Pew 'state religion' survey: Putting data in context is crucial, something The Guardian forgot

While I'm not an expert on Transcendental Meditation, it's my understanding that having a personal mantra assigned to you by an instructor is essential to the practice of TM. Thus, if I were to select a mantra for meditating on the press and religion, it'd be "Con-text, con-text, con-text." (You know, I'm feeling better already.)

Bad meditation jokes aside, careful readers of this blog might sense that calling for context is, in fact, my mantra, or pretty close to it. A good example of why it's important -- as well as what's missing when journalism omits this -- comes courtesy of the Pew Research Center, the Washington, D.C.-based group which this week released a study on life in nations which have an official state religion.

In this country, such a choice is prohibited by the Constitution of the United States, specifically by the Bill of Rights ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, etc."). However, that sanction doesn't exist in other nations, such as the United Kingdom.

Let's begin with Britain's The Guardian, which sticks to the bare facts in its report:

More than one in five countries has an official state religion, with the majority being Muslim states, and a further 20% of countries have a preferred or favoured religion. A slim majority (53%) of counties has no official or preferred religion, and 10 (5%) are hostile to religion, according to a report by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
Most of the 43 countries with state religions are in the Middle East and North Africa, with a cluster in northern Europe. Islam is the official religion in 27 countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa as well North Africa and the Middle East.
Thirteen countries -- including nine in Europe -- are officially Christian, two (Bhutan and Cambodia) have Buddhism as their state religion, and one (Israel) is officially a Jewish state. No country has Hinduism as its state religion.

Now, as you can see from the 2013 RT television clip atop this page, having a state religion doesn't always guarantee prosperous times for the faith in question. If anything, the Church of England's fortunes are less secure now than they were four years ago, but that's a story for another time.

What is germane to the Guardian report -- but also is absent there -- is any information providing context about how having a state-sanctioned religion affects the people who live in these states. Few countries restrict residency or citizenship to people of just one particular faith, so it's safe to assume there are religious minorities in every one of the lands where there's a "state church" or similar faith.

Those fortunate enough to read The Salt Lake Tribune's coverage of the Pew story got some important context, data that would be of particular interest to a Utah readership.

Reporter Bob Mims explained the Pew data in terms readers in a missionary-sending culture -- that would be Utah -- would appreciate:

Katayoun Kishi, the study’s lead researcher, said that her team found a “stronger relationship” between government actions restricting religion and whether the country has an official state religion.
“Countries with an official religion are also more likely to institute bans on one or more religious groups in the country as well as interfere with worship practices,” she added. “This relationship holds true even when controlling for levels of democracy in the country, its population size and the country’s level of social hostilities toward religion.”

Mims,  who is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, added more LDS-oriented context I'm relatively sure many readers found helpful. A bit of history is never a bad thing:

Under Russian law, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism officially are deemed the country’s “traditional” religions, Pew noted. However, in practice, Moscow has a record of showing preference for the Russian Orthodox Church, providing security and access to official vehicles to Orthodox leaders, and presidential grants to organizations either controlled by or with ties to the church.
In recent years, that preference has become more open, both nationally and locally, with Russia scrutinizing such non-Orthodox “Western” sects as the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Mormon missionary activity has been tightly restricted, with the LDS Church now referring to its young spiritual ambassadors as “volunteers.” Jehovah‘s Witnesses have been virtually banned outright, with police raids on meetinghouses and even private residences reported.

The Tribune report explains the Pew data in a context the vast majority of its readers would easily understand. It turns out that knowing about nations which have a state-sanctioned faith isn't just a bit of trivia. It can impact the lives of religious minorities there as well as the nations (and groups) contemplating the placement of missionaries in those nations.

This kind of reporting and writing might be just a shade more than "Journalism 101," but it's something the Guardian's reporters and editors should have also kept in mind.

Presenting a summary of a few high points from this latest Pew "data dump" on this subject isn't sufficient, in my view. It's incumbent upon a news organization to put the news into focus for its readers.

The Salt Lake Tribune, thanks to a very capable reporter who's had a long interest in covering issues of faith, did something the more-storied Guardian did not do. Our British cousins would do well to take a page from this daily in the now-former Colonies.

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