Christianity Today

Headline news: Americans’ cup of religious knowledge appears to be half empty

Headline news: Americans’ cup of religious knowledge appears to be half empty

Are old-school newswriters just too pessimistic by nature?

The Religion Guy admits he sees a cup that’s half empty, rather than half full, in pondering a new survey of Americans’ factual knowledge about religions conducted by the ubiquitous Pew Research Center.

Here’s one of the 32 multiple choice questions Pew posed to 10,971 adults in February: “According to the Gospels, who delivered the Sermon on the Mount?” A paper-thin majority (51 percent) correctly chose Jesus — not John, Paul or Peter.

Folks, this is the most celebrated religious discourse in human history. A slightly more promising 56 percent knew that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, Jericho or Jerusalem.

Less surprising, yet no less troubling given America’s increasingly diverse culture, only 60 percent knew that Islam observes the month of Ramadan (not Buddhism, Hinduism or Judaism), while 42 percent were aware that Sikhs wear turbans and small daggers (not Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists). More surprising, only 24 percent could identify Jews’ Rosh Hashana (New Year).

A generation ago, The Guy’s typical upstate New York hometown had roughly equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics, one synagogue and a couple Eastern Orthodox churches, with most residents identified with one faith or another. In that monocultural environment, most students, The Guy included, would have flunked on Buddhism or Hinduism. But it’s hard to imagine classmates wouldn’t know who led Israel’s biblical Exodus from Egypt (missed by 21 percent of Pew respondents) or what Easter celebrates (missed by 19 percent). Something happened.

Fact number one for the media to consider: American adults on average got less than half the answers right, 14.2 out of the 32, (Pew ran a similar survey in 2010, but the questions weren’t comparable so there’s no trend line.)

Religion News Service columnist Mark Silk took Pew’s online test of sample questions and candidly admitted he missed the one about Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. He then made the really important point here, reaffirming Stephen Prothero’s 2008 book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't.”

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Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

I think that it’s safe to say that Jerry Falwell, Jr., has had a rough year or two.

I don’t say that as a cheap shot. I say that as someone who has followed the adventures of the Falwell family and Liberty University with great interest since the early 1980s, when elite newsrooms — The New Yorker came first, methinks — started paying serious attention to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Of course, there is a good reason for political reporters and others to dig into Falwell, Jr., affairs. His early decision to endorse Donald Trump, instead of Sen. Ted Cruz, helped create the loud minority of white evangelicals who backed The Donald in early primaries. Without them, including Falwell, Trump doesn’t become the nominee and then, in a lesser-of-two-evils race with Hillary Clinton, squeak into the White House.

So that leads us to a rather interesting — on several levels — piece of neo-tabloid journalism at the New York Times, with this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.” The “evangelical,” of course, is Falwell.

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. Thus, here is the big summary statement:

Mr. Falwell — who is not a minister and spent years as a lawyer and real estate developer — said his endorsement was based on Mr. Trump’s business experience and leadership qualities. A person close to Mr. Falwell said he made his decision after “consultation with other individuals whose opinions he respects.” But a far more complicated narrative is emerging about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the months before that important endorsement.

That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.

The revelations have arisen from a lawsuit filed against the Falwells in Florida; the investigation into Mr. Cohen by federal prosecutors in New York; and the gonzo-style tactics of the comedian and actor Tom Arnold.

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

One key anonymous source? That’s right.

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American media ignore 'Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,' the anthem of Hong Kong's protests

American media ignore 'Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,' the anthem of Hong Kong's protests

There are two million people marching in the streets of Hong Kong these days, which is one-quarter of the population of the entire city-state that is China’s last bastion of freedom. This fabulous video from TeamBlackSheep shows you a little of what it’s been like.

Not only was a controversial law at stake that would have greatly impacted what little freedoms Hong Kong Chinese have these days, but the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre was just two weeks ago.

What hasn’t been reported on by much of the international media in Hong Kong these days is how a song from the 1970s Jesus movement has become, for many, the anthem of the pro-democracy movement. Here’s a report from Shanghaiist.com that contains a bunch of videos of folks singing this hymn.

Remember, English is not their first language, which makes it all the more compelling:

A hymn sung by Christian groups participating in the ongoing anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong has caught on and become the quasi anthem of the movement.

Composed in 1974, the song is sung in a minor key, and notable for its simplicity and catchiness due to its repeated harmonies of just one phrase.

Alarmed by reports of police brutality, many church groups galvanized to participate in peace protests, calling on the authorities to stop the violence.

Their presence on the front lines of the protests were helpful in making the demonstrations look more like an outdoor worship service rather than the “organized riots” the government said it had to crack down on to bring back law and order.

“Outdoor worship services?”

Why hasn’t anyone reported on this? I saw tiny mentions in foreign media, like in The Economist, but that’s about it in the secular media. Oh, and German broadcaster Deutsche Welle said this:

"Sing Hallelujah to the Lord" has become a hit across Hong Kong in the past few days, and it's the first thing I heard as I made my way to Sunday's anti-extradition bill protest.

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That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

Throughout the 16-plus years that GetReligion has been around, I have received emails asking why the mainstream press has focused on clergy sexual abuse cases in the Church of Rome, but not abuse cases in liberal and conservative Protestant flocks.

That’s an important question and one that looms over the intense media coverage we are currently seeing — with good cause — at the Southern Baptist Convention meetings in Birmingham (click here for Bobby Ross Jr. round-up on preliminary coverage).

That is also the subject at the heart of a gripping #ChurchToo feature at The New York Times — “Her Evangelical Megachurch Was Her World. Then Her Daughter Said She Was Molested by a Minister” — linked to SBC debates about sexual abuse. It’s a solid, deep story about one controversy in a powerful congregation and it contains clues pointing toward larger issues that will, eventually, have to be covered in the national press.

You see, there are reasons that SBC leaders — the ones who truly want to act — have struggled to come up with a one-plan-fits-all proposal to crack down on the monsters in their midst. To understand why, I want to flash back to an important Joshua Pease essay that ran a year ago at The Washington Post. Here’s my commentary about that: “ 'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze.”

The following chunk of the Pease essay is long, but essential for those who want to understand the larger issues that lurk in the painful new piece at the Times.

Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates – especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. ...

The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism. Catholic Church abusers benefited from an institutional cover-up, but that same bureaucracy enabled reporters to document a systemic scandal. In contrast, most evangelical groups prize the autonomy of local congregations, with major institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention having no authority to enforce a standard operating procedure among member churches.

Journalists: Please read that passage two or three times. The Southern Baptists have a real problem, here, and it’s not going to go away. It’s a theological problem, as well as a legal one.

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If an evangelical crisis is truly on horizon, journalists should spring into action right now

If an evangelical crisis is truly on horizon, journalists should spring into action right now

How often have we been informed that the religious left is about to revive with new power, or that the Religious Right will fade?

That sort of political punditry occurs alongside periodic warnings — or hopes, among politicos and many journalists — that America’s sprawling network of evangelical Protestant congregations and agencies is destined for big decline.

If this is true, journalists should spring into action immediately.

Evangelicalism was often the most dynamic force in U.S. religion over recent decades, with impact worldwide, and generally managed to resist the serious slide that afflicted the evangelicals’ more liberal “Mainline” Protestant rivals beginning in the mid-1960s. (This article will bypass changes among Roman Catholicism, historically black Protestant denominations, and other religious sectors.)

A notable example of negativism was “My Prediction: The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” posted a decade ago by the late Michael Spencer, a popular blogger and self-described “post-evangelical Christian.” He predicted “a major collapse of evangelical Christianity” within 10 years, which means just about now, that would “fundamentally alter” the culture of the West.

Further, Spencer prophesied that within two generations this Bible-based empire would shrink to half its present scope, with scads of dropouts, sagging budgets, shuttered doors, and ruined careers, and “nothing” would restore former glory. Etc. Read it all for yourself

Some of this has in fact occurred, though not (yet) so dramatically, as reporters easily see in statistics of the largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Evangelicalism’s health is relatively stable despite cultural pressures. This brings to mind Mark Twain’s jest that “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

But then last week — media pay close attention — pessimism was suddenly proclaimed by one of the most important voices in the evangelical establishment, Mark Galli, editor in chief ofChristianity Today magazine.

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Jean Vanier coverage: Vague on his Catholic beliefs about the humanity of the disabled

Jean Vanier coverage: Vague on his Catholic beliefs about the humanity of the disabled

With all the online arguments last week about the faith of Rachel Held Evans, there passed from our midst someone who many people around the world truly believe will be hailed as a Catholic saint.

I am referring to Jean Vanier, the French-Canadian philosopher and humanist who believed the disabled should be treated like human beings and that they deserve one-on-one care. He died on May 7 at the age of 90. As BBC’s Martin Bashir said, he engaged in the “upside-down economics of Christianity; that the first shall be last.”

Vanier had a profound effect on people of my generation, a number of whom spent a year at his community in Trosly-Breuil, France, much like others served a stint with Mother Teresa in Calcutta in the 1970s and 1980s. It was his Catholic faith that led him to forsake marriage and children to devote himself to living with the handicapped his whole life.

Most of the mainstream media obits mentioned his Catholicity only in passing. How is that possible?

The CBC video with this post and a piece from The Guardian are cases in point.

In August 1964, having giving up his job teaching philosophy at the University of Toronto, he bought a small, rundown house without plumbing or electricity in the village of Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris, and invited two men with learning disabilities – Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux – to share it with him. Both had been living in an asylum and were without family.

The initiative was prompted by Vanier’s visits to the long-stay hospitals that housed many people with learning disabilities at the time. “Huge concrete walls, 80 men living in dormitories and no work. I was struck by the screams and atmosphere of sadness,” he said.

Believing the men’s overwhelming need was for friendship he thought the small house could provide the support of domestic life, with the three of them shopping, cooking and washing up together.

Any expansion was far from his thoughts: “I had no idea of starting a movement or establishing communities outside Trosly, even less outside France. At one moment I even said we should stay the size of one carload – so if no one came to help me I could at least continue to travel by bringing everyone in the car.”

The New York Times was a bit better:

Today L’Arche, rooted in the Roman Catholic Church, has 154 communities in 38 countries; Faith and Light has 1,500 communities in 83 countries. Through both organizations, people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in a community where they can feel they belong. His work served as a model for several other organizations.

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Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

No doubt about it, when a domestic terrorist starts defending his actions with concepts drawn from the great Protestant reformer John Calvin, it is time for journalists to up their games.

The manifesto published by John Earnest, the accused gunman at Chabad of Poway, is a classic example of a story that all but demands that newsrooms deploy one or two journalists with experience covering the nuts and bolts of religion and, to be specific, church history. Here is one of my earlier posts on this puzzle: “Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what.”

The key is that Earnest was preaching a deadly sermon that — he stated this, in writing — had multiple sources. While he was clearly influenced by the conservative Calvinism of his home congregation, Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church, his words and the testimony of church members indicated that he had, for the most part, rejected much of what he heard during his days in a pew.

In the end, his manifesto took centuries of fierce anti-Semitism from sources online and mixed it with a key theme in Calvinism — that believers who have been chosen (the elect) by God are assured of salvation, no matter what. As Earnest said:

My God understands why I did what I did. … To my brothers in Christ of all races. Be strong. Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews — remember that you are secure in Christ.

During this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) I stressed that reporters would need help navigating the astonishingly complex world of debates inside Calvinism. That was the bad news. The good news is that — because of several years of arguments about the alt-right and the heresy of white supremacy — there are lots of conservative Calvinists around who are ready to fire soundbites at these targets. They are, as I said, the theological equivalent of “lawyered up.”

There are places to head online to get a head start. Check out this giant double-decker headline at Christianity Today:

Who’s to Blame When the Shooter Is One of Our Own?

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Friday Five: Godbeat grant, Sri Lanka bombings, Easter perspective, Israel outlook, softball hot dogs

Friday Five: Godbeat grant, Sri Lanka bombings, Easter perspective, Israel outlook, softball hot dogs

I’ve highlighted it twice this week — here and here — but I’m still contemplating that big Lilly Endowment Inc. grant for religion reporting.

In case you missed my earlier posts, the $4.9 million Global Religion Journalism Initiative — long a topic of speculation — was confirmed this week.

It’ll fund 13 religion journalist positions at The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation and create a partnership resulting in RNS content going to AP subscribers.

The Global Religion project has the potential to be really, really awesome (to borrow one of RNS editor in chief Bob Smietana’s favorite adjectives). But the ultimate verdict will rest in the implementation and what happens beyond the initial, 18-month grant period.

Here’s wishing the involved entities all the best in that process!

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

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Latest stats: More young adults dropping out of church because of political, moral clashes

Latest stats: More young adults dropping out of church because of political, moral clashes

It’s been 10 years since I published a book on why people quit church and, no surprise to me, the topic is still making news.

The Nashville-based Lifeway Research released some findings last week that I meant to get to sooner. But then the unlucky meeting of some Catholic high school kids, obscenity-spouting Black Hebrew Israelites and drum-pounding Native Americans in Washington, D.C., a week ago pushed everything else out of the news.

Back to the regular news chase, I found it unsurprising that young people drop out of church. I mean, most youth take a vacation from religion during their college years. The journalism issue right now is what has changed. As the Tennessean said:

Large numbers of young adults who frequently attended Protestant worship services in high school are dropping out of church.

Two-thirds of young people say they stopped regularly going to church for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22, a new LifeWay Research survey shows.

That means the church had a chance to share its message and the value of attending with this group, but it didn't stick, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

"That's a lot of folks saying, 'No, that's not for me' or 'It's not for me right now' at that young age," McConnell said.

Again, youth have been dropping out of church during their college years for as long as I can remember, so that’s not news. What is?

The reasons fell under four categories:

· Nearly all — 96 percent — cited life changes, including moving to college and work responsibilities that prevented them from attending.

· Seventy-three percent said church or pastor-related reasons led them to leave. Of those, 32 percent said church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical and 29 percent said they did not feel connected to others who attended.

· Seventy percent named religious, ethical or political beliefs for dropping out. Of those, 25 percent said they disagreed with the church's stance on political or social issues while 22 percent said they were only attending to please someone else.

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