Does Religion Even Matter Anymore in Politics?

Virginia Senate candidate George Allen was recently informed of his Jewish roots. Host Debbie Elliott explores voter attitudes towards Jews and whether a candidate's religious background even matters anymore.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

A flap in the Virginia Senate race this past week got us thinking about religion and politics. You've probably heard by now that the incumbent, Republican Senator George Allen, is dealing with the recent revelation that his mother was raised as a Jew. This came to light after Senator Allen blurted out a racial slur for black people that's used in North Africa. That's where his mother grew up, and that was the clue for the Forward, a Jewish newspaper. It traced Mrs. Allen's lineage and concluded that she was descended from an illustrious Jewish family, the Lumbrosos.

When a TV reporter confronted the senator with this information, he shot back that she shouldn't be making aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs. Senator Allen, a practicing Christian, says his mother kept her heritage from him until the recent article in the Forward.

I asked the Forward's editor-in-chief, JJ Goldberg, why his paper was even looking into Senator Allen's background.

Mr. JJ GOLDBERG (The Forward): For our readers it's more of a game of guess who than anything else. It's a dinner table game that Jews play. It's called Jewish Geography: Guess Who's Jewish. David Lee Roth, the rock and roll singer, we play that game. Guess who's half Jewish? Oh, you wouldn't, you wouldn't. You didn't.

ELLIOTT: But Goldberg says sometimes the game reveals something deeper.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Jews in this country and in the last century have undergone a great many interesting, sometimes painful, sometimes glorious personal journeys. One of them, by the way, is people who lived through the Holocaust as the Lumbrosos did and vowed to have nothing to do with it by hiding their children from their Jewish past.

I understand that. I have friends who have been through that. The only question that comes to my mind is what do you do with it when you find out?

ELLIOTT: But what if a politician doesn't think of himself or herself as Jewish, like Senator Allen? Is it relevant?

Mr. GOLDBERG: People talk all the time on the campaign trail about who they are, where they come from. I come from a town called Hope. Jesus is in my heart. That's what we want to hear from our candidates. And if there's a serious candidate who gets rattled when he finds out - when he's confronted with information about who he is, then you want to know why he's rattled.

ELLIOTT: Might Senator Allen or other politicians have reason to be rattled by revelations of their religious heritage?

I asked John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Mr. JOHN GREEN (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): Divisions that used to be very important in American politics, such as being Catholic or being Jewish, are not nearly as important as they used to be. In fact, generally speaking, most Americans have positive views of Jews and Catholics.

There are some other groups, however - Muslims and atheists - which people still have a fairly negative view of.

ELLIOTT: Should we, in the year 2006, still be having a conversation about whether someone's ethnic heritage should be part of the political discussion?

Mr. GREEN: Well, a lot of people would say no, that that's really a relic of the past and that we should have moved beyond that, and a lot of polling suggests that most Americans have.

In fact, in the case of religion, generally speaking very positive about somebody having a religious background and having religious values, whatever those may be.

ELLIOTT: Is being Jewish or part Jewish considered a political liability, still?

Mr. GREEN: You know, in most places and overall, it really wouldn't be. Our polling suggests that Americans overall have very positive views of Jews. Our summer poll showed that 77 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the Jewish community, and only about 12 percent had a negative view.

So while anti-Semitism certainly hasn't completed disappeared from our society - and we have a number of anti-Semitic incidents reported every year - if you just look at voters and people's general appreciation of candidates' backgrounds, Jewish heritage isn't going to be much of an issue for very many voters at all.

ELLIOTT: When is it?

Mr. GREEN: You know, I think there are some people who harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. They tend to be less well-educated people, people from older generations, some individuals that are not as well-connected to the political process.

But you know, on the other side there are people who admire the Jewish community, and so if a candidate has a Jewish heritage, that might actually be a plus.

ELLIOTT: You know, there's been talk recently about the Israel lobby and its influences on American policy. There have been some scholarly articles in journals and then some not-so-scholarly conversations on talk radio. Do you think that this affects Americans' feelings about Jewish candidates in any way?

Mr. GREEN: You know, I really don't think the debate over Israel and over the influence of the so-called Israeli lobby has changed very many Americans' views about Jews or Jewish candidates. Most Americans have very positive views of Israel and are very supportive of American policy and Israel.

Of course, that's a debatable point, but I don't think that that particular debate has probably had much of a spillover into views of Jews or Jewish candidates.

ELLIOTT: John Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Thank you.

Mr. GREEN: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: