Noah Smith: Why Do Americans Like Jews and Dislike Mormons?

I am delighted to host another guest religion post by Noah Smith. Don’t miss Noah’s other religion posts on

  1. God and SuperGod
  2. You Are Already in the Afterlife
  3. Go Ahead and Believe in God
  4. Mom in Hell
  5. Buddha Was Wrong About Desire
  6. Noah Smith: Judaism Needs to Get Off the Shtetl

Here is Noah:

The Pew Research Center recently did an interesting survey asking Americans how they felt about various religious groups.Here are the findings in a single table, shown above.

I was actually surprised by the low numbers across the board - there was almost no category in which more than 70% of people of one religion felt warmly toward people of another religion. But I wouldn’t put too much stock in that, actually - answers to these surveys usually tend to change a lot depending on how you phrase the question. The relative ratings are more interesting. Some of the findings are easily explained–the low ratings given to Muslims, for example are obviously an unfortunate result of the current political troubles with jihadist terrorist groups. But other findings are more surprising and intriguing. Here are some thoughts I had, looking at the numbers. 

Why do Americans like Jews?

As many have noticed, Jews received the most positive ratings of any religious group in America. This confirms that American society is not in any meaningful way anti-Semitic, which is good news. But why do people like Jews so much?

Hypothesis 1: Nobody knows what Jews even are. When I was in high school in a medium-sized Texas town, another kid asked me about my religion. He asked: “Are you…Hanukkah?” So maybe people just have no idea what Judaism is, and figure it must be a minor thing that is no threat to their own faith.

Hypothesis 2: Jews are no threat. Jewish culture has a strong stigma against proselytization. I’ve criticized that insularity, but maybe it’s paying dividends. People don’t like threats - that’s why Japan and Germany are such popular countries these days. Judaism is not going to knock on your door and ask you if you’ve heard about Yahweh.

Hypothesis 3: The entertainment industry. There are lots of Jewish actors, comedians, etc. If you ask the average American to name someone Jewish, she’ll probably think of a funny guy like Jerry Seinfeld or a cute girl like Natalie Portman, or maybe a musician like Bob Dylan. If people knew that Drake, Scarlett Johansson, and James Franco were Jewish, they’d probably like us even more!

In addition, the two main drivers of anti-Semitism–European conspiracy theories and Muslim anger about Palestine–are both notably absent in America.

Why don’t Americans like Mormons more?

Mormons get middling low ratings in the poll. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, given the prevalence of anti-Mormon discrimination in America. But what is the cause of the discrimination? David Smith, a political scientist at the University of Sydney (and no relation to Yours Truly, though we have clinked a few glasses over the years), finds that many Americans consider Mormons as an “outsider” group, which is strange considering that Mormonism is the only major religion to begin on American soil. Why do people see Mormons as outsiders?

Hypothesis 1: Proselytizing. One possibility is that the rapid spread of Mormonism poses a threat to other, more established religions. In this respect, Mormonism is the polar opposite of Judaism–every Mormon man must go out and convert people. That’s threatening, no matter how politely it’s done.  

Hypothesis 2: The perception of secrecy. There is a perception of secrecy and exclusivity surrounding Mormonism. Anyone can go participate in any Jewish prayer service. But not even all Mormons can enter “dedicated” Mormon temples! Some Mormon weddings exclude non-Mormons. And there’s a perception that many other aspects of the religion are secret. Secrecy seems alien, and exclusivity is suspicious.

I think anti-Mormonism is a bad thing, but I don’t know how to combat it.

Why don’t Jews like Evangelicals?

One interesting finding from the poll is that although 69% of Evangelical Christians expressed positive feelings toward Jews (one of the highest ratings given), only 28% of Jews expressed positive feelings toward Evangelical Christians (one of the lowest ratings given). This is weird, since Evangelical Christian sects - unlike, say, the Catholic Church - have no history of anti-Semitism or persecution of Jews. Also, the asymmetry itself is strange. Why don’t Jews like Evangelicals more?

What’s going on?

Hypothesis 1: Instinctive fear of dominant religion. Jews in Europe and the Mideast had a long history of being persecuted by whatever the dominant religious sect in the area happened to be - the Catholic Church, Islam, or the Eastern Orthodox Church. Jewish culture may have simply inherited an instinctive distrust of whatever the most powerful religious group seems to be. 

Hypothesis 2: Politics. American Jews are generally liberal, while Evangelicals are generally conservative. In America, politics is often a stronger religion than actual religion. In addition, some Jews may be afraid that Evangelicals only like them because of a millenarian desire to see Israel recreated and then destroyed (in accordance with Biblical prophecy), or perhaps a cynical desire to use Israelis as expendable shock troops against the Muslims. This is probably not a motivating factor for most Evangelicals, but it does get some play in the media.

Hypothesis 3: Anxiety about the end of Judaism. Non-Orthodox Judaism is a dying religion. In America (and Britain), Jews are marrying non-Jews and ditching their ancestral religion at an astounding rate. It turns out that integration and assimilation destroys Judaism, while pogroms, ostracism, and oppression keep it going (someone might have bothered to mention this to Hitler!). Many Jews are naturally anxious about the end of their distinctive culture, and may tend to displace this anxiety by feeling bad about America’s “dominant” religion - Evangelical Christianity.

I think this attitude is a bad one. Evangelical Christianity is far more pro-Jewish than any other branch of Christianity has ever been. Furthermore, Evangelical Christianity has been an important factor in the creation of American society, the most philo-Semitic Western society in history. Jews should have a more positive view of Evangelicals.