Pew Forum survey reports show most media really happy to report on Christian 'decline'

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock lately, you’ve heard of this week’s biggest religion story:  "America’s Changing Religious Landscape," the Pew Research Center’s once-every-seven-years report. Click here for the full survey in .pdf form. And here is our own tmatt's first post on the topic.

Most mainstream reporters took their cue from the report’s headline: Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow. They seemed unaware there’s been a ton of books out in the past seven years about increasing numbers of disaffected Christians -- especially the young -- who are leaving church. More on that old-news angle later.

To sum it up, the "nones" (2012 study found here) are still growing, other religions are up a bit or holding their own and mainline Protestants and Catholics are declining very, very fast. Evangelical Protestants, now the dominant stream of the nation's Protestants at 55 percent, went down by less than 1 percent, hardly a “sharp” decline. But it took some scribes awhile to arrive at that important distinction.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times looked at the survey through a political lense:

The rapid increase in the number of adults without ties to traditional religious institutions has strong implications for other social institutions and for politics.
Whether a person attends religious services regularly is among the strongest predictors of how he or she will vote, with traditional religion strongly tied to the Republican Party, at least among white Americans.
The decline in traditional religious belief adds to the demographic challenges facing the GOP, which already faces difficulties because of its reliance on white voters in a country that has grown more racially diverse.
The interaction between religion and politics may work both ways. Some scholars believe that close ties between traditional religion and conservatism, particularly on issues such as same-sex marriage, have led many younger Americans to cut ties with organized religion.
Opposition to same-sex marriage on the part of religious conservatives “is turning off so many people from Christianity,” said Phil Zuckerman, a sociology professor at Pitzer College who specializes in studying secularism. “We're seeing a backlash” against the linking of religion and politics.

Hmmm … Why is it always those nasty white GOP voters who are the ones causing an exodus of the faithful? Who is in the sharpest decline and has been for decades?

Let’s frame this differently: the biggest losses have been among mainline Protestants who (other than the United Methodists) have overwhelmingly endorsed same-sex marriage and other liberal trends. So why doesn’t this story say that close ties between liberalism and mainline Protestants have led many of their members to walk out the door? But at least the Times followed the Zuckerman quote with an opposing view by Russell Moore of the Southern Baptists.

Some of the headlines were almost celebratory about the nones who now “soar” as the Christians decline. Notice the headline on this RNS story, which gave a pretty evenhanded report on the survey and some good information on the “nones” -- until it waded into political analysis:

According to the survey, white "born-again or evangelical" Protestants -- closely watched for their political clout within the GOP — now account for 19% of American adults, down slightly from 21% in 2007. Politicians should take note, said Mike Hout, a sociologist and demographer at New York University who is also a co-director of the General Social Survey.
"Traditionally, we thought religion was the mover and politics were the consequence," he said. Today, it's the opposite.
Many of today's formerly faithful left conservative evangelical or Catholic denominations because "they saw them align with a conservative political agenda and they don't want to be identified with that," Hout said.

Yes, Catholic losses were substantial. But to blame the 1 percent evangelical loss on politics while refusing to link mainline Protestant losses to their denominations’ acceptance of gay clergy and same-sex marriage is unfair.

The Washington Times (my employer of 14+ years) even led with the evangelical dominance of Protestantism. And the Associated Press made the point that while the percentage of evangelicals is slightly down, the number of evangelicals (now at 62 million) is actually up. Some fresh numbers on Latino and African-American evangelicals (both surging) would have helped, too.

Other media took the regional approach, such as the Salt Lake Tribune

Among Mormons, the proportion of the U.S. adults who claim to be Latter-day Saints was essentially unchanged, according to the study, dipping from 1.7 percent in 2007 to 1.6 percent last year.
That statistic, said Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell, is striking because it contradicts what is practically a Mormon article of faith: that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its expanding missionary force, is the nation's fastest-growing religion.
"While many Mormons are coming in the front door," Campbell said, "many others are leaving out the back door."
Conversely, the figures counter a widespread notion among former Mormons that the LDS Church is hemorrhaging to the point its membership is shrinking dramatically.

The writer makes a good point that all the publicity up until now has been that Mormons are growing fast. These statistics from the "2012 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches" doesn’t put the LDS church first (Assemblies of God are growing faster) but they’re in the top three, which is why the Pew findings are surprising to say the least. (formerly Associated Baptist Press) took note too that their numbers are down although anyone who read Christine Wicker’s 2008 book on this topic knew there’s been numbers inflation in the Southern Baptist Convention for some time. Also, this slow decline has been lessened by, here is that theme again, surging numbers among Latinos and African-American churches now linked to the SBC.

A lot of us have been seeing the handwriting on the wall when it comes to the growth of the “nones” and the rising amounts of people quitting church -- for almost 10 years now (yes, the link is to the book, "Quitting Church," that I wrote on the topic back then).

It’s nice that some survey data is finally out that proves the point but for anyone who is at all aware of religious trends in the United States, this survey should not be a surprise. And be sure you read the full Pew report on retention rates, which religion has the most kids, gender ratios in various religions and which groups are losing the most members to Muslims (who are growing). There are eye-opening things in it for everyone.

There is news in those pages, some of it new news and some of it, well, old news.

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