Robert Wuthnow

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Polls can be problematic, but journalistic blessings upon Gallup's long, long religion trend lines

Polls can be problematic, but journalistic blessings upon Gallup's long, long religion trend lines

Let’s admit it. The news media are poll-obsessed, especially with politics. But don’t blame pollsters if journalists over-work surveys or neglect necessary caveats.

Take Michigan’s presidential vote. A November 3 poll for Detroit’s Fox2 put Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 46 to 41 percent.

Did news reports mention the “margin of error” of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points? With that factored in, Trump could actually have been slightly ahead, and in fact he won Michigan by three-tenths of a percent.

In “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith,” sociologist Robert Wuthnow doubted any polls are representative nowadays since “response rates” among randomly selected respondents are so low. GOP pollster John McLaughlin pursues another complaint, that sampling techniques consistently undercount Republicans. 

So religion scribes must be wary. Nonetheless, blest be the Gallup Poll, especially for trend-tracking because it has posed the same questions across years and decades, e.g. the famous “did you, yourself, happen to attend” worship this week?

Sure, fibs and faulty memories may inflate the results, but the downward trend line is noteworthy.  

Gallup’s annual “Values and Beliefs” poll in May finds the most permissive U.S. views to date on 10 of 19 moral issues -- though adultery still gets mere 9 percent acceptance. That got more coverage than Gallup’s subsequent report on the poll’s responses about the Bible that presumably shape moral opinions. (Note the sampling error of plus or minus 4 points, with no “response rate” in the fine print.)

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Pew 'nones' study 2.0: Perhaps America’s religion cup is only half empty?

Pew 'nones' study 2.0: Perhaps America’s religion cup is only half empty?

In teaching journalism classes the Religion Guy has often used the little 1954 classic “How to Lie with Statistics,” a great primer for any reporter, especially one like this writer who is mathematically challenged. The following has nothing to do with “lies,” but reminds us that though numbers appear to be hard facts they’re always subject to some spin.

That theme is raised as the media report on the new second installment of data from the Pew Research Center’s 2014 survey about religion with 35,071 respondents.

Such a massive sample allows a small margin of error. And unlike most pollsters the Pew team is very sophisticated about religion. For instance, if a person identifies as “Presbyterian,” is that the moderate to liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) or staunchly conservative Presbyterian Church in America, or some other body?

One caution:  Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow would want us to note down on page 126 that the “response rate” among attempted phone calls was only 11.1 percent for landlines and 10.2 percent for cell phones. As the Religion Guy noted previously, this is a nagging problem in 21st Century polling.

Pew’s first installment last May grabbed many a headline with the news that Americans with no religious affiliation -- those headline-grabbing "nones" -- increased from 16 percent in a comparable survey in 2007 to the current 23 percent. (Hurrah to Pew for replicating its prior poll to show us such trending.) 

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Are polls about people and pews appealing or appalling? Warnings for journalists

Are polls about people and pews appealing or appalling? Warnings for journalists

A memorable though possibly apocryphal religious quip dates from the days when Norman Vincent Peale was a famed author and preacher. Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson supposedly said “I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.”

What he found appalling was either Peale’s criticism of Stevenson’s divorce (in 1952), or of candidate Kennedy’s Catholicism (in 1960), or both.

So are polls appealing or appalling?

Eminent sociologist Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University lays out warnings that journalists should heed in “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith,” due for October 1 release from Oxford University Press and previewed  in the current First Things magazine.

Polls were never mathematically precise to begin with and are becoming ever more unreliable, even as they take up infinite airtime and column inches during the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign. Wuthnow reports this billion-dollar industry with some 1,200 companies conducted more than 37,000 polls during the 2012 U.S. campaign. Election predictions have sometimes proven  well off the mark, as recently with Britain, Israel, and America’s 2014 midterms. Public surveys involve not just politics but closely watched trends on key matters like consumer confidence and unemployment rates.

A poll’s fine print lists a “margin of error,” often ignored in the media, that can skew results. However, Wuthnow says today’s critically important crisis in  reliability is that huge numbers don’t answer the phone, causing terribly low “response rates.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy