Why the GOP Can’t Convert the Jewish Vote

By Eric Uslaner and Mark Lichbach

Published February 24, 2006, issue of February 24, 2006.

American Jews should not be surprised by the political divorce between televangelist Pat Robertson and his supporters in Israel. Even as President Bush courted the Jewish vote in 2004, Jews remained loyal to the Democratic Party, to a large degree out of fear of the religious right.

Robertson recently said on his television program, “The 700 Club”: “You read the Bible and [God] says ‘This is my land,’ and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, ‘No, this is mine.’” The claim that Prime Minister Sharon suffered a stroke because he withdrew Israeli settlers from Gaza stunned American Jews, most of whom support peace with the Palestinians and most of whom do not view God as seeking retribution for specific deeds.

Such intemperate views confirmed Jewish fears of the Christian right. In the 2004 election, almost 80% of American Jews voted for Democratic candidate John Kerry, according to a survey by the National Jewish Democratic Council that we analyzed.

The president did make inroads among the 15% of Jews who saw Israel as a central voting issue. A far greater share of Jewish voters, however, expressed strong dislike of Evangelical Christians.

On a feeling thermometer ranging from 0, for extremely cold, to 100, for extremely warm, 37% of Jewish voters rated evangelicals at 0. In the 2004 American National Election Study, by comparison, only 4% of non-evangelical Christians rated fundamentalist Christians at 0. The average rating of evangelicals was 24 for Jews, compared to a positive 54 for non-Evangelical Christians.

More importantly, American Jews’ negativity toward evangelicals shaped their vote choice. Eighty-six percent of those most fearful of evangelicals cast ballots for Kerry, as compared to 72% of other Jews.

It is true that many non-Jews were also turned off by the Christian right. For Christian America, however, the battle between fundamentalists and mainline believers revolves around the “culture war” in American politics. For mainline Christians, the battle with the religious right is over abortion and gay marriage. American Jews are very liberal on these social issues, but view the cultural wars though identity rather than policy lenses.

For Pat Robertson and his allies, Israel is not simply a homeland for a people who have long faced discrimination and occasionally extermination — it is part of New Testament prophecy. The reestablishment of a Jewish state is a precondition for the final battle between good and evil at Armageddon.

This ultimate conflict does not offer much solace to the Jews. Their choices are to convert to Christianity or to burn. This story is told in Revelations and in the “Left Behind” series of 11 novels that has sold more than 50 million copies.

At the same time that the Christian right is becoming increasingly powerful within the GOP — and when its party leader, George W. Bush, identifies as a born-again Christian — the Republican Party has put a lot of effort into courting the Jewish vote. At least in 2004, however, those efforts failed. The surveys reveal that Jews who voted for Bush in 2000 and for Kerry in 2004 were largely motivated by fear of the Christian right. They were even more negative toward evangelicals than Jews who voted Democratic in both elections.

At a November 2005 meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean said that Democrats “believe that Jews should feel comfortable in being American Jews without being constrained from practicing their faith or be compelled to convert to another religion.” On the other side of the aisle, Ken Mehlman, the chair of the Republican National Committee, tells his fellow Jews that they should support the president who has stood by Israel.

While the political operatives make their cases, it seems, Pat Robertson has unwittingly become Howard Dean’s best campaigner for the Jewish vote — and Ken Mehlman’s worst nightmare, in perhaps more ways than one.

Eric Uslaner and Mark Lichbach are professors of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.



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