Christian Century

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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A path-breaking treatment of Luke’s Gospel could provide your Christmas feature

A path-breaking treatment of Luke’s Gospel could provide your Christmas feature

Many television and print reporters will already be well along on preparing those annual Christmas features.

But in case you’ve yet to settle on something, there’s gold to be mined in a path-breaking commentary on the Gospel of Luke, which contains one of the two accounts of Jesus’ birth alongside the Gospel of Matthew. Or if you’re all set for Christmas, keep this book in mind for Holy Week and Easter features.

There’s a strong news hook. This is the first major commentary on a biblical book co-authored by a Christian and a Jew. Ben Witherington III of Kentucky’s Asbury Theological Seminary, and St. Andrews University in Scotland, is an evangelical Methodist. Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University is an agnostic feminist and well-known Jewish specialist on the New Testament.

The Levine-Witherington work, which includes the full New Revised Standard Version text, won high praise from the Christian Century, a key voice for “mainline” and liberal Protestantism. Its review said the combined viewpoints from the two religions add “enormous value” and are a “landmark” innovation for Bible commentaries.

Levine nicely represents the rather skeptical scholarship that dominates in today’s universities. What’s remarkable is Witherington’s co-authorship, because evangelicals can be wary of interfaith involvements. He naturally thinks Luke is a reliable historical account about his Lord and Savior, which is why the friendly interchanges with Levine are so fascinating. Also, Witherington considers Luke quite respectful toward Judaism and women. Levine dissents.

Here’s contact info to interview the two authors (perhaps alongside other New Testament experts). Levine: 615-343-3967 or amy-jill.levine@vanderbilt.edu. Witherington: benw333@hotmail.com or via this online link. Cambridge University Press U.S. office: 212-337-5000 or USBibles@cambridge.org.

The commentary’s treatment of Jesus’ birth spans 76 pages. Along with the big theme of how Christians and Jews regard the advent of Jesus, note some sample details in the familiar story that a reporter might pursue.

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In Russia coverage, the National Prayer Breakfast is a convenient whipping boy

In Russia coverage, the National Prayer Breakfast is a convenient whipping boy

I covered the National Prayer Breakfast once or twice, which sounds glamorous, but it was a thankless job in that the organizers loathed the media and the only sure way to get access was to be part of the White House press pool.

One rises at some ungodly hour to get to downtown Washington, D.C., through the security at the White House and into the press room, where we were all crammed into three black SUVs at the end of a long line of cars headed for the Washington Hilton.

Reporters were ordered into one corner of the room, then told to leave as soon as the president took his leave. This was confounding in that I’d been told I needed to report on the main speaker, which the president doesn’t always linger to listen to. During my first time at this event, as the pool headed out the back door, I leapt into the audience where I grabbed an empty seat. The Secret Service was not happy with me.

You see, I knew that the real story of the gathering wasn’t so much the massive breakfast, but all the wheeling and dealing going on before and afterwards. A lot of foreign officials showed up, with the mistaken impression they could get face time with the president, while a small army of people did their best to introduce these foreign contingents to Christianity. 

Which is why I was pleased to see the recent New York Times story on the machinations behind the breakfast. Unfortunately other publications have chimed in by alleging that what’s behind the breakfast is actually a right-wing conspiracy involving the Russians.

The truth is more complex. Here is the top of the Times piece:

WASHINGTON -- With a lineup of prayer meetings, humanitarian forums and religious panels, the National Prayer Breakfast has long brought together people from all over the world for an agenda built around the teachings of Jesus.

But there on the guest list in recent years was Maria Butina, looking to meet high-level American officials and advance the interests of the Russian state, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a Ukranian opposition leader, seeking a few minutes with President Trump to burnish her credentials as a presidential prospect back home.

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More Bible battles: The 'old, old story' is ever new and, thus, ever in the news

More Bible battles: The 'old, old story' is ever new and, thus, ever in the news

Pondering Washington’s new Museum of the Bible for the quasi-Jewish Commentary magazine, Williams College art historian Michael Lewis finds it ideologically inoffensive and is therefore perplexed at how fiercely some despise the place.

How come? He says the very claim “that the Bible is a foundational document of our civilization is, to many, an unwelcome one. And as biblical ignorance grows, the claim grows progressively more unwelcome. The Bible seems to be one of those books that the less people know about it, the less they like it.”

Journalists: The professor is onto something that might merit a think piece.

But in this Memo, The Religion Guy instead insists that the Book of the “old, old story” (per that Gospel hymn) is perpetually new, and therefore news. Book-buyers, Internet blabbers and media consumers (also church and synagogue attendees) can’t get enough of it. So here’s the latest twist on the Bible beat.

Religion writers should check the next issue of Christianity Today as it  surveys “lesser-known translations” of scripture, provoking this theme: In the Bible sweepstakes, why pick this one and not that one? Plus there’s a story peg in a current biblical battle between two titans who translated their own one-man New Testaments from the original Greek into English, as opposed to the usual committee editions. The competitors:  

(1) David Bentley Hart, outspoken Eastern Orthodox thinker currently at Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Study, with his sharply provocative “The New Testament: A Translation” (Yale).

(2) Bishop N.T. Wright of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, favorite New Testament scholar for legions of U.S. Protestants and his fellow Anglicans worldwide. Wright's “The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation” (HarperOne, 2011) caused England’s Church Times to proclaim him “the J.K. Rowling of Christian Publishing.”

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Christian Century does winning profile of Catholic cleric who 'steals' Protestant evangelism tricks

Christian Century does winning profile of Catholic cleric who 'steals' Protestant evangelism tricks

I’ve only been to Halifax once and the visit was brief. But Atlantic Canada, as that section of the country is called, is not exactly known as a revival center and the province of Quebec next door is a graveyard for churches.

Thus, I was surprised to find a piece in the Christian Century about an enterprising Catholic priest who cheerfully admits to stealing church-growth ideas from evangelical American Protestants. His primary instrument is the Anglican evangelistic program Alpha.

These ideas aren’t entirely new, as charismatic Catholics have been appropriating Protestant methods since the 1970s. But this time, the institutional church is taking notice.

As the article begins:

"Do you know what amazes me about Father Mallon’s book?” I said to Pavel Reid, head of outreach for the Archdiocese of Vancouver. Reid had just told me that Catholic dioceses across Canada were using Mallon’s book Divine Renovation as a guide to parish renewal.
“Let me guess,” said Reid. “That he stole it all from the Protestants?”
Precisely.
James Mallon, pastor of Saint Benedict Parish in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was recently named vicar for parish renewal throughout Canada. He has fielded more than 150 speaking requests since the 2014 publication of Divine Renovation, a book that has gone through multiple printings and been translated into French and Spanish. Divine Renovation and its sequel, Divine Renovation Guidebook (2016), are full of insights from people such as Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and Andy Stanley, and from the Alpha course, an Anglican evangelization video series. Mallon jokes that he subscribes to the CASE method—“copy and steal everything.” And it’s mostly Protestant practices that he’s been stealing.

If you can’t beat them, join them?

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A question that's back in the news: Do Bible teachings apply to today’s 'sanctuary' movement?

A question that's back in the news: Do Bible teachings apply to today’s 'sanctuary' movement?

JULIA’S QUESTION:

(In light of news about efforts of U.S. churches and others to shield immigrant aliens from arrest) she asks “whether teachings from the Old Testament on ‘sanctuary’ apply today.”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Many nations, including the United States, struggle over their moral duty in the midst of impossibly huge floods of refugees and other immigrants desiring residency and citizenship, alongside matters of border security. Those challenges obviously relate to the Bible’s many admonitions to love one’s neighbor and offer special help to the poor, the oppressed, and the wayfarer.

So it’s no surprise that churches are active in aiding new U.S. immigrants, whether legal or “undocumented” (a.k.a. “illegal”). A religious conservative, First Things Editor R.R. Reno, says Christians shouldn’t “check immigration papers before helping those in need.” But he nonetheless asserts that citizens still have the “obligation to uphold the law” on immigration controls. Other conservatives cite biblical Proverbs 28:4: “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law struggle against them.”

Yet some religious communities -- and some U.S. cities and entire states -- actively spurn federal law by providing “sanctuary” to shield undocumented aliens from apprehension by law enforcement. They can cite the historical example of the evangelical abolitionists who defied the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

A typical defense of activism was provided in a March 1 Christian Century interview with the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra. She’s a veteran in the religious sanctuary movement of recent decades and now leads a California “welcoming congregations” network for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As the above question suggests, she states that the understanding of modern-day “sanctuary” stems from the Bible, specifically Numbers chapter 35:9-34 (paralleled in the summary of the law in Deuteronomy 4:41-43; 19:1-10).

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Brazil story tip: More than one recent election has some interesting religion angles

Brazil story tip: More than one recent election has some interesting religion angles

It doesn’t rank up there with America’s political earthquake, but there was a significant Oct. 30 election in Brazil that’s full of religious interest.

Senator Marcelo Crivella, the candidate of the young Republican Party who formerly worked as a bishop and gospel singer in a highly controversial church, was elected mayor of Rio de Janeiro, the city of 6.5 million that just hosted the Olympics.

He beat a socialist party opponent by a commanding margin of just under 20 points at the same time other conservative upstarts scored wins in local races across the nation. According to Britain’s The Guardian, the voting pattern “underscored the rise of religious conservatism” and the “demise” of the leftist Workers’ Party that dominated Brazilian politics over the past decade.

Crivella’s victory demonstrates the growing socio-political importance of evangelical Protestants. They now claim a fifth of the population in Latin America’s largest nation, which contains the world’s largest Catholic flock. Crivella won despite his past denunciations of Catholicism, homosexuality and popular Afro-Brazilian sects such as Candoble and Umbanda.

The mayor-elect is a follower of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), a sizable “independent” body (not tied to “first world” Protestantism) founded and led by his uncle Edir Macedo, a major radio-TV mogul. His denomination claims 5,000 churches and millions of adherents in Brazil and has expanded across Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe.

A story hook?

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Did mainline churches lead or follow the culture?

I love it when a good religion story gets people chatting. The New York Times has accomplished this with the publication of “A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered.” It’s a news story in the Books section of the paper and begins:

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