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Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Since numbers make news, how do we explain America’s religious recession since 2000?

Numbers make news. Think of how many articles will report breathlessly on U.S. political polls between now and Nov. 3, 2020. And numbers created “the biggest American religion story of the past decade,” says analyst Mark Silk, referring to the increase in “nones” who tell pollsters they have no particular  religious identity.

This is news: A new Gallup report says a severe religious recession began to build right around 2000.

What explains this turn-of-the-century turn? Journalists with Gallup numbers in hand should run this puzzle past the experts in search of explanations. 

Gallup combines data from 1998–2000, compared with 2016–2018. A topline finding is that Americans reporting membership in a house of worship hit an all-time low of 50 percent by last year, which compares with a consistent 68 percent or more from 1937, when the question was first asked, and all the way through the 1990s. The era since 2000 mingles that loss with declining worship attendance and the  “nones” boom.   

Since your audiences are already transfixed by the 2020 campaign, consider this detail from Gallup’s internals. Comparing 1998-2000 with 2016-2018, church membership reported by Republicans slipped from 77 percent to 69 percent, but among Democrats plummeted from 71 percent to 48 percent, a remarkable 23 percent drop. (Independents went from 59 percent to 45 percent.) How come?

Journalists will find further statistics to ponder in the latest General Social Survey report from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. In this account, the “nones” have reached 23 percent. At the same time, however, 34 percent of American adults report “strong” religious affiliation, and similar percentages have held constant across the years since 1973. 

Writing for the interfaith journal First Things, Mark Movsesian of the St. John’s University Center for Law and Religion (who belongs on your source list) joins those who say the U.S. is experiencing “a decline in religious affiliation among people whose identification was weak to begin with.” As with politics, he proposes, “the middle seems to be dropping out in favor of the extremes on either end.”

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Mirror image: What if an evangelical politico doxed gay protesters at Family Research Council?

Mirror image: What if an evangelical politico doxed gay protesters at Family Research Council?

There is a reason that I held off writing about mainstream news coverage of Rep. Brian Sims and his online activism against people praying at his local Planned Parenthood facility.

To be blunt: I was waiting for some mainstream media coverage of this digital drama. The fact that this took several days is really interesting — from a media-analysis point of view.

Let’s look at this through the “mirror image” device that your GetReligionistas have been using for years.

Let’s say that a group of LGBTQ demonstrators decided to stage protests outside the doors of the Family Research Council — peacefully reading selections from the latest version of the Book of Common Prayer. The protesters include teens and an older person who is silently using a rainbow rosary.

Then a politician approaches, perhaps a GOP leader who backs the FRC. Using his smartphone to capture the proceedings for online use, he begins berating the gay activists, using language that focuses on age, race and religious beliefs. This evangelical politico also offers to pay viewers $100 for information on the teen-agers, thus helping evangelical activists to “visit” their homes.

All of this is posted online by this member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

How quickly would this draw major coverage at CNN? How about the New York Times? Note: We’re seeking serious, original coverage, not short Associated Press stories or aggregation reports built on clips from online chatter (see this Washington Post item).

Eventually, The Philadelphia Inquirer — to its credit — followed up on the explosion of Twitter activity on this topic. The lede did use a mild version of the “Republicans pounce!” theme, but took the issue seriously. Here is a key chunk of that breakthrough mainstream-news media report:

In one video, Sims approaches a woman and three girls who appear to be in their teens outside the Planned Parenthood clinic at 12th and Locust Streets and refers to them as “pseudo-Christian protesters who’ve been out here shaming young girls for being here.”

“I’ve got $100 to anyone who will identify any of these three,” Sims says in the video, adding that he is raising money for Planned Parenthood.

The unidentified woman responds, “We’re actually here just praying for the babies.”

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Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

If you know anything about the lives of pastors and priests, you know that — when it comes time to help hurting people — they really want to be able to pull aside, slow things down, look into someone’s face and talk things over.

Life does not always allow this, I know.

But my father was a pastor and, at the end of his ministry life, a hospital chaplain who spent most of his time with the parents of children who were fighting cancer.

On the few times I was with him during those hospital shifts, I saw him — over and over — sit in silence with someone, just being there, waiting until they were ready to talk. He was there to help, but mainly he was there to talk, to pray and to wait — for good news or bad news.

It would be hard to imagine a form of human communication that is more different than today’s world of social media apps on smartphones.

That’s why an article that I ran into the other day — via the progressive Baptist News Global website — stopped me dead in my tracks. The headline: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” I posted the article as a think piece here at GetReligion and then decided that I really need to talk to the author, the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, the lead pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena, Calif.

That led to an “On Religion” column this week for the Universal syndicate and, now, to a “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why did this topic intrigue me so much?

Well, first of all, it would be hard to name a more powerful trend in human communication today than social media and our omnipresent smartphones. That’s news. And Alvaro is convinced that these social-media programs are seriously warping the work of pastors. That’s a claim that would affect thousands of pastors and millions of people. So, yes, I think this topic is a news subject in and of itself.

Here is a large chunk of my column:

His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

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Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

Washington Post channels devastated United Methodist left. Who needs to talk to the right?

This may sound simplistic, but here goes. With most news events that involve elections, or votes to settle disputes inside an organization, there will be a winning side and a losing side.

Life is more complex than that, of course, and the “winners” of a single vote may not be the winners over the long haul. But let’s say that the winners keep winning the big votes for a decade or two.

At that point, journalists need to do one of two things. First, journalists can produce a story that, as Job 1, focuses on what the winners plan to do (since they won) and then, as Job 2, covers how the losing side plans to respond. The alternative is to write a major story about the winning group and then, to offer needed balance, to write a second story about how this outcome will affect the losing side.

With that in mind, please consider the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: “U.S. Methodist leaders lay plans to resist vote against same-sex marriage.” That is one way to state the issue — looking at this from the losing side of the equation.

It would be just as accurate to say that this was a vote — the latest of many — defending the United Methodist Church’s stance in favor of ancient (thinking church history) doctrines on marriage and sex. You could also say that the key votes focused on whether UMC clergy can be required to honor their ordination vows to follow the denomination’s Book of Discipline. However, that would be the point of view held by the winners, after that special global UMC general convention held recently in St. Louis.

So the Post team doing? The headline states the editorial approach: This is a feature story built on the reactions on the losing side in St. Louis, the plans of the left-of-center establishment that has long controlled UMC life in the United States. That’s it. That’s what readers get. Thus, the overture:

When the United Methodist Church voted to uphold its ban on same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy last month, Methodist pastors and churchgoers across America were devastated. A majority of American delegates had voted against the plan, though they were outvoted by more conservative delegates from Africa and other continents.

In the weeks since, several small but powerful cadres of pastors and bishops have begun plotting paths to overturn or undermine the decision.

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When the Southern Poverty Law Center implodes, why is no one surprised?

When the Southern Poverty Law Center implodes, why is no one surprised?

I’ve been complaining about the Southern Poverty Law Center for a long time and how it makes all the wrong moves in eviscerating conservative and often mainstream evangelical targets in the name of ferreting out hate. Only when it turned its focus on a British Muslim and got his story horribly wrong — resulting in a lawsuit filed against them by the aggrieved Brit — was it obvious to lots of media people that the SPLC was seriously off base.

With the recent dismissal of its co-founder Morris Dees, followed by the resignation of its president, Richard Cohen, various media, almost all of them on the left side of politics, have been piling onto the SPLC with cartloads of venom.

You’d think it was them who’d been tarred with the hate brush. But it wasn’t.

As religious liberty specialist David French, a Harvard Law man, reminds us at National Review:

For those who cared about truth, the SPLC’s transformation from a valuable anti-Klan watchdog into a glorified version of Media Matters for America was plain and obvious. It steadily expanded its definition of “hate groups” to include mainstream Christian organizations such as my former employer, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and it labeled as “extremists” men such as American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray.

These decisions had serious real-world consequences. Corporations and employers cut off relationships with groups and individuals targeted by the SPLC, and violent people used SPLC designations to justify attempted murder and assault. Remember the man who tried to commit mass murder at the Family Research Council? He found his target through the SPLC’s list of alleged “anti-gay groups.” Remember when an angry mob attacked Murray at Middlebury College and injured a professor? Because of the SPLC, those protesters thought they were attacking a “white nationalist.”

Recent articles that go after the SPLC include this lengthy read in the New Yorker. The critique majors on the organizations less-than-diverse racial make-up, its finesse as a “marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals” and its place as a “highly profitable scam.”

Although there’s very little about this mess that is directly about religion, there is an emphasis on morality or at least morality that got lost along the way. Part of the problem was the incessant appeals to blue-state America to contribute money so the SPLC could kill off the bogeyman of the Religious Right, along with racism.

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Another Masterpiece Cakeshop chapter closes, with a bland AP report that skips hot details

Another Masterpiece Cakeshop chapter closes, with a bland AP report that skips hot details

It’s another day and we have yet another chapter closing in the First Amendment drama of Jack Phillips and his Masterpiece Cakeshop.

Is this the last chapter?

That’s hard to tell. It’s especially hard to tell in the bland Associated Press report that is being published by many mainstream newsrooms. While the story does mention that Phillips has won another partial victory, it misses several crucial details that point to the anger and animus that has been driving this case all along and could keep it going.

Animus” against Phillips and his traditional Christian faith was, of course, at the heart of the U.S. Supreme Court’s sort-of decision on this matter, but, well, never mind. Why cover that part of the story?

So here is the latest from AP:

DENVER (AP) — A Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple on religious grounds — a stance partially upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — and state officials said Tuesday that they would end a separate legal fight over his refusal to bake a cake celebrating a gender transition.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and attorneys representing Jack Phillips said they mutually agreed to end two legal actions, including a federal lawsuit Phillips filed accusing the state of waging a “crusade to crush” him by pursuing a civil rights complaint over the gender transition cake.

Phillips’ attorneys dubbed the agreement a victory for the baker. Weiser, a Democrat, said both sides “agreed it was not in anyone’s best interest to move forward with these cases.”

So what about the future? Here is what readers are told:

The agreement resolves every ongoing legal dispute between the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in suburban Denver and the state. Weiser’s statement said it has no effect on the ability of the Denver attorney who filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission to pursue her own legal action.

The attorney, Autumn Scardina, told the commission that Phillips refused last year to make a cake that was blue on the outside and pink on the inside for a celebration of her transition from male to female. She asked for the cake on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would consider Phillips’ appeal of a previous commission ruling against him.

The lede for this story, as is the mainstream news norm, fails to note the key facts that were at the heart of the original case.

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Looking for strong political prejudices? The Atlantic offers a U.S. map packed with revelations

Looking for strong political prejudices? The Atlantic offers a U.S. map packed with revelations

A quarter of a century ago, America was already a bitterly divided nation — especially on matters of religion, culture, morality and politics.

Thus, liberal theologian Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School (author of the ‘60s bestseller, “The Secular City”) was shocked when he invited to lecture at Regent University. It’s hard, he noted in The Atlantic (“Warring Visions of the Religious Right”), to titillate his sherry-sipping colleagues in the Harvard faculty lounge, but accepting an invitation to invade the Rev. Pat Robertson’s campus did the trick.

Cox was pleased to find quite a bit of diversity at Regent, in terms of theological and political debates. He was welcomed, and discovered lots of people testing the borders of evangelicalism — other than on moral issues with strong doctrinal content. He found Episcopalians, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers.

Politically, too, the students and faculty members I met represented a somewhat wider spectrum than I had anticipated. There are some boundaries, of course. I doubt that a pro-choice bumper sticker would go unremarked in the parking lot, or that a gay-pride demonstration would draw many marchers. But the Regent student newspaper carried an opinion piece by the well-known politically liberal evangelical (and "friend of Bill") Tony Campolo. … One student told me with obvious satisfaction that he had worked hard to defeat Oliver North in the Virginia senatorial contest last fall. If there is a "line" at Regent, which would presumably be a mirror image of the political correctness that is allegedly enforced at elite liberal universities, it is not easy to locate.

The bottom line: Cox found limits to the diversity at Regent, but they were limits that left him thinking about Harvard culture. In terms of debates on critically important topics, which school was more diverse?

I thought of that classic Cox essay a computer click or two into a must-read new essay at The Atlantic that ran with this double-decker headline:

The Geography of Partisan Prejudice

A guide to the most—and least—politically open-minded counties in America

So where does one find diversity that matters, people who are trying to be tolerant of their neighbors who represent different cultures and belief systems? You wouldn’t know that by reading that headline.

So let’s jump-start this a bit with the headline atop the Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher take on this piece, which has been updated several times (including his detailed reaction to a criticism from one of the authors). That headline: “Least Tolerant: Educated White Liberals.”

Where is Dreher coming from? Here is a key passage in the interactive Atlantic piece:

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'Is Dan Crenshaw the Future of the GOP?' Let's see: Do people in pews matter in this equation?

'Is Dan Crenshaw the Future of the GOP?' Let's see: Do people in pews matter in this equation?

So, GetReligion readers: Are any of you among the dozen or so people interested in American life and political culture who has not seen the famous Weekend Update appearance by Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw on Saturday Night Live?

That face-to-face meeting with Pete Davidson included lots of memorable one-liners (and one really snarky cellphone ringtone), but one of Crenshaw’s first wisecracks carried the most political weight: “Thanks for making a Republican look good.”

No doubt about it: The new congressman’s popular culture debut has become a key part of his personal story and his high political potential.

Thus, that recent Politico headline: “Is Dan Crenshaw the Future of the GOP?”

The basic idea in this feature is that Crenshaw is a rising GOP star whose approach to politics is distinctly different than that of President Donald Trump and that the former Navy SEAL and Harvard guy is striving to maintain independence from the Trump machine. Then there is personal charisma. That SNL appearance is as much a part of his story as his eye patch.

Naturally, this means that more than half of the Politico article is about Trump and how Crenshaw is walking the fine line between #NeverTrump and #OccasionallyTrump.

Repeat after me: Politics is real. Politics is the only thing that is real.

However, since this is GetReligion I will once again note that certain facts of life remain important in this era of Republican politics. How do you write a major feature story about Crenshaw’s GOP political future without addressing his appeal to cultural and religious conservatives? As I wrote before:

… (It) is hard to run for office as a Republican in Texas (or even as a Democrat in large parts of Texas) without people asking you about your religious beliefs and your convictions on religious, moral and cultural issues. This is especially true when your life includes a very, very close encounter with death.

So let’s start here: If you were writing about Crenshaw and what makes him tick, would it help to know what he said, early in his campaign, during a church testimony that can be viewed on Facebook? The title is rather blunt: “How faith in God helped me never quit.” …

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Must reads: The Atlantic offers a blunt pair of think pieces on hot late-term abortion debates

Must reads: The Atlantic offers a blunt pair of think pieces on hot late-term abortion debates

The Atlantic ran a headline the other day that really made me stop and look twice.

(Wait for it.)

I realize that The Atlantic Monthly is a journal of news and opinion. Every now and then, that means running essays by thinkers who challenge the doctrines held by the magazine’s many left-of-center readers in blue zip codes.

This was especially true during the glory years when the Atlantic was edited by the late, great Michael Kelly — an old-school Democrat who frequently made true believers in both parties nervous. Click here for a great Atlantic tribute to Kelly, who was killed while reporting in Iraq in 2003.

It really helps for journalists to read material that challenges old lines in American politics. In my own life, there have been very few articles that influenced my own political (as opposed to theological) thinking more than the classic Atlantic Monthly piece that ran in 1995 with this headline:

On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position

Principled yet pragmatic, Lincoln's stand on slavery offers a basis for a new politics of civility that is at once anti-abortion and pro-choice

This brings me to that Atlantic headline the other day that made my head spin. In this case, my shock was rooted in the fact that the headline actually affirmed my beliefs — which doesn’t happen very often these days when I’m reading elite media. Here is that headline, atop an essay by Alexandra DeSanctis of National Review:

Democrats Overplay Their Hand on Abortion

In New York and Virginia, state governments are working to loosen restrictions on late-term abortion—and giving the anti-abortion movement an opportunity.

Here are two key chunks of this piece, which includes all kinds of angles worthy of additional research. Journalists would have zero problems finding voices on left and right to debate this thesis. And there’s more to this piece than, well, Donald Trump.

So part one:

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