One thing seems clear: When it comes to religion, America is getting less 'mushy'

One thing seems clear: When it comes to religion, America is getting less 'mushy'

When it comes to the fine print in polling about politics and religion, journalists are always looking for sources who have the ability to connect the dots and then explain the connections in language that can be understood by news consumers (and news editors, too).

Oh, right. It also helps when they have a good track record when it comes to being right.

So with that in mind, let's take a trip back in time with John C. Green of the University of Akron, a major player in years of Pew Forum polling. This trip is linked to the second wave of Pew Forum data linked to the "nones," a blast of numbers that is getting lots of news attention this week. Earlier today, our own Richard Ostling offered a memo on this topic.

The year was 2008 and Green paid a visit to my Washington Journalism Center classroom to brief a circle of international journalists on some trends in American religion and, yes, politics. What ended up on our whiteboard that day?

On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.
In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America's liberal religious denominations (such as the "seven sisters" of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up ... and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.
The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion.

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Washington Post meets David Daleiden, whose Catholic faith is less important than his socks

Washington Post meets David Daleiden, whose Catholic faith is less important than his socks

This post will be shorter than usual because it focuses on the religion content in one of the major stories of the day. I am referring to the large Washington Post news feature that ran under this headline: "Meet the millennial who infiltrated the guarded world of abortion providers." 

The "millennial" in question is, of course, David Daleiden, the young Catholic activist behind all of the hidden-camera Planned Parenthood videos released by his front organization, the Center for Medical Progress (click here for its homepage). 

The word "meet" in the headline made me think that this would be an in-depth profile of this man. Thus, as I read it, I kept waiting for fresh material about this life, faith and motives that I didn't already know from reading -- naturally -- religious-press coverage of this work. This is, after all, a "conservative news" subject.

But one of America's most important mainstream newspapers landed an interview with this man. Surely there would be fresh insights and information, right? Hold that thought.

The key to the story is that is framed primarily in terms of, you got it, political activism. The assumption is that Daleiden's motives for taking on Planned Parenthood are primarily political, Thus, readers are given this summary of why he is important:

Daleiden, 26, is the anti­abortion activist who masterminded the recent undercover campaign aimed at proving that Planned Parenthood illegally sells what he calls aborted “baby body parts.” He captured intimate details of the famously guarded organization, hobnobbing at conferences so secretive that they require background checks and talking his way into a back laboratory at a Colorado clinic where he picked through the remains of aborted fetuses and displayed them luridly for the camera.
Daleiden’s videos landed like a bomb in Washington this summer, providing fodder for a crowded field of Republican presidential contenders and energizing social conservatives on Capitol Hill.

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Carly Fiorina visits Bible Belt territory and is too serious for the humble natives?

Carly Fiorina visits Bible Belt territory and is too serious for the humble natives?

cult, noun ...

: a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous

: a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much


If you pay close attention to the cult of American political reporting -- "cult" in the second definition shown above -- you know that it has its own unique rituals that are repeated time and time again. This is especially true during its high holy days, which are the two years that precede a presidential election.

One of the cult's most important rites comes whenever a relatively unknown individual suddenly pops out of a pack of candidates -- usually through a strong performance in a debate, or a surprisingly solid showing in a poll or primary -- and emerges as a "frontrunner." Of course, the priests of the political-reporting cult are in charge of determining whether said candidate has or has not achieved "frontrunner" status.

This rite of passage immediately leads to the next, crucial, ritual in which the candidate -- Carly Fiorina in this case -- is placed under a much more intense spotlight in order to judge his or her worthiness in the eyes of the priesthood. This is especially important in Fiorina's case because (a) she is a Republican, (b) she is a woman and (c) her ascent is linked to taking a strong stand in opposition to an institution held sacred by the cult (as in Planned Parenthood).

You know, beyond all doubt, that this rite has begun when something bizarre happens -- such as a Washington Post Style section reporter heading deep into the American South to observe this candidate in the wild. (However, in this case Fiorina was in Charleston, S.C., so the reporter may have been able to do an architecture or food feature on the same trip.)

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Label this! Pope tells Congress everything starts with defense of human life -- period

Label this! Pope tells Congress everything starts with defense of human life -- period

There's no question that, for those reading the Pope Francis address to Congress through the lens of politics, the most newsworthy passages were his explicit references to immigration and climate change. Why? These words pointed to wedge issues between Democrats and Republicans that will almost certainly play a major role in the 2016 elections.

Also, there were powerful passages about the death penalty and the blood money earned through the international arms trade.

It was a remarkable scene, all the way around. What are the other nominations for a list of the deepest and most philosophical speeches ever delivered to Congress?

However, if you look at the pope's remarks through the lens of doctrine -- as Francis urged reporters to do days earlier -- then the crucial passage, the thesis statement, was this one:

We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity ...

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Doctrine vs. politics: Think pieces to ponder during this week of Pope Francis

Doctrine vs. politics: Think pieces to ponder during this week of Pope Francis

Every now and then, normally on weekends, your GetReligionistas point readers toward what we call "think pieces" -- editorial features (as opposed to hard news) about topics that are directly linked to religion news and/or the mainstream press coverage of religion news.

As you would imagine, there has been a ton of this kind of writing this week with the pope visiting the media-rich Acela zone between Washington, D.C., and New York City. 

Pope Francis set the agenda for this in that off-the-cuff Shepherd One chat with reporters in which he tried to explain, well, as the headline from Time stated -- "Pope Francis: I Am Not a Liberal." The top of that essay added:

As Pope Francis flew to the United States for the first time, the pontiff assured journalists on the flight that he is not a liberal. Asked to comment on the many media outlets who are asking if the Pope is liberal, the Pope seemed bemused and decisive.
“Some people might say some things sounded slightly more left-ish, but that would be a mistake of interpretation,” he said before landing in the U.S. ... “If you want me to pray the creed, I’m willing to do it.”
He underscored the point: “It is I who follows the church … my doctrine on all this … on economic imperialism, is that of the social doctrine of the church.”

Did you see what happened there? Hint: It's pretty much whatever happens when a pope delivers a major address in a setting that journalists consider newsworthy, only this time the process was in reverse.

The journalists, thinking politics (the ultimate reality in the real world), asked the pope why "media outlets" think he is a liberal and the pope, starting with a remark about praying the creed, responded in terms of doctrine.

The key phrase is "my doctrine on all of this."

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Pope in DC: Ssssshhhh! Francis also slipped away to visit the Little Sisters of the Poor

Pope in DC: Ssssshhhh! Francis also slipped away to visit the Little Sisters of the Poor

Whenever the pope -- any pope, at any point in time -- comes to town, the visit generates thousands of words of content from speeches, homilies, remarks by dignitaries and in reactions from Catholics and others on the street. It's a classic case of the big journalism question: OK. What's the news here? What goes at the top of the main story?

Throw in the superstar status Pope Francis currently enjoys with the mainstream press and this question becomes even more important.

In an early report on the pope's packed day in D.C., The Washington Post took a safe and responsible tact -- casting a broad net over a host of issues.

But what if, at the end of the day, Francis added a new and unexpected event to his calendar, one linked to issues that have dominated U.S. headlines this past year both at the U.S. Supreme Court and in Congress? Would that event be worthy of prime coverage? Hold. That. Thought.

First, here is how the Post opened an early version of its summary story:

A fast-moving Pope Francis plunged into his first U.S. visit with gusto Wednesday, embracing the adulation of jubilant crowds as he crisscrossed Washington and confronted enduring controversies that included global warming, immigration and the clergy abuse scandal.
The popular pontiff, who has captured the imagination of religious and secular Americans with his humble style, began to establish an in-the-flesh identity as a committed champion of the poor, the dispossessed and the planet. But he also positioned himself as a loyal adherent of church teachings and hierarchies that are much less popular than he is, pushing back, Vatican watchers said, on efforts to enlist him on either side of the culture wars.
The pope thrilled a White House gathering by introducing himself as the son of immigrants and aligning himself with President Obama’s climate-change efforts. But he also echoed the call for religious liberty that conservatives claim as resistance to same-sex marriage and other fast-changing social mores.

Lots of content, touching on many topics. However, at the end of the day Francis himself added a highly symbolic grace note -- slipping away to meet with members of the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order dedicated to helping the poor and elderly.

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Ben Carson takes on Trump's faith; CNN commits three sins against journalist's bible

Ben Carson takes on Trump's faith; CNN commits three sins against journalist's bible

Before we get to the serious part of this post, this seems like the perfect time to ask: Have you read Eric Metaxas' humorous take on the #TrumpBible?

If not, be sure to enjoy it at The New Yorker.

Back in the less-funny world, The Donald's faith — or lack thereof, depending on whom you ask — is making headlines again this week.

Thank Republican challenger Dr. Ben Carson for that.

Here's the scoop from CNN:

Anaheim, California (CNN) In the end, it was the most mild-mannered of the presidential candidates who may have dealt the most searing blow so far to Donald Trump.
In a fascinating twist to the 2016 Republican presidential race, neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson essentially threw down the gauntlet Wednesday and asked evangelical Republicans to choose sides by questioning the authenticity of Trump's faith. Speaking to reporters before a large rally here in Anaheim, Carson was asked by a reporter how he was different from Trump.
His answer was short and direct.
"Probably the biggest thing -- I've realized where my success has come from and I don't in anyway deny my faith in God," Carson said.
He explained what he meant by quoting what he said was one of his favorite bible verses.
"By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life and that's a very big part of who I am. I don't get that impression with him," Carson said of Trump. "Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't get that."

For my tastes, that lede is too opinionated. An impartial journalist ought to report what the candidates said, put the statements into proper context and let the audience decide whether someone dealt a "searing blow." Right?

Meanwhile, did you spot the pesky, recurring journalism style issue in that opening section? One that we highlighted here at GetReligion just last week? 

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Kim Davis is in WHAT political party? A classic New York Times correction

Kim Davis is in WHAT political party? A classic New York Times correction

So be honest. Did you or did you not see this one coming?

We start with another New York Times report about that Rowan County clerk who sits in jail waiting for the Kentucky legislature to tweak the state's laws to work smoothly with both the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision backing same-sex marriage and our nation's strong First Amendment history of support for the free exercise of religious convictions.

The story ends with a classic laugh-to-keep-from-crying correction that created some buzz in social media. First, the usual:

The clerk, Kim Davis of Rowan County, Ky., was ordered detained for contempt of court and later rejected a proposal to allow her deputies to process same-sex marriage licenses that could have prompted her release.

Once again, it would help if readers were informed that Kentucky law currently says -- according to the fine details buried in news reports -- that the county clerk's name has to be on a marriage license in order for it to be official. From the perspective of Kim Davis, that fact requires her to actively endorse same-sex unions, even if someone else hands out the licenses.

Thus, she balked. No one needs to agree with her stance in order to accurately report the link between the details of the Kentucky law and her act of conscience. The bottom line: Details of Kentucky laws are still important in Kentucky.

Will the governor, a Democrat, hear the calls of Democrats and Republicans for a special session to change the state's laws to protect the rights of gay couples seeking marriage as well as traditional believers in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.? That's the story.

Back to the story. Here comes the highly symbolic correction:

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Concerning Donald Trump, Billy Graham, Joe Biden and the political ties that bind

Concerning Donald Trump, Billy Graham, Joe Biden and the political ties that bind

It's a comment that I have heard several times from historians who specialize in the history of American religion, especially Protestantism in the 20th Century.

The Rev. Billy Graham has not had a spotless career, and he would be the first to note that. In particular, there were the revelations in the Richard Nixon tapes about some of the evangelist's private opinions, which led to a season of public repentance. When you look at Graham's work, it's clear that the Nixon-era train wreck led him to focus more on Christianity at the global level and less on America, America, America.

However, stop and think about this question: Can you name an American in his era who had a higher-profile public career than Graham, becoming -- literally -- one of the most famous people in the world, yet who was involved in fewer scandals linked to morality, money or ethics? Turning that around, as one historian did, and ask yourself this question: If I had been in Graham's shoes, would I have done as well?

This brings us to Donald Trump. 

To be specific, if brings us to the new Crossroads podcast, in which host Todd Wilken and I -- spinning off my Universal column this past week -- dug into mainstream press claims that the F5 category Trump (talking media storms) has become the GOP candidate with the most appeal to "evangelical" voters.

Why bring up Graham in that context? View the start of the video at the top of this post. That was where I started in my column:

When it became clear that normal venues were too small, Donald Trump met his Mobile, Ala., flock in the ultimate Deep South sanctuary -- a football stadium.
"Wow! Wow! Wow! Unbelievable. Unbelievable," shouted the candidate that polls keep calling the early Republican frontrunner. "That's so beautiful. You know, now I know how the great Billy Graham felt, because this is the same feeling. We all love Billy Graham. We love Billy Graham."

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