Surveys & polls

Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

I think that it’s safe to say that Jerry Falwell, Jr., has had a rough year or two.

I don’t say that as a cheap shot. I say that as someone who has followed the adventures of the Falwell family and Liberty University with great interest since the early 1980s, when elite newsrooms — The New Yorker came first, methinks — started paying serious attention to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Of course, there is a good reason for political reporters and others to dig into Falwell, Jr., affairs. His early decision to endorse Donald Trump, instead of Sen. Ted Cruz, helped create the loud minority of white evangelicals who backed The Donald in early primaries. Without them, including Falwell, Trump doesn’t become the nominee and then, in a lesser-of-two-evils race with Hillary Clinton, squeak into the White House.

So that leads us to a rather interesting — on several levels — piece of neo-tabloid journalism at the New York Times, with this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.” The “evangelical,” of course, is Falwell.

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. Thus, here is the big summary statement:

Mr. Falwell — who is not a minister and spent years as a lawyer and real estate developer — said his endorsement was based on Mr. Trump’s business experience and leadership qualities. A person close to Mr. Falwell said he made his decision after “consultation with other individuals whose opinions he respects.” But a far more complicated narrative is emerging about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the months before that important endorsement.

That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.

The revelations have arisen from a lawsuit filed against the Falwells in Florida; the investigation into Mr. Cohen by federal prosecutors in New York; and the gonzo-style tactics of the comedian and actor Tom Arnold.

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

One key anonymous source? That’s right.

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Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Like many bitter dodgeball contests linked to religion these days, the fight began on Twitter.

On one side was a historian who has written several books on the roots of evangelicalism — defining the term (a) in doctrinal terms and (b) in a global context. When you put those two things together, you end up with lots of people, in lots of places, throughout Protestant history, who are “evangelicals.” It helps that the word is used this way around the world in many different church settings.

On the other side were other historians, as well as woke, post-evangelical voices. The key here? You guessed it: that famous 81 percent number, as in the percentage of white, self-identified “evangelicals” who — gladly or reluctantly — voted for GOP candidate Donald Trump (or against Democrat Hillary Clinton). Thus, “evangelicals” are white, conservative Republicans with racist roots (and lots of homophobia).

In other words, “evangelical” has evolved into semi-curse word that cannot be separated from contemporary American culture and Trumpian-era politics. We know this is true, because this is the way the term is used in most elite media coverage of politics.

The argument focused on an article at The Gospel Coalition website by Thomas Kidd of Baylor University with this title: “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”

The problem is that Wheatley is a black, heroic figure. Thus, it is wrong to identify her as an “evangelical,” even in an article that is striving to get modern evangelicals to pay more attention to the lives and convictions of evangelicals in other cultures and in other times. The piece ended by noting: “Evangelicals, of all people, need to remember her today.”

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Yo, New York Times editors: There are several Catholic angles linked to Joe Biden's abortion flip

Yo, New York Times editors: There are several Catholic angles linked to Joe Biden's abortion flip

As many pro-life Democrats and others have noted in social media: That didn’t take long.

After years of opposing the use of taxpayer dollars to fund abortion — supporting the Hyde Amendment — former Vice President Joe Biden bowed the knee to primary-season realities in this “woke” era of Democratic Party life and reversed himself on this issue. Thus, he erased one of his few remaining ties to his old role as a centrist, compromise figure in his party on moral, cultural and religious issues.

Needless to say, the word “Catholic” may have something to do with this story. That term even made it into the New York Times coverage of this policy flip. See this all-politics headline: “Behind Biden’s Reversal on Hyde Amendment: Lobbying, Backlash and an Ally’s Call.

The overture focused on the political forces that yanked Biden’s chain, from members of his staff to rivals in the White Race. The Planned Parenthood team called early and often. Then, down in the body of the story, there was this:

A Roman Catholic, Mr. Biden has spent decades straddling the issue of abortion, asserting his support for individual abortion rights and the codification of Roe v. Wade, while also backing the Hyde Amendment, arguing that it was an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.

But Mr. Biden, his allies acknowledge, had plainly misread what activists on the left would accept on an extraordinarily sensitive issue. For all his reluctance to abandon his long-held position on federal funding for abortion, Mr. Biden ultimately shifted in order to meet the mood of emergency within his party’s electoral base.

The big word, of course, is “base” — which usually means “primary voters.” The question is whether the “base” that turns out in primary season has much to do with the mainstream voters that are crucial in the Rust Belt and the few Southern states that a Democrat has a chance to steal in a general election.

So where, in this Times report, were the voices from pro-life Democrats and progressive and centrist Catholics who wanted to see Biden try to reclaim blue-collar and Catholic votes that, in 2016, ended up — #LesserOfTwoEvils — going to Donald Trump? I would imagine they are hiding between the lines in the following material:

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When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

Baylor University historian and Christian Century columnist Philip Jenkins set forth 21st Century prospects in his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” (Oxford University Press, 2002, updated 3rd edition 2011). His work underscores a theme that has become familiar to all religion specialists, the shift of Christianity’s center of population and power away from traditional Western Europe and North America toward the “Global South,” especially in Africa and Asia.

When time permits, journalists should consider updating that scenario — with accompanying graphics. If you need a local or regional news angle, check out the links to tensions inside the United Methodist Church.

Then, for a fresh global angle, focus on the implications if Christianity is supplanted by Islam as the world’s largest religion. That brings us to data recently posted by Pew Research Center’s Jeff Diamant (a former colleague covering the religion beat).

Pew estimates that as of 2015 there were 2,276,250,000 Christians globally, compared with 1,752,620,000 Muslims. Its projection for 2060 is that the totals will be nearly even, 3,054,460,000 versus 2,987,390,000. Flip that a couple percentage points and Islam would take the lead, and current trend lines suggest Islam could become number one at some point in our century. Birth rates play a key role in this drama.

Hold that thought.

Pew is one of two major players in world religion statistics. Another, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, projects for 2050 (not 2060) a slightly lower 2.7 billion for Muslims and significantly higher 3.4 billion for Christians. This even though CSGC figures that in this century’s first decade Islam was growing faster than Christianity, at 1.86 percent per year, as opposed to Christianity’s 1.31 percent (and a world population rate of 1.2 percent).

These two agencies of number-crunchers are friendly partners in some ventures but have some differences on method.

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RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

There is much to recommend in the Religion News Service commentary that ran the other day with this headline: “What is killing the American synagogue?” This is one of those think pieces that points to hard news angles, for those with eyes to see them.

The author, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, backs up that blunt headline with lots of practice observations about cultural trends that are affecting all kinds of liberal, old-line religious groups in America, these days. He admits that there are times when cultural trends are signs of serious issues of philosophy and, I would add, theology.

So what are reporters to think then they hear that another synagogue/temple is being torn down? First of all, that RNS headline really needed to include the word “Reform” or “liberal” in front of the word synagogue. Read on, to see if my judgement is accurate.

Here is some ultra-personal material from the rabbi, right near the top:

I am a product of Long Island Judaism. I spent my childhood at Temple Beth Elohim in Old Bethpage, alav ha-shalom. It closed several years ago.

I spent my teen years at Suburban Temple in Wantagh, NY. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a booming, thriving synagogue of about 800 families. We had one hundred kids in the youth group. We were at the synagogue three nights a week.

So, too, Temple Emanu-El in neighboring East Meadow. It, too, had throngs of teenagers. I attended my first youth group dances there.

Then, in the late 1980s, I came home to become a rabbi at a synagogue on the South Shore of Long Island.

During those years, I confronted the two Bs of the apocalypse: Boca and Boynton. People were moving to Florida.

Beth Moses. People were dying, and “moving” to that cemetery in Farmingdale.

The question I would ask, as someone who has followed the liberal Jewish demographic apocalypse since the stunning Denver Jewish community intermarriage studies of the 1980s, whether Salkin needed to add a third “B,” as in “babies (or lack thereof).”

To be specific, the article didn’t address to major issues that keep showing up in studies of the Jewish future in America and in the Western world — birth rates and intermarriage.

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If an evangelical crisis is truly on horizon, journalists should spring into action right now

If an evangelical crisis is truly on horizon, journalists should spring into action right now

How often have we been informed that the religious left is about to revive with new power, or that the Religious Right will fade?

That sort of political punditry occurs alongside periodic warnings — or hopes, among politicos and many journalists — that America’s sprawling network of evangelical Protestant congregations and agencies is destined for big decline.

If this is true, journalists should spring into action immediately.

Evangelicalism was often the most dynamic force in U.S. religion over recent decades, with impact worldwide, and generally managed to resist the serious slide that afflicted the evangelicals’ more liberal “Mainline” Protestant rivals beginning in the mid-1960s. (This article will bypass changes among Roman Catholicism, historically black Protestant denominations, and other religious sectors.)

A notable example of negativism was “My Prediction: The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” posted a decade ago by the late Michael Spencer, a popular blogger and self-described “post-evangelical Christian.” He predicted “a major collapse of evangelical Christianity” within 10 years, which means just about now, that would “fundamentally alter” the culture of the West.

Further, Spencer prophesied that within two generations this Bible-based empire would shrink to half its present scope, with scads of dropouts, sagging budgets, shuttered doors, and ruined careers, and “nothing” would restore former glory. Etc. Read it all for yourself

Some of this has in fact occurred, though not (yet) so dramatically, as reporters easily see in statistics of the largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Evangelicalism’s health is relatively stable despite cultural pressures. This brings to mind Mark Twain’s jest that “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

But then last week — media pay close attention — pessimism was suddenly proclaimed by one of the most important voices in the evangelical establishment, Mark Galli, editor in chief ofChristianity Today magazine.

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Populist wave continues: Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to European elections

Populist wave continues: Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to European elections

Italians will go to the ballot box on May 26 to elect members of the country’s delegation to the European Parliament.

The vote — part of elections held across the European Union — will be another litmus test regarding Italy’s two populist political parties and whether they can withstand challenges from the left. What this latest electoral test will also do is reveal Italy’s love-hate relationship with the Catholic church.

The country’s Democratic Party, which holds a majority of seats, is likely to go down in defeat like it did in last year’s national elections. That’s where two populist parties, the League, which is on the right, and the Five-Star Movement, on the left, joined forces since neither had gained a majority in parliament.

The result? Matteo Salvini, who leads the League party, could take his anti-immigration stances to Brussels if opinion polls prove correct. His hardline stance on the issue has put him at odds with the Catholic church in Italy as well as with Pope Francis, who has repeatedly spoken in favor of refugees seeking asylum in Western Europe.

Like the Brexit fiasco, this clash has also divided Italians, where a majority remain Roman Catholic. However, a Pew Research study found that only 27 percent of Italian adults consider themselves “highly religious,” putting them in 13th place among Europeans. Nevertheless, Pew also found that Italy remains in first place in Western Europe when it comes to Christians who attend services regularly at 40 percent. That’s higher than Ireland (at 34%) and the United Kingdom (at just 18 percent).

Salvini, like President Donald Trump in the United States, has made closing the borders a priority since becoming Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Secretary. Last summer, Salvini ordered that ships containing migrants not dock at Italian ports. As a result, they were diverted to Spain, angering the European Union and the Catholic church. 

The European elections have also allowed Salvini to take his message outside of Italy’s boot-shaped borders in an attempt to create a pan-populist movement that puts it on a collision course with the continent’s Christian roots and the message emanating from the Holy See these days.

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Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Numbers make news. Think of how many articles will report breathlessly on U.S. political polls between now and Nov. 3, 2020. And numbers created “the biggest American religion story of the past decade,” says analyst Mark Silk, referring to the increase in “nones” who tell pollsters they have no particular  religious identity.

This is news: A new Gallup report says a severe religious recession began to build right around 2000.

What explains this turn-of-the-century turn? Journalists with Gallup numbers in hand should run this puzzle past the experts in search of explanations. 

Gallup combines data from 1998–2000, compared with 2016–2018. A topline finding is that Americans reporting membership in a house of worship hit an all-time low of 50 percent by last year, which compares with a consistent 68 percent or more from 1937, when the question was first asked, and all the way through the 1990s. The era since 2000 mingles that loss with declining worship attendance and the  “nones” boom.   

Since your audiences are already transfixed by the 2020 campaign, consider this detail from Gallup’s internals. Comparing 1998-2000 with 2016-2018, church membership reported by Republicans slipped from 77 percent to 69 percent, but among Democrats plummeted from 71 percent to 48 percent, a remarkable 23 percent drop. (Independents went from 59 percent to 45 percent.) How come?

Journalists will find further statistics to ponder in the latest General Social Survey report from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. In this account, the “nones” have reached 23 percent. At the same time, however, 34 percent of American adults report “strong” religious affiliation, and similar percentages have held constant across the years since 1973. 

Writing for the interfaith journal First Things, Mark Movsesian of the St. John’s University Center for Law and Religion (who belongs on your source list) joins those who say the U.S. is experiencing “a decline in religious affiliation among people whose identification was weak to begin with.” As with politics, he proposes, “the middle seems to be dropping out in favor of the extremes on either end.”

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Yes, the WPost Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt story ran several weeks ago: But it's still important

Yes, the WPost Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt story ran several weeks ago: But it's still important

It’s time to venture into my “guilt file” — where I stash news stories that I know deserve attention, but breaking news keeps getting in the way.

Several weeks ago — Easter season, basically — the Washington Post ran an important story about the rise of Pete Buttigieg as a real contender among the 100 or so people currently seeking (a) the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination or (b) the VP slot with Joe Biden (the second after Barack Obama winks and hints at an endorsement).

In this case, the religion angle was right there in the headline: “Questions on race, faith and tradition confront Buttigieg in South Carolina.”

In other words, Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt to see if his mainstream Episcopal Church vibe — brainy white married gay male — will fly in a region in which black Christians are a political force. This is a culturally conservative corner of the Democratic Party tent that tends to get little or no attention from journalists in deep-blue zip codes (that Acela-zone thing). So let’s pull this story out of my “guilt file.”

The headline is solid, pointing to questions about “race, faith and tradition.” Want to guess what part of that equation gets the short end of the stick, in terms of serious content?

This is an important story, in terms of cultural diversity among Democrats. At some point, candidates will need to talk about religious liberty, third-trimester abortion, gender-neutral locker rooms and a host of other powerful cultural issues linked to religion.

The bottom line: Mayor Pete wants to be pro-faith, while attacking conservative Protestants whose views of the Bible are radically different than his own. How will that strategy play in the Bible Belt? Can he appeal to Democrats other those in what the Post calls a “liberal, wealthy and white” niche?

Here is what we are looking for in this story: Will anyone address religious questions to African-American Democrats from Pentecostal, conservative Baptist or Catholic pews? Or will the story only feature the voices of experts talking about these strange people? Here’s the overture:

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