense Forces entered Gaza to prevent Hamas’ rockets from raining down on its population centers.
Pretty much lost amidst those dominating stories were some rather interesting items that speak to the uniqueness of our country and its attitudes towards minorities.
On Wednesday, the Pew Research Center released a study, How Americans Feel About Religious Groups, that documents the transformation of this country over the past few decades.
It wasn’t all that long ago that pre-dominantly Protestant America treated with some disdain non-Protestant Americans: Catholics, Jews and other non-Judeo-Christian faiths. The Ku Klux Klan, which had a heyday at several points during the twentieth century, had as its primary targets of hate Blacks, Catholics and Jews.
This week’s poll demonstrates how times have changed---Jews are the most favorably viewed religion in America. Jews, Catholics and Evangelical Christians are “viewed warmly by the American public” (on a scale in which 0 is the most negative rating and 100 the most positive) Jews and Catholics rank 63 and 62, respectively, and Evangelical Christians 61. Lower down on the acceptance (“warmth”) scale are Buddhists (53), Hindus (50), and Mormons (48). Atheists rank 41 on the scale and Muslims come in at 40.
Christians and Jews are rated more favorably by older Americans while atheists and Muslims ratings improve with folks 49 and under (Muslims are viewed positively by 32% of those over 65 while those 18-29 years old view them positively at a 49% rate; atheists go from 34% favorable in the over 65 cohort to 49% in the under 29 year old grouping). Jews are viewed most favorably by whites (66%) and equally favorably by Blacks and Hispanics (58%). For both Blacks and Hispanics Jews are outranked by only one other group---for Blacks, Evangelicals are more favored at 68%; for Hispanics, Catholics are more favored at 65%.
The study also reveals that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, there are widespread interactions among different religious groupings. 87% of American adults say they know someone who is Catholic, 77% say they know someone who is “not religious”, 61% say they know someone who is Jewish. The latter datum is quite remarkable since only 2%, + or -, of the public identify as Jewish (for comparison purposes, only 44% of the public claims to know a Mormon which, similar to Jews, constitute about 2% of the American public).
The average American personally knows members of at least four of the eight religious about whom the survey was conducted (Evangelical Christians, Catholics, Jewish, Atheist, Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu). Americans with college degrees tend to know members of five religious groups while those with a high school diploma or less know, on average, three groupings.
Another Pew study released this week reveals more encouraging data, “the sympathies of the American public continue to lie with Israel rather than the Palestinians.” With data going back nearly forty years, the support for Israel is near all-time highs while support for the Palestinians remains at about the level it was in 1978. 51% of the public sympathize more with the Israelis while 14% with the Palestinians---the support has changed little despite this week’s outbreak in violence.
One fascinating revelation in the support for Israel poll is the gap between support for Israel among Republicans and Democrats. The gap between Republican support (73%) and Democratic support (44%) has never been wider (29%).
The American support dramatically contrasts with what seems to be going on in Europe. The Forward reports that on the eve of Bastille Day (on July 13th), about 7,000 demonstrators marched toward the Bastille proclaim their solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza. 200 young men broke off from the group and headed toward a synagogue (Abravanel) shouting “death to the Jews” and trapping 200-400 Jews inside the synagogue literally trapped. It took several hours for the police to arrive and allow those trapped in the synagogue to leave.
President Francois Hollande condemned the demonstration and its anti-Semitic chants with an awkward declaration that, “One cannot make use of anti-Semitism because there’s a conflict between Israel and Palestine.” Despite its inelegance, his sentiment was well intended.
The contrast with the American public and its tolerant, civil sentiments are clear.