What’s More Telling about America?

It light of the darkness of Pittsburgh last Saturday, a hard question: How do Americans in the main really feel about Jews?

A perhaps surprising but reassuring answer: Americans feel just as warmly about Jews as they do about Mainline Protestants and Catholics.

The two extensive surveys detailing this finding, along with voluminous others, were conducted a dozen years ago now, in 2006 and 2007.  The project was led by Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame, with results reported in 2010 in their nearly 700-page masterwork, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

The pertinent question they used is called a “feeling thermometer,” and as described by Putnam an Campbell “consists of asking respondents to indicate how warm they feel toward different social groups (or people, or institutions, or whatever on a scale of zero to 100.”  Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews all emerged above the national average, with Jews coming in highest, if only by a slight margin.  (Falling short of average, in descending order, were Evangelical Protestants, nonreligious respondents, Mormons, Buddists, and Muslims.)  Putnam and Campbell write:

Jews, mainline Protestants, and Catholics all rise to the top, receiving similarly positive assessments.  This is to be expected for mainline Protestants, as their very label suggests that they epitomize the mainstream of American religion.  It is perhaps a little surprising for Catholics, given the history of anti-Catholicism in America.  And, for some readers, it is perhaps most surprising for Jews, given the past intensity of anti-Semitism both in the United States and abroad.

In no way do I note this finding to somehow blur what happened at Tree of Life Synagogue.  The massacre was evil, nothing less.

Rather, I cite the finding to counter the current wave of suggestions and arguments that Americans are thinking unusually unfriendly and combative things about each other these days.  Granted the two surveys are a more than a decade old, as if all was decidedly sweeter back then.  But I’ve long been of the mind, and remain so, that we routinely get along better with each other in this country than we give ourselves credit.  This is not the moment to fully explain why I believe so, but it is a perfect moment to consider questions like this:

What is more telling about America?  That a tiny number of very bad people do very bad things, as they always have and always will?  Or is it more telling that when something hideous does happen, American institutions of all kinds express anger and sorrow, immense numbers of American hearts are pained deeply, and millions of Americans express their sadness and solidarity in their houses of worship, often before the day is done?

I say it’s the latter.