Surveys & polls

Where are the young? Familiar religion ghosts in WPost report on Maine's aging crisis

Where are the young? Familiar religion ghosts in WPost report on Maine's aging crisis

If you have followed international news about abortion and demographics, you are used to seeing headlines such as the following in the New York Times, focusing on a side effect of China’s infamous one-child policy.

That headline: “Teenage Brides Trafficked to China Reveal Ordeal: ‘Ma, I’ve Been Sold’.”

Selling brides? Here is a crucial piece of background material in this must-read piece. Some government policies, you see, have unintended side effects.

China’s “one child” policy has been praised by its leaders for preventing the country’s population from exploding into a Malthusian nightmare. But over 30 years, China was robbed of millions of girls as families used gender-based abortions and other methods to ensure their only child was a boy.

These boys are now men, called bare branches because a shortage of wives could mean death to their family trees. At the height of the gender imbalance in 2004, 121 boys were born in China for every 100 girls, according to Chinese population figures.

Now, it may seem like a stretch, but when I read that Times piece I thought about a stunningly depressing business story that ran the other day in The Washington Post.

This is a story that is packed with religion ghosts — if you pay attention to the ties between religious faith and birth rates that are at replacement level of higher. The headline: “This will be catastrophic’: Maine families face elder boom, worker shortage in preview of nation’s future.

A preview of America’s future? That appears to be the case. Meanwhile, in Maine, this demographic trend is hitting home in a painful way — in facilities that care for the elderly. Here is a key phrase from this article: “There are simply just not enough people to go around.” Here is a key summary of background material:

Last year, Maine crossed a crucial aging milestone: A fifth of its population is older than 65, which meets the definition of “super-aged,” according to the World Bank.

By 2026, Maine will be joined by more than 15 other states, according to Fitch Ratings, including Vermont and New Hampshire, Maine’s neighbors in the Northeast; Montana; Delaware; West Virginia; Wisconsin; and Pennsylvania. More than a dozen more will meet that criterion by 2030.

Across the country, the number of seniors will grow by more than 40 million, approximately doubling between 2015 and 2050, while the population older than 85 will come close to tripling.

Need more information? Later in the story there is this:

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Is belief in the body and blood of Christ ‘too magical’ to handle in hard-news coverage?

Is belief in the body and blood of Christ ‘too magical’ to handle in hard-news coverage?

Journalists love polls, surveys and studies. One week, wine, for example, is good for you. Seemingly the next, it’s not. There is especially true of medical studies. It was also true during the last presidential election. When it comes to polls, studies and surveys, there has been a reckoning of sorts. Nonetheless, news outlets can’t stop reporting on them despite issues with veracity.

The primary reason is that they get clicks.

As a result, they are widely shared on social media platforms. Another reason is that they provide news sites with diverse news coverage. It “can’t be Trump all the time” has become a popular newsroom refrain the past few years.

What we learned this month is that polls, survey and studies involving politics and health — despite their polarizing natures — are fair game. The ones around faith — and specifically around a specific belief — is not. How else would one explain the dearth of coverage around a Pew Study released on August 5 around a central belief that should be held by Catholics, but is increasingly not. Catholic news sites were abuzz with coverage, but secular news outlets chose to ignore it. 

Transubstantiation — the belief that during Mass the bread and wine used for Communion become the body and blood of Jesus Christ — is central to the Catholic faith. Pew found that just 31% of U.S. Catholics believe that statement. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the priest’s offering of bread and wine, known as the eucharist and a re-enactment of The Last Supper, are changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The reaffirmation of this doctrine came in the year 1215 by the Fourth Council of the Lateran. When consumed, God enters the life of a Catholic. This is essential to salvation.

On the other hand, let’s take another subject that sparks debate and division: belief in ghosts and UFOs. Yes, the phenomenon of people seeing an Unidentified Flying Object, sparking the belief that alien life is out there, has been taken more seriously in the press than any Catholic belief deemed too magical or strange by secular society and mainstream news outlets.

Don’t believe me? UFOs have been in the news this summer, and at other periods of the year, whenever possible. It’s a subject that stretches one’s imagination. It serves as clickbait. It’s important. These are all reasons why UFO stories may be covered, even though they border on conspiracy theory whenever the government may be involved.

For example, Politico, USA Today and the BBC all chose to do UFO stories this month. Why not transubstantiation? By comparison, the central belief of the Catholic faith — so out of reach for many reporters to understand and explain — is relegated to the religious press.

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Make America great again? Washington Post essay shows a more complex evangelical viewpoint

Make America great again? Washington Post essay shows a more complex evangelical viewpoint

It’s easy to feel depressed about the state of American journalism these days.

For starters, there is the digital advertising crisis, with Google, Facebook and others sucking up billions of dollars that used to go to local newspapers and broadcast newsrooms to provide coverage of local, regional and state news. To fight back, some of America’s top newspapers have mastered the art of hooking waves of digital subscribers by telling them what they want to hear about national news.

Meanwhile, many news consumers are completely confused about what is “news” and what is “commentary” or analysis writing. People talk about getting their news from television channels (think MSNBC and Fox News) that offer some traditional news reporting, surrounded by oceans of commentary. The Internet? It is a glorious and fallen mix of the good and bad, with many readers choosing to read only what reinforces their core beliefs.

What is news? What is opinion?

Well, the Washington Post recently ran a pair of articles that — in a good way, let me stress — illustrated why some of this confusion exists. Both focused on white evangelicals and their celebrated or cursed support of President Donald Trump. In this case, the news article and the opinion essay are both worth reading, but it was the opinion essay that truly broke new ground. Hold that thought.

First, the news. I am happy to report that the Post, in this case, let the religion desk handle a story about religion and politics. The headline: “He gets it’: Evangelicals aren’t turned off by Trump’s first term.”

There’s only one point I would like to make about this article. Read the following summary material carefully:

Trump enjoyed overwhelming support from white evangelicals in 2016, winning a higher percentage than George W. Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney. That enthusiasm has scarcely dimmed. Almost 70 percent of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s performance in office, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll.

Interviews with 50 evangelical Christians in three battleground states — Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — help explain why. In conversation, evangelical voters paint the portrait of the Trump they see: a president who acts like a bully but is fighting for them. A president who sees America like they do, a menacing place where white Christians feel mocked and threatened for their beliefs. A president who’s against abortion and gay rights and who has the economy humming to boot. …

Evangelical Christians are separated from other Protestants (called mainline Protestants) by their belief in the literal truth of the Bible as well as their conservative politics on gender roles, sexuality, abortion and other subjects.

Wait, do most evangelicals — of all colors — have what are essentially POLITICAL views on abortion, sexual morality, gender, etc.? Wouldn’t be more accurate the say that they have theological views that, like many others, they struggle to defend when they enter voting books?

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Buttigieg and faith: WPost edges closer to covering pew gaps inside today's Democratic Party

Buttigieg and faith: WPost edges closer to covering pew gaps inside today's Democratic Party

A decade or more ago — I forget which White House race — the pollster and scholar John C. Green of the University of Akron made a witty comment about American politics and the role that faith often plays at ground level on election day.

This election, he told me (and I paraphrase), was going to be another one of those cases in which the presidency would be decided by Catholic voters in Ohio. But Green didn’t just point at generic Catholic voters. He said that the crucial factor would be whether “Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday” showed up at the polls in greater numbers than “Catholics who go to Mass once a month.”

In other words, he was saying that there is no one Catholic vote (click here for GetReligion posts on this topic) involved in the so-called “pew gap.” Catholics who go to Mass every week (or even daily) have different beliefs than those who show up every now and then.

So when a presidential candidate hires a “faith outreach director,” it’s crucial to ask (a) which group of believers the candidate hopes to rally, (b) how many of them are out there and (c) are we talking about people whose faith pushes them into action?

You can see these factors — often hidden between the lines — in a recent Washington Post story that ran with this headline: “Pete Buttigieg hires the first faith outreach director of the 2020 campaign.” There are one or two places in this piece where the Post team comes really, really close to examining the crucial faith-based cracks inside today’s Democratic Party.

The key: Is Buttigieg trying to rally religious liberals (and secularists) who already on his side or is he, like Barack Obama, attempting to reach out to centrists and liberal evangelicals? So far, the other key player in this pre-primary faith contest is Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who urgently needs support from voters in the African-American church.

So Buttigieg has hired the Rev. Shawna Foster as his faith-outreach director. What does this tell us about the Democratic Party at this stage of the contest?

Foster … has a broad imperative to talk to all religious groups. She said she thinks mainline Protestants (those who are not evangelical and tend to be more liberal, both religiously and politically) have been overlooked by political campaigns and are probably sympathetic to the religious views of Buttigieg, an Episcopalian.

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2012 flashback: Pollster John C. Green's prophecy -- sort of -- about Democratic debates in 2019

2012 flashback: Pollster John C. Green's prophecy -- sort of -- about Democratic debates in 2019


When news consumers think about politics and religion, they probably think about the clout that evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics have in the post-Ronald Reagan Republican Party.

Can you say “81 percent”? I knew that you could.

There is a very good reason for this state of mind in the news-consuming public. Many (perhaps most) journalists in elite American zip codes have always viewed the Religion Right as the modern version of the vandals sacking Rome. Thus, that is THE religion-and-politics story of the age.

What about the Democrats? What about the evidence of a “pew gap” (active religious believers tend to back the GOP, whether they want to or not) that hurts the Democrats in the American heartland?

It is very rare to see coverage of this kind of story, other than the evergreen (1) rise of the Religious Left news reports or maybe stories about (2) Democrats making new attempts to court people in pews.

In this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — we focused on a recent New York Times piece about the three major divisions inside the Democratic Party, right now, and the role that religion is playing in that drama. This was a follow-up to my recent post: “Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor.”

Before we get to that, check out the top of this interesting news report about the Democrats and their recent debates. Doesn’t the point of view here sound strange?

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Headline news: Americans’ cup of religious knowledge appears to be half empty

Headline news: Americans’ cup of religious knowledge appears to be half empty

Are old-school newswriters just too pessimistic by nature?

The Religion Guy admits he sees a cup that’s half empty, rather than half full, in pondering a new survey of Americans’ factual knowledge about religions conducted by the ubiquitous Pew Research Center.

Here’s one of the 32 multiple choice questions Pew posed to 10,971 adults in February: “According to the Gospels, who delivered the Sermon on the Mount?” A paper-thin majority (51 percent) correctly chose Jesus — not John, Paul or Peter.

Folks, this is the most celebrated religious discourse in human history. A slightly more promising 56 percent knew that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, Jericho or Jerusalem.

Less surprising, yet no less troubling given America’s increasingly diverse culture, only 60 percent knew that Islam observes the month of Ramadan (not Buddhism, Hinduism or Judaism), while 42 percent were aware that Sikhs wear turbans and small daggers (not Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists). More surprising, only 24 percent could identify Jews’ Rosh Hashana (New Year).

A generation ago, The Guy’s typical upstate New York hometown had roughly equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics, one synagogue and a couple Eastern Orthodox churches, with most residents identified with one faith or another. In that monocultural environment, most students, The Guy included, would have flunked on Buddhism or Hinduism. But it’s hard to imagine classmates wouldn’t know who led Israel’s biblical Exodus from Egypt (missed by 21 percent of Pew respondents) or what Easter celebrates (missed by 19 percent). Something happened.

Fact number one for the media to consider: American adults on average got less than half the answers right, 14.2 out of the 32, (Pew ran a similar survey in 2010, but the questions weren’t comparable so there’s no trend line.)

Religion News Service columnist Mark Silk took Pew’s online test of sample questions and candidly admitted he missed the one about Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. He then made the really important point here, reaffirming Stephen Prothero’s 2008 book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't.”

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Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

The topic should be catnip for any journalist writing about religion: creating a church without God is hard work and sometimes the idea fails.

But Faith Hill’s report for The Atlantic (“They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked”) does not deliver well, not least because her angle is more about components than convictions. It’s like reading an economist’s insights into romantic poetry.

Hill starts well enough by making the report personal. We meet Justina Walford, who has left the faith of her childhood, but misses the experience of church. But even here the problems in Hill’s reporting arise quickly: she describes Walford as once being “deeply religious,” but losing her interest because of “overseas travel that made her question how any one religious community could have a monopoly on truth.”

This is nearly robotic language to describe a now-lost belief in and engagement with God. The problem is just as bad when Hill tries to convey the purported advantage that traditional churches have compared to their God-free alternatives:

According to data from the latest version of the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual “American Values Atlas,” 25 percent of Americans today are religiously unaffiliated, up from single digits in the 1990s. Among young people, that number is 39 percent. Those numbers describe not just a retreat from organized religion, but also an erosion of community.Many faith congregations have acted as social anchors in their areas, providing a place to see and be seen by the same friendly faces each week. …

In New York and elsewhere, the basic mechanics of keeping a congregation running have proved difficult. To hire musicians and speakers, buy refreshments, and rent out a venue takes a lot of money. A traditional Church has tithings — but leaders of secular communities have found that attendees are highly suspicious of any plea for donations. Many lapsed believers harbor strong negative associations with the collection plate.

“Faith congregations,” “tithings,” “attendees” — this is a foreign dialect. And it’s an undisputed reality that except when tithing is mandatory, it is a minority phenomenon and hardly the basis of an abundant annual income. 

Maybe the narration improves when Hill turns to the challenges faced by the pioneers of God-free mass meetings? Yeah, not so much:

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