Nones

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 TheAtlantic.com 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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Democrats embrace the Nones: Religious scenarios for the big 2020 vote are taking shape

Democrats embrace the Nones: Religious scenarios for the big 2020 vote are taking shape

OK. America is months away from March 3, when primaries in California and 14 other states may well fix the final shape of the Democrats’ presidential contest and whether it might grind away until the July convention.

But the 2020 campaign is already fully launched and running red hot, so let’s scan some scenarios for political reporters who are watching religion and religion reporters who are watching politics.

The one novel angle this round is Pete Buttigieg’s pitch to inspire voters who are liberal in both religion and politics to at last get organized for victory. The Guy suspects he’s more likely to move up from the second tier and snag the nomination than that such a New Religious Left will deliver the goods in ballot boxes. Still, Mayor Pete’s prospects are newsworthy because he’s out to scramble the religious dynamics of the past four decades.

However, the Democratic National Committee proclaimed the bigger reality in a significant resolution (.pdf here) at its August meeting in secular San Francisco that roused scant MSM interest — but energized conservative and secularist media. The party championed the patriotism and morals of religiously unaffiliated Americans and said they “should be represented, included and heard” because they are now “the largest religious group within the Democratic Party.”

The party can count noses. Or its leaders noted the predictions of religion-and-politics experts like scholar John C. Green of the University of Akron.

Party leaders said the nonreligious were 17 percent of 2018 voters, and they make up a third of today’s Democrats vs. only 17 percent in 2007 when Barack Obama launched his campaign. They constitute something like a fourth of the overall U.S. population and 35 percent of those under age 30. So there’s “potential to deliver millions more votes” through “targeted outreach” that boosts turnout.

The Democrats’ statement ignored the ground-level fact that religiously unaffiliated Americans tend to be less engaged in civic affairs, and harder to contact and organize, than members of religious congregations. Crucially, the above data remind us that two-thirds of Democrats remain nominally or actively religious. Combined with religiously inclined Independents, they’ll determine who wins.

How to get 271 electoral votes?

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2012 flashback: Pollster John C. Green's prophecy -- sort of -- about Democratic debates in 2019

2012 flashback: Pollster John C. Green's prophecy -- sort of -- about Democratic debates in 2019


When news consumers think about politics and religion, they probably think about the clout that evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics have in the post-Ronald Reagan Republican Party.

Can you say “81 percent”? I knew that you could.

There is a very good reason for this state of mind in the news-consuming public. Many (perhaps most) journalists in elite American zip codes have always viewed the Religion Right as the modern version of the vandals sacking Rome. Thus, that is THE religion-and-politics story of the age.

What about the Democrats? What about the evidence of a “pew gap” (active religious believers tend to back the GOP, whether they want to or not) that hurts the Democrats in the American heartland?

It is very rare to see coverage of this kind of story, other than the evergreen (1) rise of the Religious Left news reports or maybe stories about (2) Democrats making new attempts to court people in pews.

In this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — we focused on a recent New York Times piece about the three major divisions inside the Democratic Party, right now, and the role that religion is playing in that drama. This was a follow-up to my recent post: “Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor.”

Before we get to that, check out the top of this interesting news report about the Democrats and their recent debates. Doesn’t the point of view here sound strange?

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Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

The topic should be catnip for any journalist writing about religion: creating a church without God is hard work and sometimes the idea fails.

But Faith Hill’s report for The Atlantic (“They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked”) does not deliver well, not least because her angle is more about components than convictions. It’s like reading an economist’s insights into romantic poetry.

Hill starts well enough by making the report personal. We meet Justina Walford, who has left the faith of her childhood, but misses the experience of church. But even here the problems in Hill’s reporting arise quickly: she describes Walford as once being “deeply religious,” but losing her interest because of “overseas travel that made her question how any one religious community could have a monopoly on truth.”

This is nearly robotic language to describe a now-lost belief in and engagement with God. The problem is just as bad when Hill tries to convey the purported advantage that traditional churches have compared to their God-free alternatives:

According to data from the latest version of the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual “American Values Atlas,” 25 percent of Americans today are religiously unaffiliated, up from single digits in the 1990s. Among young people, that number is 39 percent. Those numbers describe not just a retreat from organized religion, but also an erosion of community.Many faith congregations have acted as social anchors in their areas, providing a place to see and be seen by the same friendly faces each week. …

In New York and elsewhere, the basic mechanics of keeping a congregation running have proved difficult. To hire musicians and speakers, buy refreshments, and rent out a venue takes a lot of money. A traditional Church has tithings — but leaders of secular communities have found that attendees are highly suspicious of any plea for donations. Many lapsed believers harbor strong negative associations with the collection plate.

“Faith congregations,” “tithings,” “attendees” — this is a foreign dialect. And it’s an undisputed reality that except when tithing is mandatory, it is a minority phenomenon and hardly the basis of an abundant annual income. 

Maybe the narration improves when Hill turns to the challenges faced by the pioneers of God-free mass meetings? Yeah, not so much:

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Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

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What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

A late September headline at the Esquire magazine website proclaimed “There Is No God on TV, Only The Good Place.”

Indeed, the clever sitcom of that title, which launched season No. 3 last week, plays around with good and evil, heaven and hell, and even portrays supernatural demons. But God is missing.

This NBC fantasy is just the thing to lure the eyeballs of America’s growing legion of young, religiously unmoored “nones,” in a carefully multicultural fashion that also ignores religious beliefs and practices. Instead, the proceedings are all about a hazy moral philosophy about what makes a good person.

CBS makes a different audience bid with “God Friended Me,” which premiered Sunday. The drama’s lead character Miles (played by Brandon Micheal Hall) is a preacher’s kid turned outspoken atheist. Is the “God” who becomes his Facebook “friend” the actual cosmic God or some human or otherworldly trickster? To find out, Miles enlists his devout bartender sister, a hacker pal, and a journalist, and experiences coincidences that just might be miracles.

Judging from one episode, there may not be much here for religion writers to ponder, and it's hard to guess whether “Friended” can even survive. (Ratings prospects are dimmed by CBS’s inability to set predictable Sunday start times following sports events.) This seems inspiration-drenched programming in the varied tradition of “Highway to Heaven,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Promised Land,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” or last season’s short-lived “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.”

“The Good Place,” by contrast, has somehow managed to establish a niche and win critics’ acclaim by probing Big Questions with a droll touch. Here salvation is earned strictly by performing good deeds instead of faith. That conflicts with an historic 1999 Catholic-Lutheran accord that insists Christianity believes that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God” who equips and calls us to “good works.”

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Splicing and dicing American religion today: How about a seven-party Pew typology?

Splicing and dicing American religion today: How about a seven-party Pew typology?

U.S. religious categories were never as simple as indicated in “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” Will Herberg’s tripartite classic from 1956.

What kind of Jew? Protestants, ever complicated, have become ever moreso. Catholics, too, are more of a checkerboard these days. With the 1965 immigration law, Islam and Asian religions came to the fore. Recently, “nones” with no religious affiliation emerged as a major category.

Now the ubiquitous Pew Research Center is splicing and dicing its survey data to discern a new seven-party system,  what the title of its latest report calls “The Religious Typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans By Religion.” That’s “the” typology, not merely “a” new concept, which seems presumptuous and yet intriguing.  

Journalists who saw news in this August 29 release have already written about it. But The Religion Guy recommends that beat specialists spend quality time reading or re-reading the full 98-page version (.pdf here), to provoke fresh thinking about the complex U.S. religious landscape.

Pew asked 16 questions and applied “cluster analysis” to sort Americans into the seven categories based upon broad religious attitudes and reported behavior across the traditional lines of formal membership or self-identification. Pew labels 40 percent of U.S. adults as “highly religious," sharing traditional belief in the God of the Bible and looking upon faith fondly, segmented into these three groups. 

(1) “Sunday Stalwarts” (17 percent of the Americans surveyed) -- These devout folks are weekly worshipers of whatever faith who mostly read the Bible daily, pray often, and consider religion their most important source of meaning and helpful for society. They’re also the most active in non-religious community causes and charities and – notably – lean Republican and are the most likely to vote in local elections.

(2) “God-and-Country Believers” (12 percent) -- This group stands out as the only one expressing majority approval for President Donald Trump’s performance.

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Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

The Religion News Service column “Flunking Sainthood,” as the title indicates, expresses the outlook of liberal Latter-day Saints. But author Jana Riess, who comes armed with a Columbia University doctorate in U.S. religious history, is also interesting when writing about broader matters.

Her latest opus contends that two standard theories about big trends in American religion are too simple and therefore misleading. Her focus is the rise of religiously unaffiliated “nones” to constitute 39 percent of “millennials” from ages 18 to 29. The Religion Guy more or less agrees with her points but adds certain elements to the argument.

So, theory No. 1: Though Riess doesn’t note this, this concept was pretty much the creation of the inimitable Dean M. Kelley (1927–1997) in “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” This 1972 book was electrifying because Kelley was a “mainline” United Methodist and prominent executive with the certifiably liberal National Council of Churches. (His expertise on religious liberty gave the NCC of that era a major role on such issues.) 

Under this “strict churches” theory, religious bodies that expect strong commitments on doctrine and lifestyle from their adherents will prosper because this shows they take their faith seriously, and  they carefully tend to individual members’ spiritual needs. By contrast, losses characterize more latitudinarian (Don’t you love that word?) denominations such as those that dominated in the NCC.

Kelley’s scenario proved keenly prescient, since white “mainline” and liberal Protestant groups were then just beginning decades of unprecedented and inexorable declines in active membership and over-all vitality. The Episcopal Church, for one example, reported 3,217,365 members in 1971 compared with 1,951,907 as of 2010. So much for left-wing Bishop Jack Spong’s 1999 book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Statistics have been even more devastating with groups like the United Church of Christ and the Church of Christ (Disciples).

Now comes Riess to announce that scenario is “crumbling” because some strict conservative groups like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have also begun declining in recent years while others, e.g. her own Latter-day Saints (LDS) or Mormon Church, still grow but at more sluggish rates.

That’s accurate, important, and yes it tells us factors other than strictness are at play.

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