Judaism is the most favorably viewed religion in the United States, according to a Pew Research Center study, despite a rise in antisemitic incidents across the country.
Jews scored a net +28 rating in the analysis released Wednesday. The study also found that Americans generally view Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants favorably but tend to view Muslims, atheists and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormons, negatively.
Nonevangelicals tend to view evangelical Christians more negatively than positively, the study showed, although evangelicals eked out a 2% net favorable rating when the opinions of “born-again” and evangelical poll responders were factored in. Without those believers and without mainline Protestants, the evangelical cohort rates a -14 favorability score.
Based on a survey conducted Sept. 13-18 among 10,588 U.S. adults, the Pew analysis found that people who know someone from a particular religious group are more likely to have positive views of that group and that Americans tend to view their own group positively.
The study also noted political differences in how respondents viewed religious groups.
Pew said the study’s methodology differs from those of three previous surveys of Americans’ views about religious groups. Studies in 2014, 2017 and 2019 used a “feeling thermometer” to gauge views on a 0-100 scale, the research center said. The latest study asked respondents to rate groups “very favorable, somewhat favorable, neither favorable nor unfavorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable.” Respondents also could say they “don’t know enough to say.”
The high favorability rating for American Jews comes at a time when criminal and noncriminal acts of hate against Jews have increased. The FBI recently released data for 2021 that showed a 16% rise in antisemitic assaults against Jews and that single-bias anti-Jewish hate crimes — which comprised a little more than half of all religious-based hate crimes — jumped 20% from 683 in 2020 to 817 in 2021.
A spokesperson for the Anti-Defamation League in New York City said the group is “heartened” to see Pew’s study but added that “we have evidence that suggests that those with prejudices generally, hide behind ‘I don’t know’ responses, which, here, make up almost half of response groups for each of the religions in question (in the case of Jews -58%).”
The spokesperson said that having positive feelings about Jews would not preclude a person from holding “dark beliefs about a Jewish cabal or global conspiracy.”
The Anti-Defamation League said the subject “require[s] more research and we look forward to collaborating with Pew moving forward.”
Atheists, Muslims, Mormons get low ratings
On the less-favored side are atheists at -4 points, Muslims at -5 and Mormons at -10. However, majorities of those surveyed say they are neutral or “don’t know enough” to form an opinion on those groups.
A spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said the group did not have an immediate comment on the Pew findings.
Stephen Carter, publications director for the Sunstone Education Foundation, whose publications often present liberal views of Mormonism, said the perceived clannishness of church members may be a factor in the negative perception.
“I think there’s a feeling that Mormons run on different programming from the rest of America,” he said in an email. “This probably has something to do with the Book of Mormon, but it also has to do with the fact that Mormons tried to build their own nation that went against most of the social structures America ran on at the time.”
When asked about their own groups, Jews, Mormons, atheists and Catholics give overwhelmingly positive net ratings. Jewish self-approval comes in at +79 points, Mormons at +78, atheists at +70 and Catholics at +62.
Non-Jews gave their Jewish neighbors a +27 point favorable rating, Pew found. Non-Catholics were favorable by a +5 point rating. Non-Muslims rated Islamic followers unfavorable at -5 points, while non-atheists gave that group a -9 unfavorable score.
Those who are not Mormons rated them unfavorably by a -12 point majority.
Disfavored groups say education, outreach needed
The more people know members of disfavored groups — and the more atheists, Muslims and evangelicals reach out to people outside their religious circles — the more likely favorability ratings will rise, thought leaders in those communities said.
“In my experience, when people know and meet their Muslim neighbors, they tend to like their Muslim neighbors, and their fears and concerns are very quickly dispelled,” said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “That’s why a key part of our mission and care is enhancing the public’s understanding of Islam. Our theory is that education is a very good vaccine against discrimination.”
The survey found that those who know Muslims have more favorable views of those who follow Islam, giving the faith community a +4 favorability balance.
Nick Fish, president of American Atheists, said younger Americans have more positive views of atheists than older Americans. The young adult cohort gave atheists a net favorability rating of +11, he said, versus -20 for evangelicals.
He said it was essential for atheists to see religious people as individuals, just as they would want to be seen.
“It’s important for us to hear everyone out and make sure that we’re treating people with dignity and respect meeting them where they are, and trying to find common ground wherever possible,” Mr. Fish said.
Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said the low ratings for evangelicals are to be expected.
“Following Jesus is not a popularity contest, and there are times that being a Christian, in any form — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — will entail holding views that are different from or even opposed to aspects of culture,” he said via email. “However, it is also true that ‘being an evangelical’ should mean being the sort of people characterized by the good news of Jesus, being known as peacemakers, principled about our beliefs in Jesus as savior, as well as our commitment to love like our savior.”
David Dockery, interim president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said evangelicals “just need to make sure that the [negative] perceptions are not because of our own misrepresentation of the Gospel in any way.” He said Christians should be “salt and light” in the culture.
The political affiliations of survey respondents also play roles in how various groups are rated, Pew said.
Non-Protestant and nonevangelical Republicans and those who lean Republican have more favorable views of evangelicals and Catholics. Democrats and those who lean Democratic have more negative views of evangelicals on balance and are as likely to view Catholics negatively as they are to view them positively.
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said he was not surprised by that finding.
He said it was “disconcerting … that Democrats hold a negative view of Catholics and evangelicals. It is no secret that the Democrats have long been home to secularists, many of whom have grown increasingly extreme in their politics.”
Both Democrats (net 18 points) and Republicans (net 5 points) hold negative views of Mormons, but 38% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats hold favorable views of Jews.
The Pew report did not list the churches it categorized as “mainline Protestant,” but scholars generally say it is a group that includes the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the American Baptist Churches, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the United Church of Christ.
Because the survey included responses from those who identified as members of the religious categories listed in the poll, some groups polled higher than if members were excluded, said Patricia Tevington, a Pew research associate.
“In general, religious groups tend to view themselves pretty favorably,” she said in an interview. “So larger groups are going to pull [their] average up across the country. When we exclude people that say that they are Protestant and born again or evangelical Protestant, that balance goes to the negative.”
Ms. Tevington said it was interesting “that members of the LDS Church generally have pretty favorable views of other religious groups. They’re the only religious group in our survey that does not rate any of the other religious groups negatively on balance.”
Pew said the margin of sampling error for the full group of respondents is 1.5 percentage points.