(RNS) According to a new survey, white evangelical Christians feel a lot of warmth toward Jews.
As for Jews, they feel colder toward evangelical Christians than they do about any other religious group.
Cue the Taylor Swift ballads: We have here a serious case of unrequited love.
To gauge the interreligious emotions of the American public, the Pew Research Center asked thousands of Americans about their religious identification, and then asked them to rate other religious groups on “a feeling thermometer,” where a zero was “the coldest, most negative possible rating” and 100 was “the warmest, most positive” response.
With a wildly subjective metric and results that invite massive generalizations, the survey deserves a skeptical look.
Still, the discrepancy in the Jewish-evangelical relationship is too large to dismiss. White evangelicals gave Jews a full 69 percent of emotional warmth (very high, by the survey’s standards), while Jewish respondents gave evangelical Christians a frosty 34 percent — one of the lowest ratings in the entire Pew data set.
Jews rated Catholics pretty favorably, so we can’t explain this result as a response to Christianity as a whole.
Heavy-handed efforts to convert Jews — such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1996 resolution on Jewish evangelism — have not endeared certain evangelical denominations to their Jewish neighbors. And some Jews may struggle to forget anti-Semitic comments made in the past by evangelical leaders, including Billy Graham.
But the real issue here is not that evangelicals don’t love Jews enough. It’s that certain evangelical communities sometimes love Jews way, way too much — or, more accurately, love an image of what they believe Jews to be.
Seeking a return to pre-Christian roots, churches hold Passover seders and blow shofars during services. Evangelical support for Israel is legendary. Liberty University, the evangelical school in Lynchburg, Va., even has a Judaic studies program that, as its director told the Liberty student newspaper, “tries to communicate to the Liberty community that we as Christians owe a debt of gratitude to the Jewish people.”
An employee of a Jewish federation recently told me about the letters, overflowing with praise for the Jewish people, accompanied by donations that occasionally arrive from eager Protestants.
There’s a term for this flavor of affection: philo-Semitism, or the love of Jewishness and Jewish culture. For some, this kind of love may represent an unmitigated good — especially in contrast to the anti-Semitism that has haunted so much of Jewish history.
More often than not, though, evangelical upwelling of philo-Semitism seems to have little to do with actual Jewish people, and more to do with Jewishness as an abstract theological concept.
A lot of evangelical support for Israel, for example, grows out of certain strains of dispensationalist theology, in which the Jews’ return to Israel is seen as a prerequisite for the Second Coming.
Meanwhile, in a 2004 address, televangelist Pat Robertson didn’t even try to hide the degree to which his understanding of Jewish history served his own theological ends: “You are the living witnesses that the promises of the Sovereign Lord are true,” he told an Israeli audience, after suggesting that the last 2,500 years of Jewish survival served as “primary evidence” for the existence of God.
Elsewhere, in an essay at the orthodox Christian magazine First Things, Joe Carter examined “our philo-Semitism” and concluded “we evangelicals have a special affection for our Jewish neighbor” in part “because we know that God had a special affection for them too.” The sentiment, while kind, should be familiar: Jews are likable because of their role in Christian theology.
When evangelicals speak about Jews this way, they shouldn’t be surprised if their love goes unrequited. At its core, philo-Semitism has much in common with anti-Semitism. Both approaches view Jewishness as an abstract monolith, and both endow Jews with particular historical roles — roles, it seems, that are rarely of the Jews’ own choosing.
For centuries, the powers that be defined Jewish people in terms of New Testament themes and archetypes. The modern world has offered remarkable opportunities for Jews themselves to figure out what, exactly, Jewish peoplehood might look like.
As a young Jew, I can’t help but see expressions of evangelical philo-Semitism as an attempt to keep Jewishness in its New Testament box, and to continue the old fallacy of conflating the Jewish people (of Bible fame) with living Jewish people — a diverse bunch of folks, muddling along, who have not always benefited from being evaluated in light of ancient Scriptures.
Fortunately, for those evangelicals who find themselves prey to an unreciprocated philo-Semitism, the annals of unrequited love may hold some useful advice: In relationships, you really can’t start out trying to change someone. And if you genuinely want things to work, you have to court an actual person, not just a projection of whoever you wish them to be.
(Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, N.C. He writes about religion, science, and culture.)
YS/AMB END SCHULSON