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. Just as Republicans have, in recent decades, had to wrestle with the reality -- the pluses and the minuses -- of the energy found on the Religious Right, leaders in the Democratic Party will now be faced with the delicate task of pleasing the Religious Left and its secular allies. This could, to say the least, shape the party's relationships with the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and other major religious bodies.
Yes, that was the summer of 2008.
The bottom line, Green said, was that the folks loyal to traditional forms of faith were still there, in pretty much the same numbers as the past. But on the other side, the world of atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated was getting larger and more powerful.
What was shrinking? The world of the vaguely religious, the nominal believers in the mushy middle that I have been calling "Oprah America" for several decades now.
Now, does any of this sound familiar? Click here and surf the current headlines.
The political implications grabbed the headlines, of course. #DUH
However, the Washington Post religion team asked another veteran polling seer -- Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research -- to think-piece dig into what is happening among the "nominals" and what this trend means. Wise choice.
Christians no longer have home-field advantage.
In many ways, nominal believers who identified as Christians but were generally unengaged in church provided a “cultural cushion” for Christians. Nominals worked as a restraint on the advance of secularism. Even though they did not order their lives around Christian beliefs, nominals saw themselves on the same “team” as convictional Christians, who did order their lives around their religious faith, so nominal Christians tended to join with the more religious Christians in broader cultural decisions.
As many nominals have become the religiously unaffiliated, they identify less with convictional believers. ...
As the religiously unaffiliated grow and their influence widens, a secular worldview has become the dominant influence in academia, the arts and popular media. Some Christians feel marginalized and mocked when they turn on their televisions and send their children to school.
Read that again. Can you think of any major news stories -- new, old and in between -- linked to these trends?
So, as Green explained in 2008, and the Pew people are still demonstrating right now, the middle of the religion marketplace is shrinking. The solid left is growing. The solid, orthodox right is not going away.
So journalists: What does this mean, other than the fact that Justice Anthony Kennedy has the only vote in America that really matters?