Snowflake alert: New survey research on Americans’ religious identities provokes tweet mini-storm

The Religion Guy has often lauded the Pew Research Center for its valuable survey research on the state of religion in the United States and worldwide, for instance its new (July 26) report on attitudes of U.S. Muslims, a matter of keen interest for journalists.

But a younger think tank also based in Washington, D.C., the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) is also an important source.

It grabbed headlines this week with its report “America’s Changing Religious Identity.” PRRI proclaims its 2016 telephone poll in English and Spanish of 101,438 respondents  is the largest survey of U.S. religious identity ever. The margin of error is minuscule.

There's lots of news here, some of it old news. But it's still important material.

Key findings underscore the already well-documented rise of religiously unaffiliated “nones” alongside a decline in the preponderance of white Christians. (Protestants as a whole had ceased to be a majority of Americans back around the time of the Barack Obama-John McCain campaign.)

Though evangelical Protestantism long expanded or held steady as white “mainline” Protestant churches declined, evangelicals are beginning a delayed but similar slide, from 23 percent of Americans a decade ago to 17 percent currently. Meanwhile, African-American Protestantism is  largely stable.

A breaking news article on this by the carefully non-ideological Rachel Zoll (disclosure: The Religion Guy’s former beat colleague at The AP) provoked a tweet storm, featuring some snowflakes. One outraged tweeter charged that Zoll was “attempting to pass that off as journalism” and said her copy felt like “the type of garbage that fuels racism. Why do we need to know how many Christians are white?”

Why? Maybe because factual data are important to know and substantiate long-building U.S. trends?

Other snowflakes tweeted about being “alarmed” by this article, or said it “promotes far right, far fetched concepts of white persecution,” or “is dripping with terms used to create fear” or constitutes “conservative propaganda, or “smells” of “promoting white victimhood and resentment.” Such is today's online discourse.

You can judge Zoll’s fairness for yourself right here. There you can also scan  other key findings. In The Guy’s reading, the following leapt out as themes newswriters might want to develop:

* As the 2016 elections continue to spark debate, note that 35 percent of Republicans identify as white evangelicals, and that 73 percent of Republicans say they belong to a predominantly white Christian group  (whether evangelical, mainline or Catholic). Far more evangelicals identify as independents (31 percent) than Democrats (12 percent). Today’s white “mainliners” and non-Latino Catholics lean somewhat Republican.

* Meanwhile, in newer news, 40 percent of Democrats say they have no religious affiliation -- constituting by far the party’s biggest religious bloc. A decade ago 50 percent of Democrats were white Christians, but now a mere 29 percent. This sort of sharp contrast  between the two major parties is unprecedented and will have notable impact in 2018, 2020 and beyond.

* Among Americans who identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender), 46 percent have no religious affiliation, compared with 24 percent of Americans over-all who self-identify as religious “nones.”

* A quarter-century ago, 87 percent of U.S. Catholics identified as white or non-Latino compared with 55 percent today, largely due to immigration. 

 * The state with the biggest percentage of “nones” is Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Vermont (at 41 percent), followed by Oregon (36 percent), Washington (35 percent) and Hawaii (34 percent). All are heavily Democratic. #NoSurprise The least diverse state in religion is super-red Mississippi, where 60 percent of the dominant Protestants are Baptist. New York is the most diverse state. 

-- Jews are 2 percent of the population while the count of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists (a subject of considerable controversy) was 1 percent for each.

Reporters should also scan this political analysis of the PRRI data from FiveThirtyEight.com.

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