LifeWay Research

Friday Five: March for Life, Protestant prodigals, dementia and faith, Tiffany Rivers' child No. 9

Friday Five: March for Life, Protestant prodigals, dementia and faith, Tiffany Rivers' child No. 9

It’s another busy week in the world of religion reporting. Once again, I’m having trouble keeping up with all the headlines.

Today is the March for Life, and the Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer had an interesting preview piece, exploring how political polarization is leading some to view the anti-abortion gathering as a Republican event.

Meanwhile, The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer offered insightful coverage of a Lifeway Research survey. Gannett flagship USA Today picked up the story. The key finding: Large numbers of young adults who frequently attended Protestant worship services in high school are dropping out of church. 

And with those headlines, we’re just getting started.

Look dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Religion News Service published an important, compelling three-part series on dementia and religion by national reporter Adelle M. Banks.

You really need to check it out.

Also, read my GetReligion commentary on the project.

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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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'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze

'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze

Trust me on this: If you read the Joshua Pease essay, "The sin of silence: The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church," you will be angry and you'll have questions.

The Washington Post labels this as a "Perspective" piece -- think "analysis," not pure opinion -- but it includes lots of on-the-record sources and information, as well as personal observations by Pease. The writer is identified as "a freelance writer, was an evangelical pastor for 11 years." I would have added some kind of reference to his book, "The God Who Wasn't There: looking for a Savior in the middle of pain." 

Yes, once again we are in "theodicy" territory, a common topic here at GetReligion.

The overture for this piece -- detailing abuse Rachael Denhollander suffered when she was seven years old -- is unforgettable, especially for parents who grew up in church. I wish I would quote it all, but this passage will have to do.

The man’s behavior caught the attention of a fellow congregant, who informed Sandy Burdick, a licensed counselor who led the church’s sexual-abuse support group. Burdick says she warned Denhollander’s parents that the man was showing classic signs of grooming behavior. They were worried, but they also feared misreading the situation and falsely accusing an innocent student, according to Camille Moxon, Denhollander’s mom. So they turned to their closest friends, their Bible-study group, for support.

The overwhelming response was: You’re overreacting. One family even told them that their kids could no longer play together, because they didn’t want to be accused next, Moxon says. Hearing this, Denhollander’s parents decided that, unless the college student committed an aggressive, sexual act, there was nothing they could do.

No one knew that, months earlier, he already had.

A few lines later there is a quick, passing reference to what I think is one of the crucial facts in this complicated story. The church in which this abuse took place has, in the years since that moral train wreck, shut down.

It's gone. Did the leaders learn their lessons? Who cares? It's gone. It's hard to hold anyone accountable when churches simply vanish.

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Surveys say younger evangelicals and Democrats abandoning Israel. Crisis in U.S. Middle East policy?

Surveys say younger evangelicals and Democrats abandoning Israel. Crisis in U.S. Middle East policy?

Two recent surveys measuring Americans’ support for Israel -- one polling evangelical believers, the other comparing Republican versus Democratic support -- revealed attitudes that have the potential to overturn long-standing American Middle East policy.

In short, both surveys’ findings -- assuming the polls are accurate, and I have no reason to believe they aren't because they track with long-developing trends -- are bad news not just for the Jewish state, but for American Jewish voters as well.

I’ll get into the meaning, or possible consequences, of the findings below. But let’s start with the findings themselves, beginning with the evangelical survey, produced by LifeWay Research, itself linked to an evangelical organization.

The key finding is that younger evangelicals say they are much less likely than their elders to back Israel unconditionally. Here’s the top of LifeWays news release.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Older American evangelicals love Israel—but many younger evangelicals simply don’t care, according to a new survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research.
Three-quarters (77 percent) of evangelicals 65 and older say they support the existence, security and prosperity of Israel. That drops to 58 percent among younger evangelicals, those 18 to 34. Four in 10 younger evangelicals (41 percent) have no strong views about Israel.
Fewer younger evangelicals (58 percent) have an overall positive perception of Israel than older evangelicals (76 percent). And they are less sure Israel’s rebirth in 1948 was a good thing.
“For the most part, younger evangelicals are indifferent about Israel,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

That led The Washington Post, to publish a major piece that ran under the headline, “Long, uneasy love affair of Israel and U.S. evangelicals may have peaked.”

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Sex, religion and rock 'n' roll — oh wait, this time let's forget about the rock 'n' roll

Sex, religion and rock 'n' roll — oh wait, this time let's forget about the rock 'n' roll

What a difference a question makes!

Hang with me for a moment, and we'll delve into the latest national poll tied to gay rights vs. religious liberty.

But first, some crucial background: As you may recall, we highlighted a Religion News Service report last week on PRRI survey findings indicating that "no major U.S. religious group opposes refusing service to gays."

In that post, we noted that this was the question asked by PRRI:

Do you favor or oppose allowing a small business owner in your state to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people, if doing so violates their religious beliefs?

In response, I said:

Here's what I wonder: Is that the right question for the pollster to ask?
Moreover, would defenders of religious freedom propose an alternate wording? If so, might those voices be helpful in a story reporting on the poll results?

Earlier this week, the issue became even more timely with the U.S. Supreme Court deciding to take up the Masterpiece Cakeshop case. 

Fast-forward to today, and RNS (for which I write occasionally freelance) has a different story on a different survey that asked a different question. And the results of that LifeWay Research survey are fascinating, especially when placed side by side with last week's numbers. Godbeat veteran Bob Smietana, who writes for LifeWay, has the full details.


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Hire more religion reporters — yes! — and other takeaways from that helpful podcast on the Godbeat

Hire more religion reporters — yes! — and other takeaways from that helpful podcast on the Godbeat

It's the talk of the Godbeat — that small fraternity of journalists who cover religion news.

I'm referring to a podcast interview that Sandi Villarreal‏, chief digital officer for Sojourners, did with two writers from The Atlantic.

Here's a description of the 33-minute discussion:

On today's episode, our web editor sits down with Emma Green and McKay Coppins — both political reporters (with a religion bent) for The Atlantic — to chat about the state of religion reporting in mainstream media and how The Atlantic approaches the Godbeat. We talk about the challenges and opportunities, we break some news, and we give a hefty plug for the Religion News Association.

Both of those Atlantic writers' names will sound familiar to news consumers who follow the Godbeat closely. Some GetReligion readers may recall that Coppins, who is Mormon, formerly worked for Buzzfeed. Just recently, I praised Green's story on two Mississippi college students who decided to join the Islamic State terrorist group as a "must read." (Of course, GR has offered constructive criticism, too, for The Atlantic.)

Among the fans of this podcast (which seems almost GetReligion-esque): Bob Smietana, the veteran religion writer and former president of the Religion News Association.

Speaking of Smietana, he was involved in his own GR-like podcast just recently:

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Evil choices vs. lesser evils vs. idealistic third-party dreams and other 2016 ghosts

Evil choices vs. lesser evils vs. idealistic third-party dreams and other 2016 ghosts

You may recall a recent post in which our own Bobby Ross, Jr., was happy to see The New York Times produce a real, live, freakin' news feature in which it was made perfectly clear that there are evangelicals out in the American heartland who are not amused by facing a choice between Citizen Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It was a strong story over at the Times. If you missed it the first time, circle back and check it out.

This was, of course, a return of the whole "lesser of two evils" theme that your GetReligionistas have been writing about for months. The fact that many religious traditionalists -- especially those in pulpits, seminaries and other places of leadership -- were in the #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary camp was no surprise to people who read publications such as World Magazine and Christianity Today, newsrooms that have covered this painful divide since Day 1.

In the comments section on Bobby's much-circulated post, I added the following (which I have cleaned up a bit for clarity). To be blunt, it was good to see the Times piece, but:

News media in early primaries say: Evangelicals love Trump! GetReligion: Some do, but very few leaders. Serious division here!
News media as Trump surges to lead: Evangelicals love Trump! GetReligion: A few more are biting their lips and moving that direction, but they are mad as heck to have to do it. Some are mad at God about it.
News media as Trump gets nomination: Evangelicals love Trump! GetReligion: Hello? Hello? Anyone out there?
The New York Times, as Trump and Clinton in near tie: Evangelicals seriously divided over Trump. Some are really angry about this. Despair is a good word.

"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I worked our way through this timely thicket again in this week's podcast.

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Heaven and hell: (a) Evangelicals are weird, (b) Americans are confused, (c) both

Heaven and hell: (a) Evangelicals are weird, (b) Americans are confused, (c) both

How do you write a logical, coherent news report about a survey that offers evidence that Americans are not the most consistent pack of people in the world when it comes to matters of absolute truth and eternal life?

That's the challenge facing journalists writing about a new LifeWay Research survey probing the current status of several ancient Christian doctrines in postmodern America.

Based on two early reports, it appears that the crucial question is whether the survey is newsworthy because it shows that lots of Americans are out of step when it comes to holding on to core beliefs in traditional Christianity or because it shows that evangelical Protestants are out of step with ordinary Americans.

First, here is the top of a Religion News Service piece -- "On God and heaven, Americans are all over the map" -- on this subject. Spot the approach.

(RNS) Two-thirds of Americans believe God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
The exception: Americans with evangelical Christian beliefs, according to LifeWay Research’s 2016 State of American Theology Study. Only 48 percent of evangelicals share the belief God accepts all worship.

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Why ask doctrinal questions? Well, do you want to cover debates about religion or not?

Why ask doctrinal questions? Well, do you want to cover debates about religion or not?

I realize this may sound like a rather obvious question. However, after 40 years of religion-beat work (in one form or another) I still think that it's relevant.

The question: To cover religion news events and trends, does it help if journalists know enough about religion to ask detailed questions about, well, "religion"? When I say "religion" I am thinking about details of doctrine, tradition and history.

In other words, when covering Iraq over the past decade or two, would it have helped to know the doctrinal differences between Sunni Muslims and the Shiites? If covering debates between members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and traditional Christians, would it help to know something about the doctrine of God and the Holy Trinity? If covering debates about citizenship in Israel, do you need to know something -- doctrinally speaking -- about Reform Judaism and its emergence out of Orthodox Judaism in Europe?

This topic came up in this week's "Crossroads" podcast because of the recent GetReligion post about a nasty split inside a "Lutheran" megachurch in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, in the heart of what has long been known as the "Lutheran Belt." Click here to tune that in.

The problem was that a report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press never got around to telling readers which brand of Lutheranism was found in this specific megachurch. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Star Tribune report clarified this big denominational question in its lede and in a follow-up paragraph a few lines later.

Did this picky detail really matter? Only if readers wanted to know what the fighting was actually about.

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