Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Pew Research Center’s Survey of Jewish Americans, released just yesterday, provides a wealth of demographic and religious information. With an increasing number of Jewish Americans reporting that they are not religious, the survey asked an important question: what does it mean to be Jewish?
The survey found that most Jews (62 percent) report being Jewish is primarily a matter of ancestry or culture, while 15 percent say it’s primarily a matter of religion. Nearly one-quarter (23 percent) say being Jewish is both about religion and ancestry and culture.
The survey also found that when considering what is most essential for their Jewish identity, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Jewish Americans cited remembering the Holocaust, ranking it higher than anything else. A majority (56 percent) of Jewish Americans also mentioned that working for justice and equality was essential to their Jewish identity.
The study’s findings are largely consistent with the 2012 Jewish Values Survey. The PRRI survey of Jewish Americans found 87 percent of American Jews say the Holocaust is somewhat (33 percent) or very (54 percent) important for informing their political beliefs and political activities. The PRRI survey also found that the Holocaust was ranked as more important for informing their political beliefs than any other Jewish experience.
Similarly, like the Pew study, the PRRI survey found that the notion of pursuing justice is an important part of their worldview. A majority (52 percent) of Jewish Americans reported that pursuing justice was a very important for informing their political beliefs and activity.
The comprehensive report is a welcome addition, providing both new and confirming information about an under-researched and important community.