How the GOP Won the Orthodox Vote

By Nathan J. Diament

Published November 12, 2004, issue of November 12, 2004.
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In the 2000 presidential election, 70% of Orthodox Jews voted for the Democratic ticket; in the 2004 presidential election, 70% of Orthodox Jews voted for the Republican ticket. While most of the American Jewish community remains stalwart in the Democratic camp, second only to African Americans, the Orthodox segment is clearly a swing vote.

Despite constituting 10% of a Jewish community, which itself is only 3% of the American electorate, Orthodox Jewish communities are concentrated in many battleground states and districts and, in a close election, can be decisive. Over the longer term, the most recent National Jewish Population Survey demonstrated that the Orthodox community is, on average, much younger and less assimilating than the rest of the American Jewish population. Thus, political leaders would do well to examine what they can do to seek Orthodox electoral support.

The quickly forming cliché from the 2004 election is that “values” drove religious traditionalists to support President Bush; this dynamic was certainly present in the Orthodox community. Exit polls indicate that just as Bush decisively won the votes of Catholics and Protestants who attend church weekly, so too did he win the votes of those going weekly or more to minyan at synagogues. But frequency of worship attendance is merely an indicator of a values orientation; what underlies it?

Indeed, religious American Christians and Jews may share many faith-informed views on specific public policy issues. They view with alarm societal sanction of same-sex marriage, with dismay the denial of public funding to religious schools and social welfare agencies, and with disgust the popular culture that is, in the words of the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “defining deviancy down.”

Aside from seeing common threats, traditionalists across the denominational divides share a common commitment to the respected role that faith plays in forming the character of individuals and communities. A devout Jew and a devout Christian may not share the same theology, but they can speak in a language mutually understood.

Still, theological differences exist. Orthodox Jews are not merely evangelicals who read the Bible right to left, and theological differences can result in different positions on matters of public policy. The two best examples relate to “life” issues.

The Jewish view of conception and its interplay with the laws to heal and preserve life are quite different from traditionalist Christian views. Thus, while rabbinic law clearly would repudiate resorting to abortion as a form of retroactive birth control, it permits or mandates an abortion when the life or health of the mother is imperiled. Orthodox Jews, therefore, must be reticent about a wholesale legal restriction on abortion.

Similarly, rabbinic law has quite a different view than Christianity on the cutting-edge questions of stem-cell and cloning research. Judaism does not view an embryo in a laboratory petri dish as possessing the status of personhood. Thus, the compelling mandate of working to heal the ill trumps the ethical concerns associated with this research and urges it onward.

Now, anyone — including politicians — can learn to speak the common language of people of faith. In the closing weeks of the 2004 campaign, even Democratic candidate John Kerry began to sound eloquent on these matters. But such talk will only resonate with the faithful if they perceive it to be genuinely spoken, not just poll-driven pandering; saying that the Fifth Commandment teaches that we must not privatize social security as if it were a magic spell is, of course, nonsense. Despite Kerry’s failure, one can point to successful national Democrats such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton or Joseph Lieberman to see that this acumen is not restricted to Republicans.

But part of the political challenge here is translating faith-informed values to where the rubber meets the road of concrete policy initiatives. Religious communities, including the Orthodox, have values, but they also have interests. Clearly, in the wake of the 2004 election, Republicans have the upper hand in holding on to the Orthodox community’s support, along with the support of other religious traditionalists. The fact that the GOP controls the White House and Congress positions it, with the greatest ability, to set the issues agenda and implement policies which will benefit our community’s institutions.

These policies would include an expansion of the president’s faith-based initiative to new programs; with additional funding, that might open up federal grant funds to community social-welfare agencies such as Ohel, Tomchei Shabbas and Yachad. The creation of education tax credits would bring new resources not only into the public school arena as it strives to implement the new accountability measures of No Child Left Behind, but also to day schools as well. And the passage of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act would aid Orthodox Jews in being true to their faith and not having to compromise it in order to earn a living.

All of these policy initiatives have, at least in the past, enjoyed some degree of bipartisan support. Therefore, it need not be a stretch for Democrats to bring a renewed energy to their support for such initiatives and place them in a new context of Democratic appeals to the Orthodox and other religious traditionalists.

In addition, Democrats could recognize that, for Orthodox Jews especially, support for Israel is a “values” issue — a religious matter. It is no accident that a recent poll by the American Jewish Committee showed that Orthodox Jews felt the closest affinity to Israel in percentages far higher than other segments of the community. Speaking about and showing support for Israel as more than a strategic alliance —as a moral consideration, as many Republicans already do — will also go a long way toward the goal of garnering Orthodox electoral support.

The 2004 election campaign may, in reflection, be a watershed for our community. For the first time, national political parties began to court the Orthodox electorate explicitly and in ways unique from the rest of the American Jewish community. For the purposes of this election, one side accomplished more with its efforts than the other. Time will tell whether our community continues to receive appropriate attention from both political camps for the benefit of our community and its values.

Nathan Diament is director of public policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

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