New Pew survey notes line between religious identity and religious faith in Central and Eastern Europe

Does anyone recall the 1991 comedy classic "What About Bob?", in which Bill Murray plays an obnoxiously self-absorbed client who cluelessly and unrelentingly pesters his psychotherapist (Richard Dreyfuss) during his annual summer vacation until the therapist suffers a breakdown?

Alright. So maybe it's not a classic. But I thoroughly enjoyed it -- perhaps not the least because I'm married to a psychotherapist who, if you ask me, has had more than her share of clients with professional boundary problems.

Which is to say that it was easy for me to relate to this movie because the situation it satirized is of more than passing interest to me.

That I have this personal bias because of my particular circumstance, should surprise no one. Likewise, it should come as no surprise to GetReligion readers that journalism functions similarly.

The greater the potential impact of a story on a news outlet's core audience, the greater the attention the outlet will lavish on the story. In short, if all politics is ultimately local, so is all news.

Which is why, I'm surmising, the media coverage of the Pew Research Center's survey report on the explosive growth of religious identity -- if not actual religious practice -- in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian Central and Eastern Europe has played out as it has so far.

Mainstream media attention was relatively scant. While The Economist provided a well-rounded report, this Newsweek story is more representative of the thin coverage overall that I found.

In truth, to anyone who's been paying attention, the survey's findings are far from surprising. The recent rise of religious-identity politics -- particularly in Orthodox Russia -- has been well covered.

All this survey offers are some new numbers to support what we already know, which could be why the preponderance of the global elite media did not jump to produce a story.

Some religious media, on the other hand, played the "What About Bob?" card. Which is to say they gave the survey results somewhat greater play -- while focusing on the story angle most likely to strike a chord with their particular parochial metric.

Before we consider a few examples of this, let's look at the meat of the Pew findings, as summed up by Pew's press release about the survey.

Roughly a quarter of a century after the fall of the Iron Curtain and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, a major new Pew Research Center survey finds that religion has reasserted itself as an important part of individual and national identity in many of the Central and Eastern European countries where communist regimes once repressed religious worship and promoted atheism.
Today, solid majorities of adults across much of the region say they believe in God, and most identify with a religion. Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism are the most prevalent religious affiliations, much as they were more than 100 years ago in the twilight years of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.
In many Central and Eastern European countries, religion and national identity are closely entwined. This is true in former communist states, such as the Russian Federation and Poland, where majorities say that being Orthodox or Catholic is important to being “truly Russian” or “truly Polish.” It is also the case in Greece, where the church played a central role in Greece’s successful struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire and where today three-quarters of the public (76%) says that being Orthodox is important to being “truly Greek.”
Many people in the region embrace religion as an element of national belonging even though they are not highly observant. Relatively few Orthodox or Catholic adults in Central and Eastern Europe say they regularly attend worship services, pray often or consider religion central to their lives. For example, a median of just 10% of Orthodox Christians across the region say they go to church on a weekly basis.
Indeed, compared with many populations Pew Research Center previously has surveyed – from the United States to Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa to Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa -- Central and Eastern Europeans display relatively low levels of religious observance.

Two things stand out for me.

The first is that so many Central and Eastern Europeans believe that to belong, in a national sense, means to profess the dominant faith. The converse, of course, is that if you do not profess the dominant faith, you can never truly belong -- which opens a door to prejudice and even persecution.

JTA, the international Jewish news agency, zeroed in on this angle in its survey story.

Again, as with the rest of the survey, this is not exactly breaking news for Jews who pay attention to anti-Semitism concerns -- or have a basic knowledge of Jewish history in the region (remember the Holocaust?).

The second standout element is how interconnected are religion and identity -- both personally and tribally -- and how this persists despite the many claims that secularism has eroded religious identity in Christian Europe, and the West more generally.

Christianity Today seized on this point in fashioning its survey story.

However, given the relatively low-levels of actual religious observance in the nation's surveyed -- just 6 percent of Orthodox Christians in Russia surveyed said they attend church weekly, for example -- I think the evangelical magazine fell into a "What About Bob?" hole. I'd say it overplayed the results in interpreting them as a stunning reversal of communist-era official atheism.

Proclamations of tribal political affiliation, in my opinion, should not be conflated automatically with sincerely practiced religious belief, or even a deep loyalty to the faith movement professed.

Of all the pieces I read on the survey, this article from the Deseret News struck me as perhaps the best use of the survey findings.

The newspaper, a quasi-religious publication in that it's owned by the Mormon church, contextualized the findings by noting the reality of official Russian religious persecution against such minority faiths as Jehovah's Witnesses.

Let's not forget that Mormons have also suffered from religious persecution, and remain sensitive to that history. It's easy to conclude that the News Pew survey coverage was shaped by this.

American journalists still struggling to make sense of the surprising support for (post-Christian?) President Donald Trump among many white evangelical Protestants might keep in mind the importance of religion as a primary marker of tribal, or national, identity.

MAIN IMAGE: Part of the famous icon, Our Lady of Czestochowa, the Black Madonna of Poland.

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