News consumers, I want you to flash back to the early stages of the 2016 White House race, near the start of the Donald Trump earthquake.
Remember how we had lots of headlines that kept saying, "Evangelicals love Trump! Evangelicals LOVE Trump!"
Yes, that was sort of true. There were many old-guard Religious Right leaders who bonded with The Donald really early. Eventually, the vast majority of cultural and moral conservatives would vote for the sort-of-GOP standard bearer, with about half of them reluctantly doing so as a way of voting against Hillary Clinton. The mainstream press (with a few exceptions) still has not grasped the significance of that fact.
However, here is something that more reporters figured out early on, since it involved race. They discovered the crucial fact that there are black, Latino and Asian evangelicals. They realized that it was mainly WHITE evangelicals who were supporting Trump. Look at evangelicals as a whole and the picture was quite different.
This brings us to a recent Religion News Service headline about another fascinating blast of numbers from the Pew Research Center team. That headline proclaimed: "Republicans, Democrats divided on impact of religion." And here is some key information near the top:
Overall, a majority of Americans (59 percent) see religion as a positive, compared to 26 percent who say it has a negative impact on the way things are going in the U.S., according to Pew. ...
Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Republicans or those who lean Republican said churches and religious organizations have a positive impact, with 14 percent saying that impact is negative, according to Pew.
Meanwhile, Democrats are split: Half of those who are or lean Democrat believe religious institutions have a positive impact, according to the survey, while 36 percent said they have a negative impact. And those divides become stronger as one’s political ideology becomes stronger, particularly among Democrats, according to the data.
The minute I saw that headline, I wanted to know something about these numbers. Just as there are differences between white evangelicals and evangelicals of color, there are differences between white Democrats and Democrats of color.
To be blunt, I wondered: Oh. My. God. If only half of Democrats view religious institutions in a positive light, what do the numbers look like when you remove black and Latino voters?
Is the story going to parse these numbers the way that reporters -- to be clear and responsible -- have had to split the views of white and minority evangelicals in the Trump stories?
There are, needless to say, lots of black and Latino Democrats and they, historically, have a more positive view of religion (and more "conservative" stands on moral and social issues). Who is more likely to be worried about religious-liberty conflicts right now, a black Pentecostal pastor or a white agnostic?
Try to imagine a headline about this survey that said: "Strong majority of white Democrats have negative view of religious groups."
So what do we learn? Is that split found in the details of this RNS story?
Liberal Democrats are about as likely to say religious institutions have a negative impact on the way things are going in the U.S. (44 percent) as they are positive (40 percent). But more conservative and moderate Democrats said such organizations have a positive effect on the country (58 percent, compared to 29 percent who say it is negative).
Ah, and many of these more conservative Democrats sit in which sets of church pews?
The Pew numbers (see chart from Pew featured with this post) give a breakdown on some of the numbers that take race into account. But look at that chart again. Where among Democrats is the real hostility to organized religion coming from?
Hello: Meet the Nones, as in the "religiously unaffiliated." The RNS story does note, in a rather big understatement way down in the report:
... Americans unaffiliated with a religion were more likely to say religious institutions had a negative (46 percent) impact than positive (34 percent). Those views also were much more negative among Americans who never or seldom attend religious services . ...
So if you are an American who is "unaffiliated with a religion" and you "never or seldom attend religious services" that makes you a WHAT, in terms of a tsunami of headlines in recent years?
This is a fascinating story, but why downplay the racial angle of the Democratic split, as well as the strong numbers about those media-friendly Nones?
Once again, I was reminded of these prophetic words from political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron -- right after the 2012 roll out of the now omnipresent "Nones on the Rise" survey at a meeting of what is now the Religion News Association. As I wrote in one of my columns:
The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters -- with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.
"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."
In an interview at that time, Green also said he wondered if the Democrats would, in the future, face painful conflicts about religion in public life, tensions between white, highly secular liberals -- symbolized by the Nones -- and more conservative, pro-religion Democrats in pews, especially in black and Latino churches.
Sounds like a story to me. Maybe a follow-up report?