Nones

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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CNN's Brian Stetler, again: Many mainstream journalists have 'blind spot' on religion (#REALLY)

CNN's Brian Stetler, again: Many mainstream journalists have 'blind spot' on religion (#REALLY)

There he goes again. “He” in this case is Brian Stelter at “Reliable Sources,'“ the CNN show that covers a wide range of news about mass media, including mainstream journalism.

In the past few months — while discussing press struggles with normal America — Stelter has asked some interesting questions about the fact that many journalists in elite zip codes struggle to, well, get religion. He hasn’t said “GetReligion” yet, but he has mentioned that there are websites that keep track of this problem. Maybe I can picket his office next time I’m camped out in New York City?

This came up recently when I wrote an “On Religion” column about the new “Alienated America” book by Timothy P. Carney, who leads the commentary section at The Washington Examiner (click here for the column and here for the GetReligion podcast that discussed this). That column included material from a Carney appearance on “Reliable Sources” that included comments about You Know What.

The context — #DUH — is a discussion of why so many journalists missed the rise of Donald Trump in flyover country. A key point: Core Trump voters talked about religion, while those whose daily lives revealed deep religious convictions tended to oppose Trump in the primaries. Here’s a chunk of that column:

Religious convictions among voters in some communities across America — in Iowa, in Utah and elsewhere — clearly had something to do with their rejection of Trump and support for other GOP candidates. These fault lines have not disappeared. …

Stelter said the problem is that religion is "like climate change." This topic affects life nationwide, but it's hard for journalists to see since "there's not a bill being introduced in Congress or there's not a press conference happening in New York."

This media-elite blindness skews political coverage, said Carney, but it affects other stories, as well – especially in thriving communities in flyover country between the East and West coasts.

"Far too many journalists know little or nothing about the subjects and issues that matter the most to religious believers in America," he said. "It's not just that they make egregious errors about religion. It's that they don't understand that there are religious angles to almost every big story and that, for millions of Americans, religion is at the heart of those stories."

In other words, way too many journalists notice religion — when it shows up in New York City and Beltway events that they believe are connected to their The One True Faith, which is politics.

The other day, Stelter returned to this subject while discussing the evolution of American values and public life with a very controversial author — Jewish conservative Ben Shapiro.

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Yet again, another take on those evangelicals and Donald Trump, this version from an insider   

Yet again, another take on those evangelicals and Donald Trump, this version from an insider   

Political reporters, pundits, and party strategists trying to understand U.S. evangelicals sometimes seem like David Livingstone or Margaret Mead scrutinizing an exotic jungle tribe they’ve stumbled upon. Analysts especially scratch heads on how those nice churchgoing Protestant folks could ever vote for a dissolute guy like Donald Trump. 

(Standard terminology note: In American political-speak, “Evangelicals” almost always means white evangelicals, because African-American Protestants, though often similar in faith, are so distinct culturally and politically.) 

That Trump conundrum is taken up yet again by a self-described “friendly observer/participant” with evangelicalism, Regent University political scientist A.J. Nolte. His school’s CEO, Pat Robertson, proclaimed candidate Trump “God’s man for the job.” Yet Nolte posted his point of view on Charlie Sykes’s thebulwark.com. This young site brands Trump “a serial liar, a narcissist and a bully, a con man who mocks the disabled and women, a man with no fixed principles who has the vocabulary of an emotionally insecure 9-year-old.” Don’t hold back, #NeverTrump folks.

Nolte, a Catholic University Ph.D. who belongs on your source list, did not vote for the president and remains “deeply Trump-skeptical.” He considers evangelicals’ bond with Trump  “unwise” in the long term and “almost certain to do more harm than good.” He thinks believers’ Trump support “is shallower and more conditional than it appears” and even muses about a serious primary challenge. The Religion Guy disputes that, but agrees with Nolte that evangelical women under 45 are the most likely to spurn the president next year. 

Nolte offers a nicely nuanced version of outsiders’ scenario that “existential fear” on religious-liberty issues drove Trump support in 2016 and still does.

Is this irrational?

Nolte says evangelicals have “a valid concern that religion and religious arguments will be pushed out of the public square altogether.”

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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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Yet more forecasting on what to expect in religion news and trends during 2019

Yet more forecasting on what to expect in religion news and trends during 2019

Those who read GetReligion on Dec. 20 (thereby postponing their holiday chores) may recall The Religion Guy’s list of the big three religion news themes for the new year:

(1) Ongoing debate over using the CRISPR technique to create human “designer babies” and manipulate genes that will be passed along to future generations. (The Guy – uniquely -- also proclaimed this the #1 religion story of 2018.)

(2) How Catholic leaders cope with multiplying cases of priests molesting minors, both at Pope Francis’ February summit and afterward. And don’t neglect those Protestant sexual abuse scandals.

(3) Reverberations from the United Methodist Church’s special February General Conference that decides whether and how to either hold together or to split over same-sex issues.

On the same theme, Religion News Service posted a longish item New Year’s Eve headlined “What’s coming for religion in 2019? Here’s what the experts predict.” This was a collection of brief articles commissioned from a multi-faith lineup. It turned out to be one of those ideas that seemed better in the story conference than in the resulting copy.

Understandably, no panelist expected an end to the persistent Catholic scandals.

Otherwise, the pieces predicted things like this:

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Think it through: Did you hear that there are more Wiccan folks in America than Presbyterians?

Think it through: Did you hear that there are more Wiccan folks in America than Presbyterians?

So, did you hear that there are now more Wiccan believers in America than there are Presbyterians?

If you’ve been on social media lately, there is a good chance that you have heard this spin on some Wicca numbers from — Who else? — the Pew Research Center.

If you are looking for a blunt, crystalized statement of an alleged story in American culture, it never hurts to turn to The New York Post. Here is the top of a recent story that ran with this trendy headline: “Witch population doubles as millennials cast off Christianity.”

If you were interested in witchcraft in 1692, you probably would have been jailed or burned at the stake. If you’re interested in witchcraft in 2018, you are probably an Instagram influencer.

From crystal subscription boxes to astrologist-created lip balm, the metaphysical has gone mainstream. Millennials today know more about chakras than your kooky New Age aunt. That’s why it’s no surprise that the generation that is blamed for killing everything is actually bringing popularity to centuries-old practices.

According to the Pew Research Center (click here for .pdf), about 1.5 million Americans identify as Wiccan or pagan. A decade ago, that number was closer to 700,000. Presbyterians, by comparison, have about 1.4 million votaries.

It would be interesting to know how this story hatched at this time, seeing as how the Pew numbers — which are certainly interesting — are from 2014.

No doubt about it, this is a story. However, this specific twist on the numbers depends on definitions of two crucial terms — “Wiccans” and “Presbyterians.” It’s an interesting comment on the age in which we live that the first term is probably easier to define than the second.

So let’s think about that for a second, with the help of a GetReligion-esque piece by Mark Tooley, over at the Juicy Ecumenism blog. Yes, that site is operated by the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy. However, I think this discussion — centering on the challenge of defining denominational terms — will be of interest to all journalists who are about accurate, when using statistics and basic religious terms. Here is a crucial statement early on:

… Faddish stories can sometimes be ginned up based on old numbers.

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Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

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Evangelicals and Trump, again: Alan Cooperman says journalists should ponder four myths

Evangelicals and Trump, again: Alan Cooperman says journalists should ponder four myths

This just in: It appears that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and, thus, totally embrace his agenda to destroy all of humanity.

Or something like that. Also, it doesn’t matter that evangelical voters aren’t all that powerful in several of the key purple or blue states in which Hillary Clinton received way fewer votes than Barack Obama, thus costing her the election.

But let’s return to the great 81 percent monolith again, a number that hides complex realities among morally and culturally conservative voters. For more information on that, check out this survey by LifeWay Research and the Billy Graham Institute at Wheaton College. Also, click here for a GetReligion podcast on that topic or here for a “On Religion” column I wrote on this topic.

I bring this up because of interesting remarks made during a recent Faith Angle seminar, an ongoing religion-news education project organized by the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

The topic this time: “America’s Religious Vote: Midterms and New Trends.” Clicking that link will take you to a website containing a video of the event and, eventually, a transcript. I heard about this through Acts of Faith at The Washington Post, specifically its must-get online newsletter. In a recent edition, religion-beat veteran Michelle Boorstein pointed readers to remarks at that event by Alan Cooperman, director of religion surveys at the Pew Research Center (and a former Post reporter). The Christian Post offered a summary of what Cooperman had to say — focusing on four myths about evangelical voters.

This is interesting stuff, although it doesn’t really explore key fault lines and mixed motives inside that massive white evangelical Trump vote (click here for tmatt’s typology of six different kinds of evangelical voters in 2016 election).

… Cooperman outlined what he says are “straw men” arguments, or “myths,” that he hears being asserted in political discussions today. Four of those myths involve some common misconceptions about white evangelical voters.

Myth 1: Evangelicals are turning liberal or turning against Trump

While there certainly are some white evangelicals who are staunch in their opposition to President Donald Trump, he doesn't see any rise in their numbers in Pew data.

Citing aggregated Pew Research Center data compiled from 2017 to 2018, Cooperman stated that there is “a lot of stability” when it comes to Trump’s approval ratings among self-identified white evangelical or born-again Protestants.

“Right up before the election, aggregated data from our polls over the last several months [showed] 71 percent approval rating for the president [among white evangelicals],” Cooperman said. “If anything, party ID among white evangelical Protestants is trending more Republican. This notion that white evangelical Protestants are turning liberal, I don’t see. … I don’t see it anywhere.”

Now, here is the crucial question: Is saying that “party ID among white evangelical Protestants is trending more Republican” the same thing as saying that all of those white evangelical Protestants wholeheartedly support Trump?

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Ballot-box religion ghost for 2018? U.S. Senate races plus Supreme Court heat equals ...

Ballot-box religion ghost for 2018? U.S. Senate races plus Supreme Court heat equals ...

Surely it says something about the current state of American politics and religion when the organization Democrats For Life sends out a press release celebrating the election of one — count ‘em, one — new pro-life member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Just a reminder: I have stated many times that I was a pro-life and registered Democrat my whole adult life — until the 2016 White House race. I am now a registered member of a tiny (in America) third party that’s progressive on economic issues and conservative on cultural issues (other than being old-school liberal on the First Amendment).

But back to that release from Democrats For Life, celebrating a win in the rather unique political environment of Utah:

ANOTHER PRO-LIFE DEMOCRAT

A bright spot this election cycle is the election of Ben McAdams in Utah’s 4th Congressional District. Twice elected the mayor of Salt Lake County, McAdams may be the kind of Democrat we need. He has a history of bringing people together to provide solutions.

On his campaign website, he stressed his bipartisan cooperation.

”Ben worked with both sides of the aisle in the Utah Legislature and as Salt Lake County mayor to balance the budget and act on important initiatives. He will continue to work with colleagues in both parties to overcome Washington’s broken politics and put Utah families first. He has proven bringing people together helps to solve tough problems like homelessness and criminal justice reform....”

Meanwhile, a member of an even more endangered political species — a pro-life Democrat incumbent in the U.S. Senate — lost his seat. If you followed the race carefully, it was obvious that Sen. Joe Donnelly had trouble separating himself from those “other” Democrats” during the firestorm surrounding U.S. Supreme Court nominee, and now justice, Brett Kavanaugh.

This brings me to the main theme in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which focused on the rare glimpses of religion during the mainstream news coverage of the 2018 Midterm elections. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes to subscribe.

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