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Americans Really Like Jews. Muslims And Atheists? Not So Much

Late last week, the Pew Research and Public Life Project dropped a fascinating new survey on Americans' feelings toward different religious groups.

The pollsters used a "thermometer" that went up to 100 for respondents to plot just how warmly they felt toward different communities. They deemed a rating of more than 50 as positive, while a rating of less than 50 was deemed negative.

Perhaps surprisingly, Jews were viewed more warmly than any other group. With a mean rating of 63, they just beat out Catholics at 62 and evangelical Christians at 61 for the top spot.

Some of the data points in the survey are intuitive: Respondents from all groups were most positive about folks who shared their particular religious orientation.

Others were more complicated. While white evangelicals felt very warmly toward Jews (a rating of 69), the reverse was not true. Jews gave evangelicals a frigid 34. Indeed, the only group who felt less warm toward evangelicals than Jews did were the people who identified as atheists — and the numbers show that the lack of affinity there was quite mutual.

What gives here? The conservative blogger Allahpundit wondered if the study wasn't, in part, a proxy for politics:

"Could be that evangelicals, when asked about Jews, instinctively think of Israel and foreign policy, whereas Jews, most of whom lean Democratic, think mainly of domestic policy when asked about evangelical Christians. Go figure that a socially liberal, solidly Democratic group would look skeptically at the GOP's conservative base. When you ask Jews about a Christian group that's not closely identified with either party, i.e. Catholics, the rating shoots up to 58, the second highest number (behind Buddhists) that Jews gave to any other group."

Indeed, what jumped out to us was how much identity — political, racial, generational — influenced how people responded. Jews were viewed positively among blacks (an average rating of 58) and Latinos (58), but they were viewed more positively by whites (66) . Evangelicals were rated most highly by blacks (68), although they were stilll viewed positively by whites (60) and Latinos (57).

Muslims were at the opposite end of the spectrum from Jews — they were viewed less warmly across the board — a mean score of 40 — than members of every other group. Blacks gave Muslims a 49, a neutral rating, while Latinos gave them an average rating of 43 and whites assigned them an average rating of 38.

Here's how Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute explained these findings on

"Just a few generations ago, Jews weren't automatically included in the 'white' category," said Jones. "That difference has gone away today." This matters, potentially a lot, because race is a big part of the overall assimilation/integration equation. White immigrants have generally had an easier time being accepted by Caucasian Americans, who are still a majority. Most American Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims are not, while most American Jews are. (Atheists and Mormons, the two remaining groups, don't fit in this category but have complicated stories of their own.)

In short, newly arrived religious or ethnic groups that happen to be able to pass as white tend to have a leg up, and Jews have been able to take advantage of that. (Of course, as the demographics of the U.S. change, so too will the flimsy notion of what it means to be a "real" American.)

Makes sense. We've written about Jewish assimilation into our general ideas of whiteness before on Code Switch, but it's worth remembering: Today, 97 percent of American Jews identify as white, but Jews were generally seen as separate and distinct from whiteness until the postwar years of the 20th century.

Conversely, Muslims are among the most racially diverse — and least white — of the major religions in America. A 2011 Gallup survey found that 18 percent of American Muslims were Asian, 35 percent were black, and 18 percent identified as "other." Just over a quarter of American Muslims identified as white.* That nonwhiteness makes assimilating into the mainstream, with representation in popular culture and politics, a much tougher road to hoe.

It's not as simple as nonwhiteness, though — Muslims were only a hair less unpopular than atheists, a group that tends to be white.

Since people tended to rate belief groups higher if they knew someone who belonged to that group, might familiarity explain some of this? Ehhh. About 6 in 10 respondents said they knew someone who was Jewish or an atheist, and atheists were almost as universally unpopular as Muslims.

Republicans and folks who leaned Republican gave higher marks to evangelicals than Democrats did — not too surprising, given how central evangelicals have been to the modern Republican coalition. Republicans were essentially neutral on Hindus and Buddhists, but gave especially low marks to atheists (34) and Muslims (33).

Democrats and the Democratically inclined were generally neutral toward evangelicals, although Democrats who weren't themselves evangelicals tended to view them more negatively. Conversely, Democrats rated every non-Christian group higher than did Republicans, with the exception of Jews.

Also, the way folks felt about different groups also changed a lot depending on their ages. Young people rated non-Christians much more highly than did older people.

The pollsters mused that this might have a lot to do with how much more Christian older Americans tend to be: 85 percent of the people surveyed over the age of 65 identified as Christian, while 59 percent of people under the age of 30 did the same (32 percent of people surveyed under 30 identified as "nones" — that is, unaffiliated with any religion).

*We have to point out that this picture is almost certainly oversimplified; just as we learned recently about Latinos, a lot of groups — like Arab- and Persian-Americans — don't fit neatly into America's blunt racial taxonomies, and so the calculus that people use to personally identify can be very complicated.

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Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.