First Things

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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Background for journalists: Will the Catholic church excommunicate Cuomo over abortion law?

Background for journalists: Will the Catholic church excommunicate Cuomo over abortion law?

Politics and religion have come into conflict once again after Roman Catholic conservatives called for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to be excommunicated, splitting the church’s hierarchy on how to deal with politicians who further an agenda contrary to the Vatican’s teachings.

The call came after Cuomo signed into state law a measure that expanded abortion rights across the state. After passing the Senate, a chamber newly-controlled by Democrats after this past November’s elections, on Jan. 22, Cuomo signed the Reproductive Health Act. The law codifies the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling to allow abortion in the event the Supreme Court were to overturn it in the future – something Democrats fear could occur in the next few years.

The law takes the Supreme Court ruling to new levels. It allows an abortion to take place up to the day of birth. The law also says that if a baby survives an abortion, a doctor is not required to save the baby’s life. In addition, a doctor’s assistant can perform a surgical abortions.

Within hours of its signing, Cuomo, also a Democrat, ordered that One World Trade Center be lit in pink in celebration. Anti-aboriton advocates across the country were swift in their condemnation. New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan — along with the Catholic bishops across the state — signed a letter condemning the bill, adding that “our beloved state has become a more dangerous one for women and their unborn babies.”

Days later, he backed off the excommunication word (Cuomo is a Catholic who is divorced and lives with his longtime girlfriend), while many voices on the right called the new law “infanticide.”

Dolan joined the excommunication fray, saying a week later during an appearance on Fox News Channel that such a move “would be counterproductive.”

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The Economist: Stuck in a time warp, misses real news about Global South missionaries

The Economist: Stuck in a time warp, misses real news about Global South missionaries

The classically liberal British weekly, The Economist, is known for its authoritative, tightly written, analysis-infused news coverage. While I sometimes disagree with its editorial conclusions, I include myself among those who find The Economist a satisfying read.

But even the news outlets I favor the most are capable of sometimes publishing pieces that leave me wondering.

Such was the case with an Economist piece from earlier this month on the spread of Christian missionaries coming from the Global South (formerly known as the Third World) to North America and Europe — a 180-degree reversal from the historical pattern.

This reverse flow says a lot about the state of global Christianity. It speaks to the real possibility of the political and cultural West entering a truly post-Christian age. And it underscores how the Global South — Africa, Asia and Latin America — are likely to define Christianity’s future.

But why now? Why did The Economist  bother to publish, both online and in print, a story about a phenomenon that’s been picking up speed for several decades and play it as if they’d uncovered a breaking trend?

Why would a publication as exemplary as The Economist  publish a piece that reads as if its been sitting in the magazine’s ever-green file for years?

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File this info: Here’s another Orthodox Jewish rabbi for journalists' source lists

File this info: Here’s another Orthodox Jewish rabbi for journalists' source lists

The Guy Memo last April 26 recommended that source lists include Orthodox Rabbi Shalom Carmy of Yeshiva University and Tradition journal, also a columnist for the interfaith First Things magazine. This is important because Orthodoxy is more complex and more difficult to cover than Judaism’s other branches.

For the same reason, journalists should also be familiar with Meir Soloveichik, 41, the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City and director of Yeshiva University’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. Contacts: 212–873-0300 X 206 or msoloveichik@shearithisrael.org or msolo@yu.edu. He has become a powerful voice in discussions of religious liberty, among a host of other topics.

The rabbi studied at Yeshiva’s seminary and Yale Divinity School, and earned a Princeton Ph.D. in religion. In 2012 he was a rumored candidate for chief rabbi of Britain and the following year assumed leadership at Shearith Israel, America’s oldest synagogue (founded 1654) and the only one in Gotham till 1825. He is a great-nephew of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (note different spelling), the revered “Modern Orthodox” teacher.

Meir Soloveichik is most visible to the general public as the columnist on Judaism and Jewish affairs for Commentary magazine. A good sample of his cast of mind is the cover article in the magazine’s December issue headlined “ ‘May God Avenge Their Blood’: How to Remember the Murdered in Pittsburgh.”

Soloveichik observes that the customary phrase to mark the deaths of fellow Jews is “may their memories be a blessing.” But with the 11 victims slain at a Pittsburgh synagogue, this is “insufficient and therefore inappropriate.” He believes the very different traditional phrase in that headline above must be used when Jews are “murdered because — and only because — they are Jews,” whether by a Nazi, a Mideast terrorist or a Pennsylvania anti-Semite.

Jews “will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ ” because a man who shoots up a synagogue “knows well what he does. … To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.”

The intent of the curse is “to inspire constant recollection of their murder, to inspire eternal outrage, on the part of the Jewish people — and on the part of God himself.” And so it has been since biblical times, he writes.

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Vatican officials keep asking journalists to investigate them, but do they mean it?

Vatican officials keep asking journalists to investigate them, but do they mean it?

For all of you following the continuing drama that is the U.S. Catholic Church these days, another telling moment happened on Sunday. The networks were taping Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s sermon yesterday at Annunciation Catholic Church in the District when Wuerl asked for loyalty to Pope Francis, as "increasingly it is clear that he is the object of considerable animosity."

This was all too much for one parishioner, who stood up and yelled, “Shame on you!” The video appears atop this blog.

To dismiss all the recent ferment as “animosity” toward Francis begs the question of what happened to stoke that animosity. Despite the crisis his archdiocese has been in for two months and running, Wuerl is still tone deaf to why people are so mad.

It’s not just the laity who are upset. There's the fact that Catholic priests who are tipping off journalists. These clerics are giving them tips and sharing anecdotes and ideas on how to best investigate this crisis. They are the frontline guys in this drama who dare not say anything publicly, but can leak stuff to those of us who can. They know a lot. They’ve seen things, heard things. I’ve heard from a few and, at this stage in my career, I’m a bit player in this drama.

That’s why the religion beat is so focused on good sources: Who you know and where they stand. Because unlike government documents, church records typically are not subject to public records laws. So when you want to peer into a religion’s finance records or anything else, you rely on insiders to slip them to you. As tmatt has been saying for a week, it's really crucial for reporters to find documents, documents, documents.

But Pope Francis isn't going to hand them to us, even though he has invited journalists to investigate the Viganò allegations. But are we going to get to see all the files on former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick at the apostolic nunciature in Washington DC? Or have they already been shipped to safety in Rome?

The pope appears to give us that clearance. Remember what he said on the plane from Ireland to Italy on Aug. 26:

Read the statement carefully yourselves and make your own judgment. I am not going to say a word about this. I believe that the statement speaks for itself, and you all have sufficient journalistic ability to draw conclusions.

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Why did Vigano act? Reading Jeremiah and a New York Times op-ed at the same time

Why did Vigano act? Reading Jeremiah and a New York Times op-ed at the same time

As usual, I was preparing to publish a "think piece" post this past weekend. Then all hades broke loose in Catholic cyberspace, again, and that didn't happen.

It didn't require a doctorate in post-Vatican II sociology to see that the blunt letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former Vatican ambassador to the United States from 2011-2016, was going to make some headlines in major media, while unleashing tidal waves of emotion online. It isn't everyday that a major Vatican player asks for the pope to resign.

So, before heading to Sunday Divine Liturgy, I pounded out a post: "Nuclear war in Rome: Vatican's former U.S. ambassador claims Francis protected 'Uncle Ted'." The key point for journalists: Vigano was in the perfect place to see and hear what he is claiming to have seen and heard. The issue is whether he has copies of any key documents, or other important voices, to back him up.

All of this is part of the drama of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a topic that has been the subject of a series of must-read posts by our own Julia Duin.

So what if I offer a "think piece" on Monday, instead of Sunday? I say this because the New York Times team published an op-ed page piece on all of this by, believe it or not, Matthew Schmitz of the conservative interfaith journal First Things. The double-decker headline proclaims:

A Catholic Civil War?

Traditionalists want strict adherence to church doctrine. Liberals want the doctrine changed.

It isn't every day (at least not for me), that reading an op-ed in the Times makes me think of the prophet Jeremiah, as in this famous passage:

... Therefore I am full of the wrath of Jehovah; I am weary with holding in. ... I will stretch out my hand upon the inhabitants of the land, saith Jehovah. For from the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely. They have healed also the hurt of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace. 

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Time for a big think on Catholicism’s moral authority and culture of dissent  

Time for a big think on Catholicism’s moral authority and culture of dissent  

That didn’t take long.

On August 2, the Vatican’s doctrine office announced that Pope Francis ordered a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to proclaim that “the death penalty is inadmissible” and the church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”  

On August 15, 45 Catholic conservatives joined in a bold public appeal to all members of the College of Cardinals, beseeching them to convince Francis to “withdraw” the teaching and end “this gravely scandalous situation.” In ensuing days, dozens added their endorsements by e-mailing appealtocardinals@gmail.com.

The dramatic rebuke of the pope’s teaching occurred one fortnight after the 50th anniversary date of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical defining birth control as immoral (apart from the natural or “rhythm” method), which sparked  far broader dissent worldwide.  

Reporters will observe that liberals contend the birth-control decree undermined the church’s moral authority because so many lay parishioners could not agree -- and still do not. Conservatives argue that maintaining traditional teaching is necessary to uphold the church’s moral credibility. Another angle here is that opposition to executions has hardened partly due to Catholicism's "pro-life" concerns over abortion and mercy-killing. 

There’s been similar conservative angst over Francis’ ambiguous suggestion of openness toward communion for divorced Catholics in second marriages. 

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Is it crucial for reporters to know basic facts about what Jordan Peterson is saying?

Is it crucial for reporters to know basic facts about what Jordan Peterson is saying?

As I have said many times here at GetReligion, it is helpful if -- every now and then -- journalists listen to the voices of people who have been on the other side of a reporter's notepad.

This also applies, of course, to television cameras and any other form of technology used in modern newsrooms.

Thus, I would like to share a think piece that I planned to run this past weekend, only the tornado of news about Archbishop Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick got in the way and rearranged my writing plans for several days (while I was traveling, once again).

Here is the overture of a recent essay by Mark Bauerlein, published in the conservative interfaith journal First Things, that ran with this headline: "Dr. Peterson and the Reporters." This is, of course, a reference to the now omnipresent author of "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos." 

The crucial question from the other side of the notepad: Would it be a good thing if journalists actually read what Peterson has written and listened to what he is actually saying?"

 One ingredient in the astounding fame of Jordan Peterson is his capacity to show just how lazy, obtuse, unprepared, smug, knee-jerk, and prejudiced are many journalists at leading publications.

In a tendentious New York Times profile, for example, Peterson is held up for ridicule when he cites “enforced monogamy” as a rational way of fixing wayward, sometimes violent men in our society. If men had wives, they’d behave better, Peterson implied, and they wouldn’t “fail” so much. The reporter, a twenty-something from the Bay Area, has a telling response to Peterson’s position: “I laugh, because it is absurd.”

Her condescension is unearned. With no background in social psychology or cultural anthropology, she doesn’t get the framework in which Peterson speaks. But that doesn’t blunt her confidence in setting Peterson’s remarks into the category of the ridiculous. And the category of the sexist, too, as the subtitle of the profile makes clear: “He says there’s a crisis in masculinity. Why won’t women -- all these wives and witches -- just behave?” 

The problem, of course, is that Peterson is using language from his professional discipline and his own writings.

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Anti-Semitism: Journalistically parsing its current upsurge both here and abroad

Anti-Semitism: Journalistically parsing its current upsurge both here and abroad

I recently spent time in Costa Rica where I was able to visit the nation’s central Jewish “compound” in San Jose, the capital city. My guide was a member of one of the country’s leading Jewish families.

I called it a compound — as opposed to a campus — because that’s how it felt. High concrete walls that seemed more appropriate for a military facility than what I actually encountered — a broad, grassy, central plaza surrounded by a small kosher restaurant, a community history and Holocaust museum, a private Jewish school, a large synagogue I was told is filled on important Jewish holidays and for rites of passage, a senior citizens center, and assorted other community offices.

Had I not been escorted by a member of a leading Costa Rican Jewish family, my wife and I would have had to submit, for security reasons, our identifying information eight days in advance of a visit. As it turned out, thanks to our friend, we just show up and were whisked past the armed guards waiting outside the compound’s thick metal doors.

All this in a nation with only about 3,000 Jews — most able to trace their ancestry to World War II-era Poland — and who our guide insisted face relatively little overt anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment. And yet they're fearful. Why?

Because Jews across the world — particularly so in Europe but also in tiny Costa Rica and even the United States —  increasingly feel insecure because of a rising tide of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel actions — the two are often wrongly conflated, by both sides — being reported in the international press, as they should be.

The majority of GetReligion readers, I’m sure, are familiar with this turn of events. But let’s probe a  bit deeper. What’s causing this upsurge today?

Is it an ugly resurfacing of the historical anti-Semitism that Jews have faced since the earliest decades of Christianity's split from Judaism, the first of the big three Abrahamic faiths?

Or is it a product of the further globalization of Islam, sparked in part by Muslim immigrants fleeing poverty and violence in their native lands, and the impact this and their general attitudes toward Israel has had on the societies in which they've resettled?

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