Religiously unaffiliated

Pondering how to cover religion news for readers in the 'nones' generation

Pondering how to cover religion news for readers in the 'nones' generation

Here at GetReligion we write a lot about how the news media wrestle — successfully and otherwise, but mostly otherwise — with religion stories that have public policy consequences. That makes sense since these stories constitute the bulk of what religion reporters produce. They dominate because they’re far and away the easiest for journalists to make sense of.

Reporters spend far less time tackling religion’s deeper, less linear realms. Including, how we make sense of our lives. 

For traditional believers, religion is key to extracting sufficient meaning from life to keep its bewildering complexity and insecurity from rendering us dysfunctional. For religion journalists, historically that’s meant concentrating on the minutia of faith group wrangling over the day’s public issues. 

Comprehend the jargon, restate it in more universally understood language, organize it in dramatic fashion, and — voila — you’ve mastered the formula of successful religion journalism.

But as with so much about contemporary journalism, that was then and this is now — the hallmark of which is radical change.

A dominate trend in today’s America, and the West in general, is the move away from traditional religious expression. I’m referring, of course, to the growing cohort of the religiously disengaged “nones,” who by some estimates now account for a fourth of all Americans and 35 percent of those under age 30. Click here for the Pew Forum research on that.

A hefty percentage of these people have tired of public policy religion stories, so many of which seem to defy resolution year after year, decade after decade. Religiously disengaged, they have no interest in hearing about the ongoing squabbles of groups they feel have nothing to offer them.

Now combine that with the growing trend in journalism away from what we like to call the historical American model of fact-based, balanced, “objective” reporting. And remember that it’s replacement is opinion and expository writing.

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Pulpits vs. pews: Thinking about choices that mainline Protestants make on Election Day

Pulpits vs. pews: Thinking about choices that mainline Protestants make on Election Day

Anyone listing turning points in American politics would have to include that day in 1980 when candidate Ronald Reagan went to Dallas and faced a crowd of 15,000 evangelical, Pentecostal and fundamentalist Christian leaders.

Reagan told them, “I know you can’t endorse me. But ... I want you to know that I endorse you.”

The mainstream press grasped the importance of that declaration.

However, a recent symbolic move by leaders on the left didn’t get anywhere near as much ink (analog or digital). I am referring to that resolution (.pdf here) by the Democratic National Committee stating, in part:

WHEREAS, religiously unaffiliated Americans overwhelmingly share the Democratic Party’svalues, with 70% voting for Democrats in 2018, 80% supporting same-sex marriage, and 61% saying immigrants make American society stronger; and

WHEREAS, the religiously unaffiliated demographic represents the largest religious group within the Democratic Party, growing from 19% in 2007 to one in three today. …

Therefore, the party saluted “religiously unaffiliated Americans” because of their advocacy for “rational public policy based on sound science and universal humanistic values. …”

This really isn’t news, for religion-beat pros who have been paying attention. After all political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron connected these dots in 2012, when the Pew Forum released its “Nones on the Rise” report. Here is a chunk of an “On Religion” column that I wrote at that time:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters — with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."

At that time, Green noted that a party led by atheists, agnostics and Nones might have trouble making peace with several key flocks in the Democratic Part’s historic base — such as African-American Protestants, Latino Catholics and blue-collar believers in the American heartland.

This brings me to this weekend’s “think piece” by progressive Baptist pastor and scholar Ryan Burge, whose work with @Religion_Public has made him a must-follow voice in Twitter (@ryanburge).

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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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Will the 'God gap' persist on Nov. 6? What else should religion-news pros look for?

Will the 'God gap' persist on Nov. 6? What else should religion-news pros look for?

Election Day 2018 culminates the universally proclaimed “year of the woman” in American politics. The media will be totaling up victors among the unprecedented number of female candidates and checking whether exit polls show a Donald Trump-era widening of the “gender gap” between the customary majorities of women for Democrats and men for Republicans.

Except for pondering evangelicals’ GOP fealty, the media often ignore religious factors that sometimes rival or exceed the impact of that male-female divide.

This time around, will the usual religious alignments persist? Intensify? Reporters should include this in the agenda for post-election analyses.

The related “God gap” came to the fore in 2004 when Democrat John Kerry scored 62 percent with voters who said they never attended religious services vs. churchgoers’ lopsided support for Republican George W. Bush. (Through much of U.S. history there was little difference in basic religiosity between the two major parties, while Protestants leaned Republican and Catholics Democratic.) State-by-state exit polls are unlikely to ask about that and data won’t come till later.

Since 2004, religiously unaffiliated “nones” have increased substantially in polling numbers. Pew Research says they made up fully 28 percent of Democratic voters in the 2014 midterms, outpacing all religious blocs in the party's coalition. Democratic nones neatly balance out evangelicals’ perennial Republican enthusiasm, but pundits say it’s tough for Democrats to organize them on campaign support and turnout.

Now, something new may be occurring.

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Not all evangelicals are white (true). What about Democrats who don't like religious groups?

Not all evangelicals are white (true). What about Democrats who don't like religious groups?

News consumers, I want you to flash back to the early stages of the 2016 White House race, near the start of the Donald Trump earthquake.

Remember how we had lots of headlines headlines that kept saying, "Evangelicals love Trump! Evangelicals LOVE Trump!"

Yes, that was sort of true. There were many old-guard Religious Right leaders who bonded with The Donald really early. Eventually, the vast majority of cultural and moral conservatives would vote for the sort-of-GOP standard bearer, with about half of them reluctantly doing so as a way of voting against Hillary Clinton. The mainstream press (with a few exceptions) still has not grasped the significance of that fact.

However, here is something that more reporters figured out early on, since it involved race. They discovered the crucial fact that there are black, Latino and Asian evangelicals. They realized that it was mainly WHITE evangelicals who were supporting Trump. Look at evangelicals as a whole and the picture was quite different.

This brings us to a recent Religion News Service headline about another fascinating blast of numbers from the Pew Research Center team. That headline proclaimed: "Republicans, Democrats divided on impact of religion." And here is some key information near the top:

Overall, a majority of Americans (59 percent) see religion as a positive, compared to 26 percent who say it has a negative impact on the way things are going in the U.S., according to Pew. ...
Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Republicans or those who lean Republican said churches and religious organizations have a positive impact, with 14 percent saying that impact is negative, according to Pew.
Meanwhile, Democrats are split: Half of those who are or lean Democrat believe religious institutions have a positive impact, according to the survey, while 36 percent said they have a negative impact.

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Weekend thinker: Yes, turns out we did need another study, more news on 'Nones'

Weekend thinker: Yes, turns out we did need another study, more news on 'Nones'

GetReligion readers: Please raise your hand if you have read a news report that discusses the "Nones."

OK, I imagine that this is 100 percent of you. I would think that 90-plus percent of you have read a piece in the past week or so that references, in some way, the Pew Forum's famous "Nones on the Rise" research. I would be hard pressed to name a religion-news related survey, during the past quarter century or more, that has received more coverage.

"Nones," of course, fits better in a headline than the term "religiously unaffiliated," meaning the rising number of Americans -- especially the young -- who say that they no longer affiliate with any particular religious organization, tradition or even heritage.

One of the big problems with that blast of data in 2012 is that many people see the term "None" and immediately think that it means "none," in terms of people having no religious beliefs at all or interest in their own solo, improvised, evolving version of spirituality. Yes, think Sheila and her tribe.

Personally, I think the religiously unaffiliated numbers are tremendously important and I've been following that trend -- reading scholar John C. Green and others -- for more than a decade.

We need more research on this, especially in terms of how it affects (1) marriage and family demographics and (2) which religious traditions rise and which ones fall. The bottom line: Demographics is destiny.

This brings me to a recent Religion News Service feature that I think needs to stand on its own as a weekend think piece, pointing readers toward a new study building on all of those Pew numbers. Yes, the political spin is justified. Here's how this piece opens:

(RNS) A quarter of U.S. adults do not affiliate with any religion, a new study shows — an all-time high in a nation where large swaths of Americans are losing faith.

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What sociologists told us two years ago about religion and a 'political backlash'

What sociologists told us two years ago about religion and a 'political backlash'

Washington University made the shocking announcement in 1989 that it would disband its sociology department. Those of us who greatly value this academic discipline are encouraged that this distinguished school revived the program with new courses last fall.

Journalists are trying to comprehend the most astonishing U.S. political campaign since 1948. Or 1912, or 1860, or 1800. Political scientists have been working overtime, but sociologists can provide the media significant longer-term understanding. One example was a 2014 article (.pdf here) by Michael Hout of New York University and Claude Fischer of the University of California, Berkeley, in the online journal Sociological Science.

The Religion Guy missed this piece when released (it’s hard for news folk to monitor all pertinent academic journals) and thanks New York Times economics columnist Eduardo Porter for highlighting it as evidence of “the waning place of religion in American politics.” Religion journalists note: The Hout-Fischer (hereafter H-F) analysis combines U.S. political currents and that much-mulled increase of “nones” without religious identity

The H-F piece is cluttered with algebraic formulas and arcane lingo (“multicollinearity,” “sheaf variable”), but fortunately the conclusions are in standard English. Much data comes from the University of Chicago’s standard General Social Survey.

H-F notes that Americans born after 1970 are less religious than previous generations. In past times those raised in church who dropped out often returned in adulthood, but that’s much less likely today. Also, those raised without religion  are becoming less likely to turn religious later. Religion writers know this, but -- how come?

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I know this may be hard: But let's take the Jedi faith folks seriously for a moment

I know this may be hard: But let's take the Jedi faith folks seriously for a moment

Can't you feel the excitement building as the holy day draws near?

No, not Christmas. A am referring to the media build-up during this advent period before the arrival of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

I am old enough to remember the early conversations in newsrooms about whether, under the doctrines of the Associated Press Stylebook, stories about the Star Wars franchise should refer to "the force" or "the Force." Just about everyone on the religion beat back in those days wrote features about whether parents should tell their children that the Force was or was not another name for God.

If you follow discussions of Star Wars as a pop-culture religion, you surely know that fans on the other side of the pond took this discussion to a higher level about 15 years ago. Here is the background section of a new story in The Telegraph about the impact of the new film on the leaders of the Church of Jediism.

Jediism started as a joke, ahead of the 2001 census, in which respondents were asked to declare their religion for the first time. At the time, 390,000 people declared that they were Jedis, a number that fell by more than half, to 177,000, at the following census, in 2011.
Now the organisation, described by its members as “a set of philosophies based on focusing, learning and becoming one with the Force”, claims to have more than 250,000 followers. Patrick Day-Childs, a member of the church’s five-strong UK ruling council, said that more than a thousand people a day are signing up for the religion. He said: “It’s gone up substantially in the past couple of days. The real test will be in a couple of weeks when the film hype has died off. “
Daniel Jones, who founded the religion and who goes by the Jedi name Morda Hehol, said: “We’ve been rushed off our feet. People want to know more about it. It’s great for us.”

Now, the "leading figures in the Church of Jediism," as the Telegraph team identifies them, are saying that they are gaining about 1,000 new members a day as the holy release day nears for the new film.

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