Washington — Advocates for improved relations between Jews and Christian evangelicals had hoped that years of working together to support Israel would build bridges between the two otherwise distant communities. But a new poll indicates that mistrust and suspicion still run deep, at least on the Jewish side.
Only one in five Jewish Americans holds favorable views of those aligned with the Christian right, a category that includes most of Israel’s evangelical supporters.
“I find this shocking and concerning,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the first major group to engage evangelical Christians in support of Israel. Eckstein and other activists working on Jewish-evangelical relations expressed a sense of betrayal, accusing Jewish liberals of being prejudiced against Christian conservatives and of clinging to pre-conceived notions and stereotypes about evangelicals’ beliefs and goals.
The survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and published April 3, asked Jewish respondents to rate the favorability of several religious groups. Mormons received a 47% favorability rating, Muslims 41.4%; the group described as “Christian Right” was viewed in favorable terms by only 20.9% of Jewish Americans. In contrast, the general American population, as shown by other polling data, views evangelicals more favorably than Muslims and Mormons.
“Most liberal Jews view the Christian right as wanting to impose a Christian America on them,” said Marshall Breger, professor at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and leading voice on inter-religious relations. “To the extent to which the bulk of Jews are liberal, both politically and culturally, they’ll have negative views of the Christian right.”
Social views of Christian conservatives have been drawing attention in recent months as an increasingly significant part of the Republican presidential primary discourse. Attempts by GOP candidates to prove their conservative credentials in order to win over the Christian right have had, experts believe, an adverse effect on the Jewish community, turning it away from the Republican Party.
“It’s a huge factor in preventing Jews from becoming more attracted to Republican candidates,” said Kenneth Wald, distinguished professor of political science at the University of Florida and a leading expert on the intersection of religion and politics. He explained that the prominent role played by Christian conservatives in Republican politics is the major obstacle facing the party as it tries to win over Jewish voters.
Nonetheless, some have noticed a greater acceptance in the Jewish community. Eckstein said that in more than three decades of work on strengthening partnerships between the communities, he has seen Jewish opinion shift gradually to a more tolerant view of Christian evangelicals. “In the early years, the Christian right was very, very suspect in the eyes of the Jewish community,” he said.