Shopping for religion: Pew view

shop for relA Christian friend who knows I am a journalist but tries to love me anyway subscribes to USA Today. After he read Cathy Lynn Grossman's print and online articles on that latest Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey, he asked if I could explain "how this media-stuff works and how headlines are 'pitched' different ways for different audiences." Well, Gene, I can't get more precise than to say that different journalists (or even different stories by the same journalist) address different aspects of of the world of religion--in this case Pew's complex 22-page report, "Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths," which can be downloaded here.

Both Grossman and Eric Gorski of the Associated Press did what journalists are supposed to do in such cases: let readers know when something newsworthy happens and do the best job they can of telling us what it is and what the heck it means.

If American readers were smarter religion writers could use fancy words like "syncretism" in their headlines. Instead, Gorski's headline said, "Americans mix and match religions," while Grossman's said, "More U.S. Christians mix in 'Eastern,' New Age beliefs."

If we were really smart they could have also referred to "Sheilaism," the term Habits of the Heart lead author Robert Bellah created to describe contemporary American religiosity, which even way back in 1985 was increasingly "private and diverse." The term "Sheilaism" came from interviews with a woman named Sheila Larson who subscribed to her own custom-tailored faith:

"I believe in God," she said. "I'm not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice."

Obviously, this is a hot new trend that has been around for a while.

Gorski's and Grossman's articles did a good job of hitting the Pew survey highlights:

Of the 72% of Americans who attend religious services at least once a year (excluding holidays, weddings and funerals), 35% say they attend in multiple places, often hop-scotching across denominations.

They are like President Obama, who currently has no home church. He has worshiped at a Baptist church, an Episcopal one and the non-denominational chapel at Camp David.

"Mixing and matching practices and beliefs is as much the norm as it is the exception," Pew's Alan Cooperman says. "Are they grazing, sampling, just curious? We really don't know."

Reporters need to mention intriguing stuff like the popular belief in "spiritual energy" in mountains or trees and the "evil eye." If they didn't we'd blame them for being bland and pointy-headed.

Gorski gave more play to one of the findings I personally found most interesting:

Nearly half of Americans say they have had a religious or mystical experience, or a "moment of sudden religious insight or awakening," the survey found. That represents a doubling since Gallup asked in 1962.

But surveys are complex documents, and slicing and dicing them is not easy. My Sept. 30 GetReligion post on Trinity College's American Religious Identification Survey, explored controversies about the reports findings about "nones" and the varied ways these findings were interpreted.

Anyway, Gene, there's a new survey out, and I think it's partly out of respect for committed believers like you that reporters like Gorski and Grossman want you to know about its conclusions. Heck, Grossman even quoted evangelical spokesman Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary, who criticized Americans' "rampant confusion" before reflecting on Christian leaders' possible culpability in the matter:

"This is a failure of the pulpit as much as of the pew to be clear about what is and is not compatible with Christianity and belief in salvation only through Christ," Mohler says.

So, Gene, I think these reporters did a decent job of trying to let readers like you know about the survey and some of its main conclusions. Now it's up to you to do further homework, if you want to, and address these issues as best you can.

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