Losing Touch With One's Followers

What happens when leaders lose touch with their followers? The Catholic community has been struggling with this challenge for years. The Jewish community may be following in its footsteps.
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Conservative essayist Milton Himmelfarb once famously quipped that American Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.

But what happens when leaders lose touch with their followers? The Catholic community has been struggling with this challenge for years. The Jewish community may be following in its footsteps.

Last month, many Catholic leaders led a backlash against a provision in the Obama administration's health plan that would have required certain religious-affiliated institutions to offer insurance that covered contraception. After reaching a compromise through which the insurance companies would provide the coverage at no cost directly to the institutions or their employees, some Catholic leaders nevertheless remained opposed.

What did American Catholics think? According to a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 61 percent agreed with the Administration -- before it had even offered the compromise. Another poll, taken the year before, revealed that 98 percent of Catholic women at some point used contraception.

Obviously there is dissonance when religious leaders assert viewpoints that don't reflect the beliefs of their community. But some dissonance is OK. When the gap between the leadership and the community gets too wide, even outsiders begin to notice. Eventually, the leadership loses its authority and with it, some of its influence.

A recent survey, commissioned by The Nathan Cummings Foundation and completed by PRRI, explores the political opinions of American Jews. It reaffirms much of what we already know. Jews are a liberal community. Not exclusively, but significantly.

In each of the following cases, Jews are more liberal than other faith groups and the unaffiliated. Eighty-one percent agree that we should raise the tax rate of millionaires. Seventy percent support citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and are going to college or serving in the armed forces. Sixty-six percent agree that American Muslims are an important part of the religious community in the United States. Ninety-three percent believe abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances. Eighty-one percent support gay marriage. And 69 percent support tougher environmental regulations, even if they cost jobs or raise prices.

These are consensus issues in the Jewish community. As such, they (along with others not listed here) should shape the policy agenda of American Jews. Yet American Jewish leaders are, more often than not, ignore these issues in favor of other priorities.

Visit the websites of the largest Jewish public policy groups. You can find positions on some of these issues. But overwhelmingly, they are banished from the home page, relegated to dusty resolutions that never receive much attention.

What begins as ignoring the concerns of American Jews will inevitably lead to opposing the true priorities of the community.

So, are we getting close to the day when the most influential Jewish organizations will vehemently and publicly oppose a public policy supported by most Jews? That possibility is made more likely by a long overdue diversification of Jewish leadership. Some funders, like the Nathan Cummings Foundation, responded to this marginalization of the liberal Jewish consensus by supporting an emerging sector, often referred to as the Jewish social justice movement. Dominated by organizations that didn't exist 30, 20, even 10 years ago, it has begun to fill a vacuum left by many in the Jewish community's old guard.

These groups are poised to represent the interests and values of the Jewish majority. It is not hyperbolic to imagine that, within a generation, groups like American Jewish World Service, New Israel Fund, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice and Hazon will be among those setting the policy agenda of American Jewry.

It would represent a fittingly Catholic turn of events.

Simon Greer is the President & CEO of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

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