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Whatever Happened to the ‘Pro-Jewish’ Left?

America’s political divide has become a religious and communal divide

Samuel J. Abrams
Jack Wertheimer
June 24, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

It is a truism among many observers of the current socio-political scene that politics has become a substitute religion for large numbers of Americans. Writing about the sacralization of politics, Shadi Hamid, for example, stated that “on the left, the ‘woke’ take religious notions such as original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication and repurpose them for secular ends…; [while] on the right, adherents of a Trump-centric ethno-nationalism still drape themselves in some of the trappings of organized religion, but the result is a movement that often looks like a tent revival stripped of Christian witness.” All this has led, some claim, to the high levels of ideological intensity, social division, and demonization in the realm of politics that once were the preserve of religious zealots. And this intensification of passions and commitments—both political and religious—is an important dimension of social “sorting” and polarization, with more Americans taking more uniformly left-leaning or right-leaning positions in both politics and religion.

The relationship of politics and religion also has shifted in an additional way. Until sometime in the last third of the 20th century, adherents of certain religious denominations gravitated to the Republican party and others to the Democrats. But both parties—and their respective political camps—attracted people seriously committed to their religion. That pattern has changed in recent decades with the opening of a “God gap” or “religiosity gap.” As early as the 1980s, many in the Bible Belt and those associated with the evangelical movement went from being relatively neutral on political matters to becoming highly engaged, generally with the Republican party and conservative political positions. Recent research indicates that partially in reaction, people who were less religious gravitated toward the left side of the political spectrum.

In brief, a revolution has transformed the political allegiances of large swaths of Americans: levels of religious conviction, denominational identities, worship service attendance, and other expressions and measures of religiosity correlate with how most Americans vote in elections and identify politically in surveys. Broadly speaking, “religious” people—however measured—tend to lean Republican politically and conservative in their ideology. Their opposite numbers—the “non-religious” or secular—often favor Democrats and are ideologically liberal. To take just one of many research studies, the Pew Religious Landscape Study finds numerous links between measures of religiosity and political ideology (conservative-moderate-liberal). As a general phenomenon, conservatives, far more than liberals, believe in God, see religions as important, attend religious services weekly, pray daily, see religion as a guide to morality, read scripture, and believe in heaven and in hell. Any way you slice it, conservatives today are more religious, liberals are more secular, and moderates are in-between.

Levels of religious conviction, denominational identities, worship service attendance, and other expressions and measures of religiosity correlate with how most Americans vote in elections and identify politically in surveys.

This emerging political reality has occasioned debates about cause and effect: Have Americans changed their political views because of their religious outlook, or has political partisanship driven how American think about their religion? For years, conventional wisdom favored the former explanation: religion, it was widely assumed, is the driver of political allegiances. More recently, that assumption is being questioned.

Mounting evidence suggests that social networks—the people with whom a person associates—coupled with the political outlook widely shared in those networks, influence how large numbers of Americans relate to religion. To take one piece of research that may well be indicative of larger trends, a recent Pew study found that white Americans who viewed Trump favorably and did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 were much more likely than white Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020. Another straw in the wind is the drop in church membership and service attendance, alongside a decline in religious identity, due to several factors, though more concentrated on the left than the right: Over the last decade, another report found, “The decline in organized religion is indeed much bigger among Democrats (-17 points) than Republicans (-7 points).”

Given these seismic developments in the wider society, has there been a corresponding shift in how the politics of American Jews has aligned with their religious and ethnic commitments? Complicating this question is the knotty relationship between Jewish identity, religious commitment, and ethnic solidarity. To be a Jew, after all, is not solely about identification with a religious tradition, but also with a people, its history, culture, and values, and, since 1948, with the Jewish State of Israel. Political identities may influence Jewish religiosity or Jewish collectivity or Israel commitments, or all three. Thus the typical, political cleavages present in American society in general may not necessarily tightly map on to the many variations of Jewish commitment.

To probe these relationships, we examined survey data from the most recent national study of American Jews produced by the Pew Research Center titled “Jewish Americans in 2020.” Respondents were asked to identify with a political label on a spectrum ranging from very conservative to very liberal. (Though Pew offers five ideological options, we have consolidated them into three for the sake of clarity.) It quickly emerged that the familiar sorting patterns evident in American politics at large characterize a good many Jews. Jewish political liberals and conservatives have moved into two camps with distinct and exclusive ideas, behaviors, and packages of attitudes and practices, resembling and reflecting the same socio-political phenomena in the larger society, a development with serious ramifications for American Jewish life.

Consider the relationship between political ideology and Jewish religious commitments. Consistent with the larger trends in American society, on measure after measure, politically conservative Jews as a group are far more engaged with their religion than political liberals. For example, Jewish political conservatives are more than three times as likely as liberals to say that religion is very important to them (41% vs. 12%), with moderates situated between them (at 23%). This “political gradient”—high-scoring conservatives, middle-range-scoring moderates, and low-scoring liberals—recurs when we examine several other critical measures of religiosity. Almost twice as many conservatives as liberals are synagogue members (45% vs. 25%). More than three times as many attend religious services monthly (42% vs. 13%). Conservatives are far more likely than liberals to “mark Shabbat in a way that makes it meaningful to you” (53% vs. 33%).

Political ideology also correlates with how Jews think about the role of faith in today’s society. In the 2022 American National Family Life survey, a significant gap emerged when Jews were asked whether religion causes more problems in society than it solves. Fully 69% of politically liberal Jews believe that religion is more problematic than helpful, compared to just 15% of Jewish political conservatives and 54% of political moderates. In that same survey, sharp differences emerged when respondents were asked about the role religion can play in teaching good values. Just one-third of liberal Jews (34%) believe that “it is important for children to be brought up in a religion so they can learn good values.” In sharp contrast, 59% of moderate Jews and 85% of politically conservative Jews feel the same way. The survey also asked if individuals must free their minds from old traditions and beliefs to understand the world today. A majority of Jewish liberals (68%) was open to rejecting tradition for the sake of modernity, compared to just a little more than one-third of Jewish conservatives (37%), with moderates once again situated in the middle at 46%.

Consistent with the larger trends in American society, on measure after measure, politically conservative Jews as a group are far more engaged with their religion than political liberals.

Turning now to the other dimension of Jewishness, we will use the shorthand of “peoplehood” to denote the responsibility Jews feel to one another, meaning ethnic solidarity, a sense of family connection or some other form of collective identity and caring when Jews anywhere are facing adversity. That commitment to mutual responsibility, even more than religion, has been a glue binding Jews together, as we may infer from the fact that twice as many Jews say that being Jewish is very important to them compared to the importance they ascribe to religion (42% vs. 21%).

When asked whether being Jewish is very important to them, the majority of political conservatives answered yes, followed by a minority of moderates, and then even fewer liberals (59%, 42%, 36%). On other measures of Jewish “peoplehood” connections, we see even more pronounced patterns. About twice as many conservatives as liberals have mostly Jewish close friends (48% vs. 20%). Almost twice as many conservatives as liberals regard Jewish community as essential to their being Jewish (49% vs. 26%). Far larger proportions of political conservatives as compared to liberals highly value belonging to the Jewish people (67% vs. 41%), and the gap between right and left is even more pronounced with respect to feeling a great deal of responsibility to help Jews in need (50% vs. 20%). Consistent with these patterns, conservatives also do more to enact their connections. They lead liberals in making donations to Jewish charitable causes (64% report having done so in the prior year, compared to only 41% of liberals). Conservatives also are more likely to consume Jewish news (62% vs. 35%).

Given all the differences in how these political factions relate to the Jewish people, it should come as no surprise that conservatives are considerably more attached to Israel than liberals are. They are twice as likely as liberals to regard caring about Israel as essential to their being Jewish (67% vs. 33%). And the gap is even larger when respondents indicated they felt very attached to Israel (45% of conservatives and just 14% of liberals claim such a strong attachment). An even larger ratio—more than four to one—separates conservatives and liberals when they are asked about whether they feel they have a lot in common with Israeli Jews (44% vs. 10%). Not only are conservative/liberal differences pronounced in regard to emotional connections to Israel and Israeli Jews, they surface also on questions of policy. Hardly any conservatives—or moderates for that matter—regard the U.S. as too supportive of Israel (6% and 8% respectively). But six times as many liberals do (40% find the U.S. too supportive of Israel).

These large gaps even appear when adherents of different political ideologies contemplate the future Jewishness of their own families. Asked about their hopes for their descendants, Jewish political conservatives are more than twice as likely as liberals to feel it’s very important that their current or future grandchildren identify as Jews (59% vs. 25%), and they are four times as likely to say it’s very important for their grandchildren to marry Jews (46% vs. 12%).

To be sure, ideology alone does not explain these pronounced patterns. Family circumstances also play a large role. Far more conservatives have Jewish family members than do liberals. More of them have two Jewish parents (77% vs. 65%). And the gap with respect to intermarriage is even wider: Just 25% of Jewish political conservatives are intermarried compared to 52% of liberals. To take one more related measure, conservatives have about three times as many Jewish children in their homes as liberals.

In sum, a large gap has opened between Jewish political conservatives and liberals (and even more so among those who identify as “very liberal”) on a broad range of questions measuring Jewish commitments. The question this raises is why are so many politically liberal Jews indifferent to Judaism and Jewish group solidarity?

By posing this question, it is not our intention to besmirch liberals as hopelessly lost to the Jewish people or to valorize conservatives as the saving remnant. For one thing, significant numbers of liberals continue to be committed to Judaism and Jewish collective life. For another, fully half of American Jews identify as liberals, with ever higher proportions of Jews identifying as liberal among the younger age cohorts. Writing them off makes little sense. Yet ignoring the widening chasm we have traced is counterproductive. For those concerned about the vitality of Jewish religious and communal life, the gap between adherents of the left and right is central to what we may describe as the great American Jewish resignation from identification and affiliation. And that resignation is far more prevalent on the liberal side of the spectrum than on the conservative one, hence our sharp focus on the former.

In point of fact, the liberal-conservative gap we have delineated can be traced back at least to the late 1980s, if not earlier, though it has grown steadily wider. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey and Pew’s “Jewish Americans in 2020” both show the same patterns in regard to varieties of Jewish involvement (as does the 2013 Pew study). Political conservatives out-score liberals on almost every measure of religious and peoplehood involvement appearing in these three surveys. Taking nine measures that appear in the 1990, 2013, and 2020 surveys, we find that levels of Jewish engagement among conservatives held steady at around 60%. In sharp contrast, the average score for liberals dropped over 30 years, going from 44% to 40% to 36% by 2020. To cite a few examples of declining participation by liberals, Yom Kippur fasting dropped from 50% in 1990 to 41% in 2020. Donating to Jewish causes went from 52% down to 41%. And when asked about having mostly Jewish close friends, nearly a third (31%) of liberals had them in 1990, whereas only one-fifth did in 2020. In other words, the conservative/liberal gap widened, not because conservatives become more Jewishly engaged—they held steady—but because liberals experienced notable drops in Jewish engagement over the years.

The liberal-conservative gap we have delineated can be traced back at least to the late 1980s, if not earlier, though it has grown steadily wider.

Consistent with this longer-term trend, the age of survey respondents in 2020 makes a great deal of difference. Among liberals 65 and over, 50% say they feel strongly about belonging to the Jewish people. The number drops with age, reaching a mere 27% among those 18-29. We see similar age-related declines among liberals on other measures, including donating to Jewish charities (57% vs. 21%), having mostly Jewish close friends (36% vs. 12%), feeling very attached to Israel (19% vs. 10%), and feeling that being Jewish is very important in one’s life (42% vs. 26%). Today’s older liberals are much more engaged in Jewish life than their younger ideological allies, consistent with our finding that liberals in our time are less Jewishly engaged than those 30 years ago.

The data we have at present are insufficient to determine causal order. We do not know if liberals became more distant from Judaism and the Jewish people, or whether those who are Jewishly distant migrated to the liberal camp. But we do know that liberals identify less with Jewish religious and communal life than conservatives today—and that this process has been underway for over 30 years. The widening of the gap is not due to recent events, such as the Trump presidency or Israel’s decreasing popularity with Democrats and liberals. Rather, other factors have been at work, undoubtedly resembling similar patterns in American society at large.

To shed some light on these developments, we turn to some of those broader trends and the fact that as Americans have “sorted” and polarized, political conservatives have tended to embrace religious and communal commitments, while liberals have increasingly shied away from religious institutions, with many proclaiming themselves to be agnostic or atheist. In a recent survey (2021), Pew found that three quarters (73%) of those in the GOP believe that religious institutions are good for society, compared to only 49% of Democrats. In fact, looking at the trend data since 2010, we see stability in the positive attitudes of Republicans toward religious institutions, but a notable increase in negativity among those who identify as Democrats. Put somewhat differently, the Pew Research Center has found that the percentage of liberals who believe that churches and religious organizations positively contribute to society dropped from nearly half (49%) in 2010 to only one-third (33%) by 2019.

The widening of the gap is not due to recent events, such as the Trump presidency or Israel’s decreasing popularity with Democrats and liberals.

These current attitudes stand in marked contrast to the scene in the middle of the 20th century: America then had an abundance of religiously committed liberals and liberally inclined theologians, such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, William Sloane Coffin, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, to name but a few who typified the nexus of liberalism with religiosity. Certainly liberal churches still exist and some thrive, but many church-goers prefer ideological homogeneity. It’s hard to think of more than a handful of national leaders in the politically liberal camp today who identify strongly with their religion. Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia is an exception and both President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are Catholic and take Communion but are less overtly religious than leaders in earlier generations. Here, then, is the broader context in which politically liberal American Jews find themselves, an ideological environment not warmly disposed to religion, to put it mildly, and one that regards particularistic allegiances to white ethnic groups as anachronistic, if not a form of white supremacy. Little wonder that many Jewish liberals are distancing themselves from Jewish religiosity and communal needs.

Beyond this context, we might ask whether there are aspects of current liberal attitudes that are undermining Jewish commitments. We identify four such elements that are considerably more characteristic of liberals and, by extension, Jewish liberals, than conservatives.

1. The elevation of the autonomous self and its wants. As Robert Bellah and associates richly explained nearly 40 years ago, Americans have a long history of balancing rugged individualism with community commitments. Over the past decades, the latter have faded while the former has strengthened. Wherever one turns today, we are confronted with the assertion of individual autonomy, with demands that we attend to each individual’s version of “truth.” On the Jewish scene already two decades ago, Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen in their book, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, identified the impact of the “sovereign self” on the ways moderately engaged Jews enact their Jewishness. Since then, Jewish institutional life has contended with ever more insistence on the part of many that it must change to accommodate their needs—or else they will leave. Jewish institutions are widely decried as insufficiently nimble to satisfy the disparate—and contradictory—wants of the many autonomous selves now demanding that they get their way. And pace The Jew Within, much of Jewish life for many has become privatized, enacted only in the confines of people’s minds, homes, and families. Liberals, it seems, are far more inclined than conservatives to favor unfettered autonomy.

2. The triumph of the DIY lifestyle. An outgrowth of radical autonomy, Do It Yourself Jewishness now adopts and abandons, mixes and matches. Jews are encouraged to create their own understanding of Jewishness, consistent with what they find personally meaningful. Inherited Jewish traditions are deemed outmoded. Not only is Judaism no longer seen as a package of obligations and commandments; it now is treated as endlessly plastic. While suitable for liberals, this approach does not work well for conservatives who continue to embrace tradition, law, and institutional norms. In general, conservatives (more than liberals) hold that faith and belief cannot be cherry-picked and followed only when convenient or personally meaningful.

3. The rise of identity politics. Liberal culture has come to valorize group identities based on what may be called “victim status.” Sexual orientation, minority group identity, gender, and disability are seen as legitimate bases for social identity and for claiming respect, if not privilege. In contrast, group identities based on ancestral cultures—such as being Jewish or of white European ethnicities—are not similarly valued. Undoing victimization and privileging the once marginalized are the primary goals of group identification, according to current liberal thinking. By contrast, maintaining religious communities, ethnic solidarity, and Jewish group continuity appeal to conservatives but not liberals. Not surprisingly, Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people, once lauded by Democrats (and Socialists), now finds far more favor among Republicans.

4. The prioritization of universalism over particularism. Perhaps, most famously expressed by John Lennon’s song, the world is imagined to be a far better place without religion, countries, and possessions. Within American Jewry this orientation undergirds much of the talk about“repairing the world” (tikkun olam). For growing numbers of American Jews, especially those on the cultural and political left, social action is central to their self-understanding as Jews. In the Pew 2020 Pew study, just shy of two-thirds of liberals viewed social justice engagement as essential to their Jewishness, while only one-quarter viewed belonging to a Jewish community as equally important and only one-third said support of Israel is essential to their Jewishness. (Conservatives ranked belonging to a Jewish community and caring about Israel higher than social justice.) Differences in priorities are unmistakable but our point here is that many in the Jewish community today—especially among the rank-and-file—treat tikkun olam as the most important commandment of Judaism. The view is endorsed and encouraged by some rabbis to the near exclusion of other Jewish values, such as caring for fellow Jews, observing the rituals of Judaism, and supporting Jewish communal institutions. For a significant sector of the liberal Jewish population, non-sectarian and global concerns take priority over Jewish needs.

The disengagement from Jewish life by some on the left is neither novel nor especially surprising. After all, there’s a long history of Jews identified with the far left who have rejected religion and feeling responsible for the Jewish people. But the masses of American Jews who identified with political liberalism thought differently. They saw no tension between their commitments to aid fellow Jews while also supporting non-sectarian causes. Nor did they indict their religion as the source of human failings. Twentieth century Jewish liberals often were leaders of federations of Jewish philanthropy, defense organizations, social service agencies, and Jewish educational and religious institutions. During the 1960s, baby boomers seeking to make their mark on American Jewish life were committed to anti-war protests and the Civil Rights movement, as well as labor unions—even as they marched to free Soviet Jewry and defend the embattled State of Israel. While in our time it is not uncommon for Jewish progressives to ridicule efforts to ensure “Jewish continuity,” youthful activists in the early 1970s critiqued Jewish organizations for investing too little in Jewish education and too much in Jewish health care facilities that no longer served a primarily Jewish clientele. In that era, too, the Jewish left produced the Havurah fellowships, the turn to neo-Hasidism, significant aliyah to Israel, Jewish feminism, and mass demonstrations in support of Jewish causes. Undoubtedly, some on today’s Jewish left passionately share similar Jewish commitments. But the data we have cited point to the indifference of many Jewish liberals today—particularly younger adults—to most forms of Jewish particularism, religious life, and positive identification with Israel as a Jewish state.

How might this situation change in the direction of greater involvement by political liberals in Jewish life? It’s possible that American society, including political liberals, will re-embrace religious commitment and a more positive approach to cultural heritage. The pendulum may swing back: Americans may come to place more value on association, cooperative work, and volunteering. Just as trends in the wider society have pushed liberal Jews in the past to distance themselves from their religious and collective needs, a broader shift in attitudes may make Jewish particularism more attractive. Not least, rising levels of antisemitism may accelerate these changes.

There also are possibilities for some rebalancing of priorities within the American Jewish community. Reform, we expect, would have to come from inside the camp of Jewish liberals. Sobered by findings such as those we report, liberal-minded leaders may take up the challenge of rebuffing ideas and influencers undermining participation in Jewish religious and communal activities. In all likelihood, only highly respected and credible liberals committed to Jewish life—and there still are tens of thousands of them—have a reasonable chance to reverse the Jewish commitment gap we have highlighted. They are best-positioned to make the case to their ideological allies for the compatibility of liberalism with active participation in Jewish communal and religious endeavors and reject those aspects of left-leaning thinking inimical to Jewish life.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary and co-author of the recently published Inside Jewish Day Schools: Leadership, Learning and Community.