Demographics

Pondering how to cover religion news for readers in the 'nones' generation

Pondering how to cover religion news for readers in the 'nones' generation

Here at GetReligion we write a lot about how the news media wrestle — successfully and otherwise, but mostly otherwise — with religion stories that have public policy consequences. That makes sense since these stories constitute the bulk of what religion reporters produce. They dominate because they’re far and away the easiest for journalists to make sense of.

Reporters spend far less time tackling religion’s deeper, less linear realms. Including, how we make sense of our lives. 

For traditional believers, religion is key to extracting sufficient meaning from life to keep its bewildering complexity and insecurity from rendering us dysfunctional. For religion journalists, historically that’s meant concentrating on the minutia of faith group wrangling over the day’s public issues. 

Comprehend the jargon, restate it in more universally understood language, organize it in dramatic fashion, and — voila — you’ve mastered the formula of successful religion journalism.

But as with so much about contemporary journalism, that was then and this is now — the hallmark of which is radical change.

A dominate trend in today’s America, and the West in general, is the move away from traditional religious expression. I’m referring, of course, to the growing cohort of the religiously disengaged “nones,” who by some estimates now account for a fourth of all Americans and 35 percent of those under age 30. Click here for the Pew Forum research on that.

A hefty percentage of these people have tired of public policy religion stories, so many of which seem to defy resolution year after year, decade after decade. Religiously disengaged, they have no interest in hearing about the ongoing squabbles of groups they feel have nothing to offer them.

Now combine that with the growing trend in journalism away from what we like to call the historical American model of fact-based, balanced, “objective” reporting. And remember that it’s replacement is opinion and expository writing.

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Deja vu all over again: BBC does another fun cathedrals story that skips somber facts (again)

Deja vu all over again: BBC does another fun cathedrals story that skips somber facts (again)

So here is the journalism question for today: Is the implosion of the Church of England, especially in terms of worship attendance, so common knowledge that it doesn’t even need to be mentioned in a news story linked to this topic?

It was news when attendance slid under 1 million, earlier this decade. Then the numbers kept falling. Here’s a Guardian report from a year or so ago. The big statistic reported in 2018 was that Sunday attendance was down to “722,000 — 18,000 fewer than in 2016.”

The story I want to look at did not run on a small website or in a niche-market newspaper. It was produced by the BBC, one of the top two or three most important news organizations on the planet.

Maybe this subject is too bleak to be mentioned in what is clearly meant to be a fun story? Here’s the headline on this long feature: “Why are cathedrals hosting helter-skelters and golf courses?” And the overture:

From giant models of Earth and the Moon to a helter-skelter and crazy golf course, cathedrals are increasingly playing host to large artworks and attractions. Why are buildings built for worship being used in the pursuit of fun?

Cathedrals might traditionally be viewed as hallowed places meant for sombre reflection and hushed reverence.

Vast, vaulted ceilings soar high over whispering huddles of wide-eyed tourists as robed wardens patrol the pews to silence anything that could detract from the sanctity of worship.

But cathedral chiefs across the country have been keen to shake free from the shushing stereotype.

Let’s see. There is a glimpse of the “why?” in this story. Why are these Anglican leaders so intent on opening the doors to let people have some fun of this kind?

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Pulpits vs. pews: Thinking about choices that mainline Protestants make on Election Day

Pulpits vs. pews: Thinking about choices that mainline Protestants make on Election Day

Anyone listing turning points in American politics would have to include that day in 1980 when candidate Ronald Reagan went to Dallas and faced a crowd of 15,000 evangelical, Pentecostal and fundamentalist Christian leaders.

Reagan told them, “I know you can’t endorse me. But ... I want you to know that I endorse you.”

The mainstream press grasped the importance of that declaration.

However, a recent symbolic move by leaders on the left didn’t get anywhere near as much ink (analog or digital). I am referring to that resolution (.pdf here) by the Democratic National Committee stating, in part:

WHEREAS, religiously unaffiliated Americans overwhelmingly share the Democratic Party’svalues, with 70% voting for Democrats in 2018, 80% supporting same-sex marriage, and 61% saying immigrants make American society stronger; and

WHEREAS, the religiously unaffiliated demographic represents the largest religious group within the Democratic Party, growing from 19% in 2007 to one in three today. …

Therefore, the party saluted “religiously unaffiliated Americans” because of their advocacy for “rational public policy based on sound science and universal humanistic values. …”

This really isn’t news, for religion-beat pros who have been paying attention. After all political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron connected these dots in 2012, when the Pew Forum released its “Nones on the Rise” report. Here is a chunk of an “On Religion” column that I wrote at that time:

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."

At that time, Green noted that a party led by atheists, agnostics and Nones might have trouble making peace with several key flocks in the Democratic Part’s historic base — such as African-American Protestants, Latino Catholics and blue-collar believers in the American heartland.

This brings me to this weekend’s “think piece” by progressive Baptist pastor and scholar Ryan Burge, whose work with @Religion_Public has made him a must-follow voice in Twitter (@ryanburge).

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That question again: Why did America 'lose its religion' around 1990? Or did it?

That question again: Why did America 'lose its religion' around 1990? Or did it?

Six days after the eminent Emma Green of The Atlantic and TheAtlantic.com walked off with three major first-place prizes at the Religion News Association convention, her staff colleague Derek Thompson plunged into a perennial puzzle on the beat. The breathless headline announced, “Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why?”

Once again, we’re talking about the growth of “Nones” who shun religious affiliation.

One can hope Thompson did not write that hed and was denied the right to change it. As the commentariat is well aware, America did not lose its religions (American religions are always plural) . Rather, “organized religion” began losing more individuals — mostly from the mushy middle of the spectrum, in terms of practicing a faith — though dropouts often retained an intriguing melange of religious ideas and practices.

Thompson asks, “What the hell happened around 1990?”

Was that really a magic year? He cites three explanations from Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith for the rise of the nones — the end of the Cold War (yep, that came in 1989-1991), alleged alienation due to Republicans’ link with the “Christian Right” (which had long roots and gained visibility starting earlier, in 1980), and the 9/11 attacks by radical Muslims that sullied all religions (and occurred a full decade later). On the last point, you’d have thought damaged esteem for Islam would inspire renewed interest in Christianity and Judaism.

The year 2000 might be a better starting point for America’s religious recession. And any analysis should note that the important “Mainline” Protestant decline started way back in the mid-1960s. The biggest evangelical group, the Southern Baptist Convention, only began to slowly slip in 2007. As for Thompson’s nones, Pew Research cites the noticeable lurch downward from 2007, when they totaled an estimated 36.6 million, to the 55.8 million count just seven years later.

Chronology aside, Smith himself might agree with The Guy on the big flaw in the journalistic ointment. This is another of those many thumbsuckers that are interested mostly in white evangelical Protestants. The writer largely ignores other large faith sectors like Catholics, Mainline/liberal Protestants and African-American Protestants of various kinds. And what about Latino Pentecostals?

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Mainline blues update: WPost offers sobering facts, lovely images about circuit-riding pastors

Mainline blues update: WPost offers sobering facts, lovely images about circuit-riding pastors

Talk to scholars that study American religion and most will say that the implosion of the “Seven Sisters” of old-line Protestantism has to be at the top of any list of big trends in the past half century.

For those who need to refresh their memories, the “Seven Sisters” are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Many reporters, when dealing with mainline blues stories (think churches “for sale”) never pause to probe the “WHY?” factor in that old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how.”

Often, journalists don’t give readers key facts about the mainline decline at all. In recent years, I’ve seen more than a few stories suggesting that the slight (but important) declines in some conservative flocks have the same root causes as the 30-50% declines seen in mainline churches since the 1960s.

Thus, it’s important to praise a news feature that includes all the basic facts, when talking about this trend, and then goes the extra mile to include waves of poignant details offering readers a pew-level view of what this decline feels like to the remaining believers.

That brings me to a must-read Washington Post feature that just ran with this headline: “The circuit preacher was an idea of the frontier past. Now it’s the cutting-edge response to shrinking churches.”

The setting for this story is a dense, mountainous corner of West Virginia, which is home to a wife-and-husband team of pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the story even pauses to explain the term “evangelical” in this context). Linked to that, readers are also told that this particular Lutheran body holds “more-liberal positions on issues such as homosexuality and the role of women.”

How busy is this duo? Here is a crucial summary passage that includes many of the crucial facts:

[The Rev. Jess Felici], 36, and her husband, the Rev. Jason Felici, 33, serve together as the pastors of five churches in one of the most isolated pockets of America. Their weekly acrobatics of military-precision timing and long-distance driving are what it takes to make Sunday church services happen in a place where churchgoers are aging, pews are getting emptier and church budgets are getting smaller.

That makes Appalachia much like the rest of the country when it comes to mainline Protestant churches.

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Democrats embrace the Nones: Religious scenarios for the big 2020 vote are taking shape

Democrats embrace the Nones: Religious scenarios for the big 2020 vote are taking shape

OK. America is months away from March 3, when primaries in California and 14 other states may well fix the final shape of the Democrats’ presidential contest and whether it might grind away until the July convention.

But the 2020 campaign is already fully launched and running red hot, so let’s scan some scenarios for political reporters who are watching religion and religion reporters who are watching politics.

The one novel angle this round is Pete Buttigieg’s pitch to inspire voters who are liberal in both religion and politics to at last get organized for victory. The Guy suspects he’s more likely to move up from the second tier and snag the nomination than that such a New Religious Left will deliver the goods in ballot boxes. Still, Mayor Pete’s prospects are newsworthy because he’s out to scramble the religious dynamics of the past four decades.

However, the Democratic National Committee proclaimed the bigger reality in a significant resolution (.pdf here) at its August meeting in secular San Francisco that roused scant MSM interest — but energized conservative and secularist media. The party championed the patriotism and morals of religiously unaffiliated Americans and said they “should be represented, included and heard” because they are now “the largest religious group within the Democratic Party.”

The party can count noses. Or its leaders noted the predictions of religion-and-politics experts like scholar John C. Green of the University of Akron.

Party leaders said the nonreligious were 17 percent of 2018 voters, and they make up a third of today’s Democrats vs. only 17 percent in 2007 when Barack Obama launched his campaign. They constitute something like a fourth of the overall U.S. population and 35 percent of those under age 30. So there’s “potential to deliver millions more votes” through “targeted outreach” that boosts turnout.

The Democrats’ statement ignored the ground-level fact that religiously unaffiliated Americans tend to be less engaged in civic affairs, and harder to contact and organize, than members of religious congregations. Crucially, the above data remind us that two-thirds of Democrats remain nominally or actively religious. Combined with religiously inclined Independents, they’ll determine who wins.

How to get 271 electoral votes?

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Do generic Scouts have a future? (Wait! What was that about Latter-day Saints cutting ties?)

Do generic Scouts have a future? (Wait! What was that about Latter-day Saints cutting ties?)

No doubt about it, the generic Scouts are in trouble.

There are a number of important reasons for this, including a tsunami of legal problems linked to decades of hidden sexual abuse. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it — because of an important Washington Post story with this headline: “Lawsuits. Possible bankruptcy. Declining numbers. Is there a future for the Boy Scouts?”

But here is my main question today: What are the crucial factors that are — statistically speaking — threatening the future of Scouting? Let me add: Is there more to this than the current legal climate?

To answer that question, let’s flash back to a 2015 piece from the news service of the United Methodist Church that ran with this headline: “Churches can have gay Boy Scout leaders.” As you would imagine, United Methodists were divided on the wisdom of that Scouting policy change, as they are divided on every important issue linked to faith and sexuality. However, this story includes a crucial number:

As part of the resolution approved July 27, the Boy Scouts’ executive board also committed to indemnify and defend legally any religious chartered group against discrimination claims. Federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling in 2012, have ruled that religious bodies are free to set their own rules for choosing and dismissing leaders. …

More than 71 percent of Scout units are chartered to faith-based groups, reports Boy Scouts of America. The United Methodist Church is second only to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the number of congregations that host Boy Scouts of America units. The United Methodist Church also has the highest number of Cub Scouts, with an estimated 200,000 members.

So, 71 percent of all Scout units were, at that time, linked to faith-based groups, with the LDS ranked No. 1 and the United Methodists No. 2. And what about the Baptists? As of two years ago — when the Boy Scouts decided to accept girls who identify as boys — the Association of Baptists for Scouting (ABS) reported that it had nearly 2.3 million members. At that time, about 60 percent of the association’s members were Southern Baptists.

It would appear that it is hard to ponder Scouting’s future without considering the impact of the movement’s policies on sex and gender and its standing among religious groups — especially the United Methodists and various kinds of Baptists. And the believers formerly known as Mormons?

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Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Reporters who are truly interested in the future of the American faith-scene need to know this number — 100. Or maybe it’s 85 or 90. I’ve heard others say the crucial number is 115 in expensive zip codes.

But the late Lyle Schaller, a legendary church-management guru in oldline Protestant circles, once told me that it took about 100 actively contributors to fund the salary-and-benefits package for a credentialed minister in a mainline church. When Schaller said “mainline,” he was talking about the “Seven Sisters.” In descending order by size, that’s the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

In other words, if a church had more than 100 active members (or households) it could provide for its minister and then do other things — like keep the building from falling down. With fewer than 100 members, a church would be constantly struggling with basic expenses, trying to keep the doors open.

So that’s the statistic that looms over that glowing New York Times feature about a lively Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that represents the future of the religious left. The dramatic main headline states: “The Church Where Believing in God Isn’t Strictly Necessary.”

Yes, I hear what many readers are thinking. This is a church that even the New York Times can love. And how many people are in these pews? Readers will have to read way down into the story to find that information. Meanwhile, the summary lede contains a few details:

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

You have to love that detail about the “perils of genetically modified vegetables.” However, the thesis statement comes a few paragraphs later, as the editorial angels sing a song of hope for a future free of nasty stuff like ancient doctrines:

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary.

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Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

In my opinion, the world’s two most powerful and influential news outlets are the BBC and The New York Times.

Needless to say, both of these news organizations have offered coverage of Pope Francis and his latest visit to Africa. It’s interesting to note some consistent thin spots — doctrine-shaped holes, really — in the background coverage explaining why this trip matters so much, in terms of certain demographic realities in the modern Roman Catholic Church.

Consider this crucial passage in the BBC advance feature that ran with this headline: “Pope Francis in Africa: Is the continent the Catholic Church's great hope?” This three-nation trip to Africa will be:

… his fourth visit to the continent since he became the head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013, compared to the two his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, made during his eight-year papacy. 

The importance of Africa to the Catholic Church can be summed up in a word — growth. 

Africa has the fastest growing Catholic population in the world, while Western Europe, once regarded as the heartland of Christianity, has become one of the world's most secular regions, according to the US-based Pew Research Center. And many of those who do identify themselves as Christian in Western Europe do not regularly attend church.

Here is a stunner of a statistic, care of the Center for Applied Research.

Start here. The number of Catholics in the world increased by 57% to 1.2 billion, between 1980 and 2012. However, growth in Europe was just 6%. Frankly, I am surprised to hear that Catholic numbers rose in Europe at all. I would be interesting to see a comparison of Western and Eastern European nations.

Meanwhile, the Catholic population rose 283% in Africa.

So why is that happening? Thinking like a religion writer, the first things that leap into my mind are (1) African Catholics are having more babies and (b) they are making more converts. Both of those factors have major doctrinal components in the post-Vatican II Catholic world. You could also note that the African church is raising up many more priests than the somewhat frozen European churches.

The BBC team, I think it’s safe to say, saw zero doctrinal component in the African church’s growth.

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