American Jews and the Religion-Intensity Gap

Pete Souza / The White House

In American politics, religion doesn’t matter nearly as much as religiosity. Take Rick Santorum, the darling of evangelical voters from Iowa to South Carolina. A few decades ago, the idea of evangelicals rallying behind a Catholic would have been inconceivable. Antagonism between the two denominations ran too deep. But today, unless you’re a Muslim, or perhaps a Mormon, what type of faith you practice is politically irrelevant. All that matters is how fervently you practice it. The culture war is a battle between traditionalists and secularists of all faiths. It’s not a battle between different religious groups but within them.

That’s the key to understanding the political behavior of American Jews. Every four years, Republicans vow to use Israel to pry Jews from their nearly century-old allegiance to the Democratic Party. And every four years, they fail. The reason is that only about 10 percent of Jews actually vote on Israel (a country most American Jews have never visited).

In fact, most American Jews don’t really vote as Jews at all. On many issues, in fact, they’re indistinguishable from atheists. They vote as secularists. The same red-blue divide that cuts through the rest of America cuts through Jewish America too. The difference is that in the rest of America, the divide is roughly 50-50. Among Jews, secularism wins by a landslide. Jews aren’t that far left on economics, but on the issues where secular and traditionalist Americans clash—abortion, church and state, gay rights—their secularism pushes them into the Democrats’ arms. Rick Santorum may not like it, but he should understand.

The GOP’s Orthodox Fans

gop-orthodox-jews-nb10a Ramin Talaie / Getty Images

One group of American Jews is embracing the GOP, and not surprisingly, it’s the most religious subset: the Orthodox. In the last two presidential elections, while roughly three quarters of American Jews have voted Democratic, about three quarters of the Orthodox have voted Republican. Orthodox Jews are more likely than other Jews to vote on Israel, they’re more likely than other Jews to lean right on Israel, and, as religious traditionalists themselves, they have some sympathy for the GOP’s stance in the culture war. The bad news for the GOP is that the Orthodox constitute only 10 percent of the American Jewish population. The good news: given their higher birthrate and lower rate of intermarriage, that percentage could double in a generation.

Nobody Goes to Temple

According to polling done by statistician Tom Smith for the American Jewish Committee, U.S. Jews practice their religion far less than their American Christian counterparts.