Spot the news story: Americans feel 'warmer' about faith groups, except for (#DUH) evangelicals

Several times a year, the Pew Research Center hits reporters with another newsy study -- full of numbers and public-square trends -- that is almost impossible not to cover.

The latest report was topped with this sprawling double-decker headline: "Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings Toward Religious Groups -- Jews, Catholics continue to receive warmest ratings, atheists and Muslims move from cool to neutral."

That's a rather warm and fuzzy way to put it and that's precisely how The New York Times -- in a very straightforward and newsy report -- decided to cover this material. Of course, this survey was also framed with references (#DUH) to the 2016 presidential race. Never forget that politics is what is really real.

After an election year that stirred up animosity across racial and religious lines, a new survey has found that Americans are actually feeling warmer toward people in nearly every religious group -- including Muslims -- than they did three years ago.
Muslims and atheists still rank at the bottom of the poll, which asked respondents to rate their attitudes toward religious groups on a “feeling thermometer.” However, Muslims and atheists -- who have long been targets of prejudice in the United States -- received substantially warmer ratings on the scale than they did in a survey in 2014: Muslims rose to 48 percent from 40, and atheists to 50 percent from 41.
The religious groups that ranked highest, as they did three years ago, were Jews (67 percent) and Catholics (66 percent). Mainline Protestants, including Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, who were measured for the first time, came in at 65 percent. Buddhists rose on the scale to 60 percent from 53, Hindus to 58 from 50, and Mormons to 54 from 48.

There was, however, one exception to this civility trend.

Evangelical Christians were the only group that did not improve their standing from three years ago, plateauing at 61 percent.

As you would imagine -- remember the journalism commandment that "all news is local" -- scribes at Christianity Today jumped on that trend right at the top of their report on the survey. The headline, and check out the killer second line: "Americans Warm Up to Every Religious Group Except Evangelicals -- Pew finds fewer people personally know an evangelical anymore."

Thus, the lede for this piece notes:

Evangelicals are the only religious group in the United States that has not developed a better reputation over the past few years. And Americans have become less likely to know an evangelical -- more so than any other faith tradition.

Now, the numbers show that large numbers of Americans still have "warm feelings" for evangelicals. But there is a dark side to that trend.

You see, there are lots and lots of evangelicals in America -- compared with the size of other religious niches -- and evangelicals tend to like themselves. Subtract the evangelicals who have warm feelings toward evangelicals and another trend emerges:

Overall, 44 percent of Americans feel positively about evangelicals, while 38 percent feel neutral and 18 percent feel negatively. The ratings fall when responses from fellow evangelicals, who made up more than 1 in 4 of respondents, are removed: Just under a third of non-evangelicals (32%) have warm feelings towards the group.

This raises a question (#DUH) that your GetReligionistas have been asking since we opened our cyber-doors in 2004: What does the word "evangelical" mean? The bottom line: Whatever this label means, it has increasingly turned into a mild curse (a lukewarm version of "fundamentalist") that is now being avoided by many white evangelicals.

So if there are fewer people who are calling themselves "evangelicals," and the term "evangelical" is primarily being used as a political curse, then that would affect a survey such as this one. Right?

Thus, the CT team noted:

Though a majority of Americans still know at least one evangelical, the group experienced the most significant decline in familiarity. Among non-evangelicals, millennials (45%) and African Americans (33%) were least likely to know someone who identifies as evangelical.
One factor behind the drop-off may be a growing reluctance to use the label over the baggage it carries, especially for those outside the church. A CT Pastors survey conducted late last year found that pastors were more likely to call themselves evangelical around other Christians (70%) than non-Christians (52%). 

My take: It would also appear that African Americans evangelicals -- faced with waves of media signals assuming that "evangelical" equals white Republican -- have stopped calling themselves evangelicals.

But the key number in all of that, for reporters seeking an edgier story, was this one: "Just under a third of non-evangelicals (32%) have warm feelings towards the group." 

Now, turn that around and that would mean that more than two-thirds of non-evangelicals have cool or cold feelings about America's largest non-Catholic Christian flock. Did I get that right?

Thinking through the implications of the Pew survey reminded me of a report released more than a decade ago by political scientists Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce of Baruch College in the City University of New York. The key to their study was the identification of what they called "anti-fundamentalist voters" -- a growing army of secular and religiously liberal Americans who were united by their "animus" against traditional forms of religion, especially Christianity.

Note that they spotted this coalition of atheists, agnostics, religious liberals and "those who answer 'none' when asked to pick a faith" long before this same trend emerged as one implication of the headline-producing "'Nones' on the Rise" survey by Pew in 2012.

Here is some crucial material from these two scholars, drawn from an "On Religion" column I wrote in 2004. Yes, some of these numbers are old, but that's what makes them so striking. Does anyone doubt that they have not risen in the past two decades?

Bolce, an Episcopalian, and De Maio, a Roman Catholic, have focused much of their work on the "thermometer scale" used in the 2000 American National Election Study and those that preceded it. Low temperatures indicate distrust or hatred while high numbers show trust and respect. Thus, "anti-fundamentalist voters" are those who gave fundamentalists a rating of 25 degrees or colder. By contrast, the rating "strong liberals" gave to "strong conservatives" was a moderate 47 degrees.
Yet 89 percent of white delegates to the 1992 Democratic National Convention qualified as "anti-fundamentalist voters," along with 57 percent of Jewish voters, 51 percent of "moral liberals," 48 percent of school-prayer opponents, 44 percent of secularists and 31 percent of "pro-choice" voters. In 1992, 53 percent of those white Democratic delegates gave Christian fundamentalists a thermometer rating of zero.

By the way, they found that this "anti-fundamentalist voter" pattern was very rare among African Americans.

Oh, what about the evangelicals and "fundies"? Who did they reject in those same surveys? Their average "thermometer rating" toward Catholics was a friendly 62 degrees, toward blacks 66 degrees and Jews 68 degrees.

There is a good reason that few Americans know about this trend, said De Maio and Bolce. 

Between 1990 and 2000, Bolce and De Maio found that the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post published 929 stories about the political clout of conservative Christians and 59 about that of secularists. Only 18 stories addressed the religious disconnect between the major parties. They searched abstracts at the Vanderbilt University television news archive for similar stories in 2003 and 2004 and found zero.
"What we have found is a prejudice that is not taboo in our educational, political and media elites," said Bolce. "Anti-fundamentalist attitudes are sanctioned at the highest levels of American life."

Thus, it is significant that the Times story on the new Pew survey never returned to the implications of its numbers about evangelical Christians.

I guess that is to be expected, since everyone knows there are few, if any, evangelicals in greater New York City. Yes, I am joking.

The Times team focused on the survey's larger trend, which was the rise in positive numbers. That's a valid approach to this news story.

Christianity Today dug deeper and, as a key voice among evangelical Protestants, probed the implications of this survey for its readers. That's a valid approach, too, especially if you are looking for an edgier headline that fits these tense times in the public square of American life.

However, once again I am reminded of something that Stephen Bates -- author of the very mainstream and still relevant "Battleground: One Mother's Crusade, the Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of our Classrooms" -- once told me:

It is getting harder and harder for postmodern liberals to tolerate people that they believe are intolerant. ... Some progressives have found themselves saying, "There are people in the world who just don't love everybody the way that they should and I hate people like that."

So, are the moral and cultural walls that divide Americans getting higher or lower? Are things getting warmer or colder, when it comes to Americans willing to tolerate the beliefs of others? Are you seeing this issue in the mainstream news that you consume?

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