Christian Smith

Major survey of U.S. young adults has startling data on Protestants' two-party system

Major survey of U.S. young adults has startling data on Protestants' two-party system

The Religion Guy confesses that, like so many writers, he has tended to depict U.S. Protestantism’s two-party system of “Mainline” vs. “Evangelical” mostly in terms of newsworthy LGBTQ issues. In more sophisticated moments, he might briefly note the underlying differences on Bible interpretation. But maybe something even more basic is occurring.

While scanning an important new research work, “The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular lives of American Young Adults” (Oxford), The Guy was gobsmacked by a graph on page 32.

You want news?

How about the prospect that U.S. Protestantism does not just involve that familiar biblical rivalry but could be evolving toward a future with two starkly different belief systems.

All U.S. religion writers and church strategists are anxiously watching the younger generation, and there’s been important research both here (care of Princeton University Press), here (make that Oxford University Press) and finally here (Oxford, again).

The project published as “The Twentysomething Soul,” led by authors Tim Clydesdale (sociology, College of New Jersey, and Kathleen Garces-Foley (religious studies, Marymount University,, surveyed an unusually large sample of Americans ages 20 to 30 and could fully categorize religious identifications, beliefs and practices.

The graph that grabbed The Guy involved who God is.

In this question’s option one, he is “a personal being, involved in the lives of people today.” Hard to think of a Christian belief more basic than that. In other options, God is “not personal, but something like a cosmic life force,” a fuzzy New Age-ish idea. Or God only created the world “but is not involved in the world now,” what’s known as Deism. Or the respondent lacked any sort of belief in God.

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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 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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Believe it or not, Newsweek folks still don't know who Dr. James Dobson is and what he does

Believe it or not, Newsweek folks still don't know who Dr. James Dobson is and what he does

Ah, come on! Didn't I just have to write one of these echo chamber, "Here we go again" posts?

Indeed, that would be the case ("Here we go again: When covering campus LGBTQ disputes, always look for doctrinal covenants"), exactly 24 hours ago.

Well, now I have to write another one, because someone at Newsweek just messed up, again, providing a variation on a screwed-up theme, once again, that has haunted copy-desk folks at that news magazine since the earliest days of GetReligion.

Here's the new headline, in that all-caps style that appears to be the current Newsweek norm: "TRUMP IMPEACHMENT MUST BE PREVENTED THROUGH DAY OF FASTING AND PRAYER, EVANGELIST SAYS."

Now, it helps to know that the "evangelist" in this case is the activist, counselor and author whose name is "Dr. James Dobson." Let's flash back to an early, early GetReligion post by Doug LeBlanc, which ran with this headline: "That's Dr. Dobson to you, punks." It noted a 2005 correction at Newsweek that humbly noted:

In our Aug. 1 issue, a sidebar on lobbying groups ("A User's Guide to the Groups") incorrect[ly] identifies James Dobson as a reverend. He in fact has a Ph.D. in child psychology and goes by Dr. Dobson. Newsweek regrets the error.

LeBlanc noted that Newsweek had to turn around and run a similar correction the following year, after the same mistake. Thus, the co-founder of this blog added, wryly:

Newsweek sure seems to have the correction in a macro somewhere. ... The style guardians at Newsweek might consider adding a stylebook entry for Dobson, James, Ph.D.

Now, it's time to slightly expand that correction. Here is the top of the new Trump-related report:

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5Q: Talking religion, news and the ties that bind with Rod Dreher, author of 'The Benedict Option'

5Q: Talking religion, news and the ties that bind with Rod Dreher, author of 'The Benedict Option'

Longtime GetReligion readers will recognize the name of Rod Dreher as that of an frequently mentioned longtime "friend of this blog."

Many will also recognize Dreher as the author of the much discussed (check out this search) book called "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," published last week by Sentinel. The basic thesis: orthodox Christians -- small "o" and capital "O" -- need to form tight-knit communities to preserve the values in the face of a post-modern onslaught.

The Atlantic suggests Dreher "writes with resentment." The once-upon-a-time evangelical Rachel Held Evans weighed in, via Twitter to say the book's premise "is based on fantasy."

This post isn't about that. I'll leave GetReligionistas such as tmatt to comment on the book and the surrounding media mentions. We wanted to ask this veteran reporter a few questions about religion news.

Instead, here's what Dreher had to say in response to our noted "5Q+1." However, since he passed over the "do you have anything else to say" query, it's just 5Qs:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion? 

From the Internet. I read websites like First Things, Mere Orthodoxy, Mosaic, Real Clear Religion and The Atlantic, but also mainstream news sites like The New York Times, the Washington Post and others. I find that I'm increasingly dependent on Twitter feeds from key people to pass on news to me. I'm thinking about Mollie Hemingway, Ross Douthat, Michael Brendan Dougherty, Damon Linker, Andrew T. Walker, Russell Moore and Denny Burk. But there are others.

(2) What is the most important religion story the MSM doesn't get?

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Time for a Christian Smith flashback: Writing about that whole nailed-to-a-cross thing

Time for a Christian Smith flashback: Writing about that whole nailed-to-a-cross thing

If you were going to select a short list of the most infamous articles ever written about the mainstream press and the religion-beat, surely Christian Smith's "Religiously Ignorant Journalists," which ran in Books & Culture (RIP) back in 2004, would be near the top of the list.

As you would expect, it drew the attention of the newly formed weblog, with an early post under this headline: "Are journalists too ignorant to cover religion news?"

Smith made several interesting points about language on the religion beat, not the least of which was a riff on the many ways that journalists tend to abuse the term "evangelical." His key point: Why don't editors hire more professionals trained to work on the religion beat, the way they do on other highly complicated -- yet respected -- beats?

Yes, the reason I am bringing this up again is that a faithful reader sent us yet another case of a mainstream, national publication offering a unique or shall we say innovative approach to ordinary religious language.

Hold that thought. Here's the famous overture of Smith's piece:

Today I received a phone message from a journalist from a major Dallas newspaper who wanted to talk to me about a story he was writing about "Episcopals," about how the controversy over the 2003 General Convention's approval of the homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, would affect "Episcopals." What an embarrassment. How do I break the news to him that there are no "Episcopals"? Actually, they are called Episcopalians. Of greater concern, I wonder how this journalist is going to write an informed and informing story in a few days about such an important and complex matter when he doesn't even know enough in starting to call his subjects by their right name.

What I have learned, however, over the years, is that this journalist is not alone in his ignorance.

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#OMG! Mother Teresa and the revenge of the religious evangelicalists! Or whatever...

#OMG! Mother Teresa and the revenge of the religious evangelicalists! Or whatever...

Oh my. How time flies when there is lots of work to do.

Has it really been a decade plus since sociologist Christian Smith published his infamous Books & Culture essay that ran under this grabber headline?

Religiously Ignorant Journalists
In search of Episcopals and evangelists.

As you would imagine, that piece received quick attention from the new-born and we have pointed readers to it several times, including this 2010 post by GetReligion emeritus M.Z. Hemingway which noted an interesting, and sadly not that unusual, grammatical innovation in the following NPR passage:

Some 3,000 evangelical Christian Cubans attend an open-air service in Havana to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their public service in 1999. Evangelism is among the fastest-growing religions in communist -- and formerly atheist -- Cuba.

Now, that first reference to "evangelical" is fine. But the second one? Clearly, that was supposed to say "evangelicalism." Thus, as MZ noted:

... It's clear that this is a copy editor or copy-editing problem. And certainly the industry struggles to hire editors who are both technologically savvy and literate. But, as the reader who submitted this notes, this is embarrassing. Evangelism is not a religion. Evangelicalism is a movement within Christianity and evangelism is the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.

What do you know? Four years later and NPR still hasn't fixed the vague headline: "Cubans Flock To Evangelism To Fill Spiritual Vacuum." Uh, that is still "evangelicalism."

Now, I have a new reason to bring this issue up, yet again. We will get to that in a moment. First, here is a flashback to the original Smith essay, which opened like this:

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What Mark Silk said! Time, for some strange reason, overlooks 'Oprah' and the MTD wave

What Mark Silk said! Time, for some strange reason, overlooks 'Oprah' and the MTD wave

A hearty "Amen!" in this corner for the key points in Mark Silk's Religion News Service take down of a really, really strange Time magazine interpretation of a poll on the Bible and religion.

Let's let the man preach:

This week the American Bible Society (Protestant) released its annual survey ranking the “Bible-Mindedness” of America’s 100 largest cities (well, actually, America’s 100 largest media markets). Conducted by the Barna Group (evangelical), the ranking is based on “the highest combined levels of regular Bible reading and expressed belief in the Bible’s accuracy.” This year, Birmingham/Anniston/Tuscaloosa AL won the top spot while Providence RI/New Bedford MA came in dead last for the third year in a row.
OK, so far so good. However, Time, in its story, transformed the results into, in the words of the headline, “These Are the Most Godless Cities in America.” Holy Misconception, Batman! Since when does non-Bible-mindedness equal Godlessness?

Silk, with justification, notes that this interpretation slants everything away from cultural Catholicism and in the Bible-driven direction of Protestantism and, especially, evangelical Protestantism. That's accurate. However, I would argue that Time missed at least two other crucial points in this tone-deaf piece.

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