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Religion and the Public Square: Attitudes of American Jews in Comparative Perspective – Part Two

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

 No. 435   August 2000

[Editor’s Note: This Jerusalem Letter is the second in a two-part special report on an extensive survey commissioned for the “Jews and the American Public Square” project being conducted by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs’ American affiliate, the Center for Jewish Community Studies. The project was initiated by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The published version of the complete study will soon be available.]

Expression of Religion in Public Life

Attitudes toward separation-accommodation are related to support for (or opposition to) the expression of religion in public life. Within each of the three samples, church-state separationists were more likely than accommodationists to oppose expanded religious influence in society and the involvement of churches and church leaders in political affairs. Table 5 contains several relevant questions in this domain.

Table 5
(percent who favor selected policies
or agree with selected attitudes)

Non-Jewish Public Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988

Democracy in the U.S. works better if Americans are religious. 42 11 19

We need more laws governing our moral behavior.
45 28 3

I am pleased when political leaders publicly affirm their belief in God.
70 30 22

It is good for Congress to start sessions with a public prayer.
71 28 15

Belonging to a church or synagogue makes one a more aware and engaged citizen.
56 48 55

Religion should play an important role in shaping American values.
76 51 54
The influence of religion in American life should increase. 65 30 20

It is okay for a city government to put up a manger scene on government property at Christmas.
80 43 5 36

It is okay for a city government to put up candles on government property for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
79 46 7 37
Index of Support for Religious Expression in Public Life 64 41 33


For six out of nine items, the pattern of responses follows that found with respect to accommodationism in the schools: the non-Jewish public’s support for religious influence exceeds that of the Jewish public, followed by the Jewish leaders. Answers to the questions on public display of religious symbols (Christmas mangers and Hanukkah candles) are prime examples. We find support for such display by the vast majority of non-Jews, a large minority of the Jewish public, and hardly any of the Jewish leaders.

Compared with twelve years ago, Jewish support for public display has increased by a small extent, moving from 36 percent approving a manger scene in 1988 to 43 percent now, and, with respect to Hanukkah candles, from 37 percent in 1988 to 46 percent today. These changes, coupled with those reported earlier, suggest a small, but noticeable, shift toward more accommodationism within the Jewish public.

Non-Jews, the Jewish public, and Jewish leaders are also sharply differentiated along by now familiar lines with respect to whether “we need more laws governing our moral behavior” (45 percent versus 28 percent versus 3 percent respectively). Behind this question are two views of the state that may be called “visionary” and “instrumental.” The visionary state, a view held more often by conservatives than liberals, bears responsibility for shaping the moral character of its citizenry. As such, the state is obliged to pass laws to prevent immoral conduct and to educate citizens on proper behavior. The instrumental notion of the state, a view held more by liberals than conservatives, sees the state as avoiding moral judgments. In this view, the state is responsible for helping individuals realize the good as they determine it, so long as such pursuits cause no harm to others.

Previous research has demonstrated that Jews are less inclined to support laws governing moral behavior in part because they do not attach moral judgment (or as much moral judgment) to certain issues. For example, from the survey we learn (again) that Jews take a less critical view of homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and pornography than do non-Jews. In each case, Jewish leaders are even more tolerant than the Jewish public.

Jewish attitudes toward such matters are not merely more relaxed or tolerant. The responses to the question on moral laws suggest that Jews are less inclined to believe that government ought to legislate what they regard as personal morality, a zone that should be free from government interference. Perhaps they hold a more suspicious view of government, one bred by centuries of living under governments that were not their own.

In still other ways, the Jewish public is generally less enthusiastic about the role of religion in American public life than are non-Jews. When asked about their preferences for the growth or decline of the influence of religion in American society, twice as many non-Jews as Jews preferred that it increase (65 percent versus 30 percent, and just 20 percent for Jewish leaders).

Of some interest is that in this area, Jewish leaders’ views are not very different from those of the Jewish public. In contrast with their greater separationism, Jewish leaders expressed marginally more support than the public on the following questions (paraphrased):

  • Democracy works better if Americans are religious.
  • Belonging to a church or synagogue makes one a more engaged citizen.
  • Religion should play an important role in shaping American values.

It is in the context of the gaps in separationism reported above that these findings are surprising. With the leaders so much more strictly separationist than the public, and in light of the correlation between separationism and attitudes toward religion in public life, one might have expected the leaders to substantially trail the public in support for religious influence in society. That the leaders’ attitudes even resemble those of the Jewish public in this area, let alone surpass the Jewish public in a few instances, is remarkable. Accordingly, although proportionally many more JCPA leaders adopt a strict separationist position, it does not appear to be a consequence of a greater antipathy toward the role of religion in public life. [Note: As explained in Part One of this special report, “JCPA” in this article refers to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in the U.S. and not the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.]

Organized Religion and Politics

We also see signs of similar complexity with respect to the participation of churches and clergy in politics (Table 6). Non-Jews, the Jewish public, and Jewish leaders provide very mixed patterns of responses to questions on whether churches, the clergy, and organized religion should be active in the political arena. Jews (both the public and the leaders) are far more inclined than non-Jews to want organized religion to stay out of politics. Similarly, a large gap separates the Jewish public from the non-Jewish public with respect to the appropriateness of the Right to Life movement using religion (42 percent of non-Jews approve versus 15 percent of Jews). A small gap in the same direction emerges in the question on churches and synagogues keeping out of political matters (36 percent of non-Jews and 44 percent of Jews favor this statement). However, on whether the clergy can discuss political matters and candidates from the pulpit, the Jewish public is actually more accepting (30 percent for non-Jews and 35 percent for the Jews).

Table 6
(percent who favor selected policies
or agree with selected attitudes)

Non-Jewish Public Jewish Public JCPA Leaders

Organized religion should stay out of politics. 56 88 83

It is okay for the Right to Life movement to use religion in the debate on abortion.
42 15 50

Clergymen can discuss political candidates or issues from the pulpit.
30 35 73

Churches and synagogues should keep out of political matters.
36 44 14
Index of Support for Church Involvement in Politics 49 46 80


The JCPA leaders, on these last three questions, endorse organized religion’s political involvement far more than the Jewish public and even far more than non-Jews. For example, 73 percent of the leaders approve the discussion of politics by clergy from the pulpit, as opposed to only about a third of the non-Jewish and Jewish publics. On another question, as many as 80 percent of the leaders said that churches and synagogues should express their views on social and political questions, almost twice as many as among the non-Jewish and Jewish public samples.

Among the public (be it Jewish or non-Jewish), separationist policy stances are associated with opposition to church involvement in political life. The JCPA leaders seem to break this association by strongly supporting separationism and also strongly supporting clerical and church involvement in politics.

To be sure, internally, the sample of JCPA leaders evinces the same sort of relationship between the two attitudes. That is, within the sample of leaders, separationism correlates with opposition to churches’ political involvement. However, in the aggregate, the leaders are more separationist than the Jewish public, but also are more inclined to legitimate church involvement in political affairs. Accordingly, in this macro context, their strong support for churches’ political involvement contrasts with their strong support for separationism.

With all this said, further inspection of the data reveals still further anomalies. The JCPA leaders trail the Jewish public with respect to these items:

  • I am pleased when political leaders publicly affirm their belief in God (for the public 31 percent agree, versus 22 percent for leaders).
  • It is good for Congress to start sessions with a public prayer (28 percent versus 15 percent)
  • Would like to see the influence of religion in American life increase (30 percent versus 20 percent).

In all three instances, approximately 70 percent of the non-Jewish public agreed, constituting a very sharp gap with the Jews, be they the public or JCPA leaders.

These results flesh out the seemingly anomalous stance of the leaders toward religion in public life. They are, indeed, more committed than the Jewish public to the right of religious institutions and leaders to engage in public life and discourse. However, like the Jewish public, JCPA leaders are unhappy with the actual exercise of that right (in fact, as a group, the leaders are marginally less pleased than the Jewish public over religious expression in the public square).

Issues Related to Sexuality

The role of religion in public life has figured prominently in issues related to sexuality. Abortion may be the most contentious issue, followed closely by homosexuality and, to a lesser extent, the availability of pornography. Most outspoken religious leaders, or so it probably seems to the public, adopt a “conservative” position on these issues. Any exploration of attitudes toward religion in the public square needs to take into account attitudes toward these issues.

Indeed, on every sexually-oriented public policy item listed in Table 7, we find the same ordering of the three samples’ responses seen earlier with respect to separationism. The non-Jewish public is the most conservative, the Jewish public is more liberal, and the Jewish leadership is more liberal still. For example, with respect to whether homosexuality is wrong, almost half (48 percent) of the non-Jews agree, as contrasted with less than a quarter (23 percent) of the Jews, and just 7 percent of the leaders. Support for the general availability of abortion reaches 56 percent among non-Jews, 88 percent of Jews, and almost all (96 percent) of Jewish leaders. (Recall that adjusting the non-Jewish sample for education and residence produced a more liberal sample than the unadjusted national norm. Hence, these results also understate the Jewish/non-Jewish gap with regard to sexually-oriented issues.)

Table 7
(“Social Liberalism/Conservatism”)
(percent who favor selected policies)

Non-Jewish Public Jewish Public JCPA Leaders

It is wrong for adults of the same sex to have sexual relations. 48 23 7

School boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals.
24 6 4

Abortion should be generally available to those who want it.
58 88 96

Abortions should be more difficult to obtain than they are now.
41 10 5

Public schools should be allowed to provide students with information on birth control methods.
74 87 93

Lesbians and homosexuals who have publicly declared their sexual orientation should be allowed to teach in public schools.
48 75 91

Gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry legally.
32 52 56

The public sale and display of pornography should be banned.
69 56 21

Where and how pornography may be exhibited should be regulated.
84 80 69


Conservative versus Liberal

The question of church-state relations has been one hotly debated by conservatives and liberals, with the former taking the accommodationist position and the latter supporting a separationist posture. Jews have a deserved reputation for liberalism, based in large part upon their historic support for the Democratic party and upon their identification as liberals, as opposed to moderates or conservatives.

Consistent with this imagery, the extent of liberalism in the respondents’ present or family past (i.e., their parents) follows a by now familiar pattern (Table 8). The non-Jewish public (even this highly educated and relatively non-Southern adjusted sample) least often identifies as liberals, surpassed in turn by Jews and Jewish leaders (19 percent, 32 percent, and 74 percent respectively). We find the same ordering with respect to Democratic party identification (31 percent, 59 percent, and 81 percent). In comparison with surveys of the Jewish public conducted in 1988 and 1997, we find a slight movement in a less liberal direction, one that is not statistically significant but may be substantively meaningful.

Table 8
(in percent)

Non-Jewish Public Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988 Jews 1997

Takes a liberal stand on political issues 19 32 74 33 35

Thinks of self as a Democrat
31 59 81 61 64

Father’s usual stand on politics was liberal
10 25 35 23

Mother’s usual stand on politics was liberal
15 26 55 26


Further (and perhaps more compelling) evidence for Jews’ widespread identification with the liberal camp is found in answers to questions on the impression of selected liberal and conservative groups and movements (Table 9). Favorable impressions for liberal groups are highest among the Jewish leaders, lowest among the non-Jewish public, and intermediary among the Jewish public. For example, for the ACLU, favorable ratings range from 34 percent for non-Jews, to 61 percent for Jews, and 92 percent for the JCPA leaders.

Table 9
(in percent)

Non-Jewish Public Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988

Pro-choice movement 61 86 95 78

National Organization for Women
59 77 86 51
NAACP 58 75 93 49

Americans United for Separation of Church and State
19 36 74

34 61 92 33

National Rifle Association
42 19 18

Right to Life movement
41 13 18

Christian Coalition
35 9 2

Index of Liberal Orientations toward Political Activists*
58 70 79

* Index includes: pro-choice movement (+), NOW (+), NAACP (+), ACLU (+), NRA (-), and the Right to Life movement (-), and takes into account the full range of responses from very favorable to very unfavorable.


Conversely, far more non-Jews than Jews have a favorable impression of politically conservative groups. For example, 42 percent of non-Jews think favorably of the NRA as opposed to 19 percent of the Jewish public and 18 percent of Jewish leaders. The overall index of sympathy for liberal-conservative groups places the Jewish public (with a score of 70) somewhere between the non-Jewish public (58) and the JCPA leaders (79), though clearly closer to the JCPA leaders than to the non-Jewish public. The leaders, in short, see themselves squarely as member of the liberal camp in American politics, while the Jewish public leans more hesitantly in that direction.

Perceptions of Antisemitism

The Jewish public more readily perceives antisemitism in American society than do the leaders (Table 10). Just 9 percent of the public could agree that, “antisemitism is currently not a serious problem for American Jews,” as contrasted with 45 percent of the leaders. Just 31 percent of the public agreed that almost “all positions of influence…are open to Jews,” as contrasted with more than twice as many leaders (70 percent). Compared with 1988, both figures for the public point in the direction of increased concern with antisemitism. In this regard, we need to recall that several shootings of Jews by lone gunmen had taken place shortly before the fielding of the survey, and these undoubtedly fueled Jewish concerns over antisemitism.

Table 10
(percent who agree)

Jewish Public JCPA Leaders Jews 1988

Antisemitism is currently not a serious problem for American Jews. 9 45 14

Virtually all positions of influence in America are open to Jews.
31 70 25

 Further insight into Jewish thinking on antisemitism may be gleaned from perceptions of the extent to which certain religious, ethnic, political, and economic groups in American society are antisemitic (Table 11). With respect to a list of twelve such groups, greater proportions of the Jewish public viewed “many” or “most” of the members of these groups as antisemitic as contrasted with the more relaxed views of JCPA leaders. Some of the contrasts are quite striking. For example, 30 percent of the public see many or most Catholics as antisemitic as compared with just 4 percent of the leaders; for mainstream Protestants the results are similar (23 percent versus 4 percent). Large gaps also emerge with respect to Republicans, big business, Hispanics, and union leaders where about a quarter to a fifth of the public perceives substantial antisemitism as compared with just small handfuls of the leaders.


Table 11
(percent who think most or many
members of the group are antisemitic)


Southern Baptists 47 42

Fundamentalist Protestants
59 52 59

36 23 46

31 25 23

30 4 38

25 12 20

Mainstream Protestants
23 4 34

Big business
22 6 35

21 6 30
Union leaders 20 2 28

7 3 9

6 2 7

Index of Perceived Antisemitism
55 33


The gaps between leaders and rank-and-file Jews narrow considerably with respect to groups at both ends of the perceived antisemitism spectrum. Of note, hardly any members of the public or leadership regard liberals or Democrats as highly antisemitic. At the same time, four groups concern both the public and the leaders. Most worrisome to both samples are fundamentalist Protestants, followed by Southern Baptists, blacks, and conservatives. (For the public, the Catholics run a close fifth in perceived antisemitism.)

The results largely replicate those found among the Jewish public in 1988. Both in 1988 and in 2000, conservative-oriented groups fared “worse” than did the more liberal-oriented. Groups seen as religious and minority ethnic groups evoked high levels of concern among the Jewish public. However, the perceptions of antisemitism for almost all groups replicated declined from 1988 to 2000. For example, in 1988, 46 percent thought that many or most blacks were antisemitic as contrasted with 36 percent in the year 2000. The two exceptions to these trends entail conservatives and Republicans; for both these right-of-center groups, perceptions of antisemitism by Jews became more widespread.

The ordering of the groups (with more conservative groups seen as more antisemitic), the liberal political leanings of the respondents (Jewish public and Jewish leaders), and their stances on separationism are all related. For Jews, a more liberal worldview is associated with greater faith in liberals as friendly to Jews and more support for separationism as a protection against potentially antisemitic, conservative, Christian influences in society. The more conservative worldview is associated with more perceptions of hostility among liberals, relatively less among conservatives, and a more accommodationist position.

In general, among the Jewish public and JCPA leaders, perceptions of antisemitism are linked to support for church-state separation and a diminished presence of religion in society. But the specific groups associated with antisemitism is an important part of this story. The analysis distinguished four sorts of groups (or groups of groups), listed here in declining order of perceived hostility to Jews:

  1. Religious groups (Southern Baptists, Protestant fundamentalists, mainstream Protestants, Catholics).
  2. Ethnic groups (blacks, Hispanics).
  3. Conservative groups (conservatives, Republicans, big business).
  4. Liberal groups (liberals, Democrats, unions).

Among the Jewish public, only variations in perceptions of antisemitism among the religious groups and the ethnic groups correlate (r = about .25) with separationism or attitudes toward religious influence in public life. For the JCPA leaders, the same relationships were limited to attitudes toward religious groups. In other words, concern with the potential hostility of religious groups (among the Jewish public and leaders), as well as ethnic groups (among the public), is associated with support for separationism and opposition to religious influence in society.

Jewish Leaders versus the Jewish Public

The JCPA leaders differ from the Jewish public in their more vigorous support for separationism. The gap between leaders (at least these leaders, from an agency known for its long and vigorous advocacy of a high wall of separation between church and state) and their public is especially pronounced. If the Jewish public is separationist, the JCPA leaders are profoundly and almost uniformly separationist. At the same time, we must recall that separationism grows with Jewish involvement. Clearly, it is most pronounced in the public among those who are most Jewishly involved. The JCPA leaders are an even more ethnically involved group than the Jewish public at large. Their views on separationism reflect their significantly higher levels of Jewish involvement.

Compared with the Jewish public, one that is wary of religious involvement in public life, JCPA leaders more readily endorse the legitimacy of religious involvement in politics. At the same time, even more than the Jewish public, JCPA leaders are displeased by the actual expression of certain religious symbols and behavior in public (e.g., opening congressional sessions with a prayer).

JCPA leaders, as compared with the Jewish public, are much more religious, more decidedly in the liberal camp, less concerned about antisemitism, and rather outspoken in their support for the legitimacy of religious influence and participation in the public square. They come to a strong support for separationism despite their personal religiosity, despite their principled support for religiously informed discourse, despite their endorsement in theory of church and clerical involvement in politics, and despite their relaxed attitude toward American antisemitism. Why the JCPA leaders remain committed to church-state separation as a deeply held principle demands explanation.

From individual interviews with Jewish leaders, we learned that there is sympathy, if not commitment, for the influence of religion in and upon public discourse. All see religious institutions as fragile structures which could be perverted or undermined by overly close connections with the state. All see a diminished impact of religion upon the state were religious institutions to accept state largesse, or, more generally, were the separation of church and state to be weakened or narrowed.

In fact, Jewish separationists have long regarded support for separation and for the expression of religion as not at all contradictory, but rather as mutually supportive phenomena. At least since 1947, Jewish communal leaders engaged in struggles over church-state issues emphasized the establishment clause of the First Amendment, rather than the free exercise clause, as the best guarantor of religious freedom and religious equality. They assumed that the two clauses were “two sides of the same coin,” expressing the unitary principle “that freedom requires separation.”

Apparently, leaders of the JCPA (and other agencies with similar positions) have long held a set of related propositions, derived from their reading of the First Amendment, that sees separationism as in harmony with strong Jewish commitments (in line with the patterns in the Jewish public) and with support for the free exercise of religion in American public life. On another plane, as we have seen, the most religiously and ethnically involved members of the Jewish public are, at the same time, the most separationist and the most accepting of clerical involvement in politics. That JCPA leaders also adopt these positions, in light of their own high levels of Jewish involvement, is not at all that surprising.

Elites are clearly capable of producing and maintaining logical connections that are absent in their publics. Moreover, those who are recruited to leadership in these agencies arrive with the understanding of the agencies’ historic positions. Presumably, leaders self-select. After many years of involvement, they also learn to adopt the logic that connects support for religious involvement in public life with separationism in church-state policy.

*     *     *

This study was prepared with the assistance of Judith Schor, CUNY Graduate Center, and the Florence G. Heller/JCCA Research Center. The author gratefully acknowledges the extensive comments of Charles Liebman on earlier versions of this report, and also thanks Leonard Fein, Alan Mittleman, and Jonathan Sarna for their helpful comments.