Why a public Jewish identity is suddenly kosher.
In 1980, Southern Baptist Convention president Bailey Smith offered his views on another religion to a Dallas audience: "With all due respect to those dear people, my friend, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”
A week ago, the first quote in a New York Times profile of Texas Gov. Rick Perry included this:
“I’m more Jewish than you think I am…I read the part of the Bible that said the Jews are God’s chosen people.”
Perry is likely less Jewish than he thinks he is. But the cultural distance between those Southern Baptists with a Texas connection illuminates results of a new study on workplace discrimination in the American South.
The study, published in the journal Social Currents and led by University of Connecticut sociology professor Michael Wallace, tested employer reactions to religious preferences expressed on fake resumes. It’s a repeat of a similar study he did a few years earlier in the Northeast.
What it found was that tipping off faith in a resume made applicants significantly less likely to be contacted by potential southern employers, compared with otherwise identical resumes without any reference to religion. In rank order, Muslims, atheists, pagans and Catholics suffered the most. “Members” of a fake religion created for the study were also a turn-off. Evangelicals suffered a bit. But Jews, the study says, “escaped totally unscathed.”
The academics offer a couple of explanations: Increased cultural secularization means that public religious identification is a negative — even in the relatively religious South. And “cultural distaste” theory says that some religions are simply stuck with negative images.
What about Jews? The paper says that southern Jews “have more successfully assimilated into mainstream culture than Jews in other regions.”
That’s a nice way of saying that southern Jews felt compelled to camouflage their identity in public. The South has been a place where real estate covenants blocked Jews from some neighborhoods, unwritten rules kept them from some clubs, and some employers had hiring quotas that started with “none” and worked their way up to “not many.”
When did that shift? The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has polled Americans regularly about their attitudes toward Jews and Judaism. Those polls showed a steep decline in hostile opinion from 1964 to 1998 — and mostly flat attitudes since. For instance, 42 percent of Americans strongly associated Jews with “shady practices” in 1964. That percentage dropped to 13 percent by 1998 and hasn’t changed much.
It’s not that some Christians don’t still see Jews as prime targets for proselytizing. To the contrary! But a theological contempt for Judaism and Jews has been significantly replaced by an odd sort of philosemitism. A Jewish visitor in a crowd of evangelical Christians these days can feel like a cross between a rock star and the only fresh meat at a coyote convention. It takes some getting used to.
So what happened in those years? Pope Paul VI released Nostra Aetate in 1965: “…'the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God'. The Declaration also decries all displays of antisemitism made at any time by anyone.”
Not that southern evangelicals care what any pope says. But that declaration ended more than 1900 mostly unbroken years of official Christian anti-Jewish condemnations and broadly pulled cultural support away from anti-Semitism. A falling tide lowered all boats.
The other event I’d look to — noted also in the Social Currents paper — is the rise of the state of Israel. At the same time that some evangelical Christians (like Perry) were turning a new focus on the Jewish roots of their faith, the fledgling nation grew strong and won a couple of wars against mostly Muslim enemies. Some Christian end-times theology looks to the rise of a new nation of Israel. And Moshe Dayan was an American-friendly kind of hero. (Hey, John Wayne wore an eye patch in True Grit.)
So for some Christians, positive feelings about Israel spilled over into positive feelings about Judaism and Jews.
Nothing has happened to change those trends between the late 1990s and when this study was performed in 2010. And today, a potential presidential candidate whose evangelical faith is central to his political persona figures it’s a plus to be nationally identified as “more Jewish than you think.”
I moved to Dallas in 1987 from Miami, which despite geography was (and is) nothing like the South. I was shocked to meet Texan Jews who told me that they’d never wear a Star of David necklace because it “just wasn’t done.” They feared backlash from showing that kind of explicit public pride in their faith, which had not been an issue back east.
These days, I think far fewer southern Jews think they need to keep their heads down. In fact, if this new study is right, a public Jewish identity is considered totally kosher. Even by some folks who wouldn’t know a shochetfrom a rocket.
Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.