birth rates

Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?

Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?

I have a question for GetReligion readers, especially those who have experience in journalism or online publishing.

Here it is: Are readers “trolls” if they constantly write comments (and sends emails) that have little or nothing to do the journalism issues covered in our posts, but also provide — on a semi-regular basis — totally valid URLs for stories that deserve the attention of your GetReligionistas?

One of our readers, for example, is offended by references to “elite” newsrooms or “elite” U.S. zip codes, especially those along the East and West coasts. All of those studies showing that places like New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley have more clout than cities and towns in flyover country? Who has more power to shape the news, editors at The New York Times or The Oklahoman?

This brings me to a fascinating Axios piece that ran the other day with this headline: “The age of winner-take-all cities.” You have to see the simple, blunt, graphic that Axios editors used to illustrate data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (there’s a screenshot at the top of this post).

Now, what does this story have to say about religion news and trends?

Absolutely nothing, in terms of specific information or explicit references.

However, if you read this piece carefully and think like a reporter who covers issues linked to religion, morality and culture (and, yes, politics) it’s easy to see a burning fuse in this piece that is attached to many explosive stories in the news today. Here is the overture:

For all the talk of American cities undergoing a renaissance, economic success has been concentrated in a few standout metropolises while the rest either struggle to keep up or fall further behind.

Why it matters: This winner-take-all dynamic has led to stark inequalities and rising tensions — both inside and outside city limits — that are helping to drive our politics off the rails.

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'Strollerville' trends: Religion ghosts in epic quest by New Yorkers to find that extra bedroom?

'Strollerville' trends: Religion ghosts in epic quest by New Yorkers to find that extra bedroom?

As a part-time New York City resident — lower Manhattan, to be precise — I am learning how to read between the lines when people talk about their adventures trying to find affordable places to live.

Basically, if your family and/or set of roomies can live with one bedroom, you’re in business. If you need two bedrooms, things get tougher but you are still in the game. Listening to New Yorkers talk about apartments is kind of like hearing an urban version of Lord of the Rings or some other epic Hero’s Journey narrative.

Marriage doesn’t really affect this tale — but children do. Again, it’s all about needing that second bedroom. A third bedroom? Fuhgeddaboudit. Then it’s time to start studying commuter trains.

This is another way of saying that — in the New York City context — the decision to have more than 2.100 children has massive implications that involve real estate, but other big issues as well. If being a New Yorker is a kind of cultural religion, having two children raises eyebrows. But having more than 2.100 children is a heresy (for folks with normal incomes). At the very least, it’s countercultural.

This leads me to a remarkably faith-free New York Times story that ran the other day with this epic double-decker headline:

New York’s New Strollervilles

In search of affordable housing, young families are putting down roots in places like Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Morris Park in the Bronx.

What a great word — Strollerville. It’s kind of cute and trendy, but with just a pinch of judgment. The key is that all one needs to get into Strollerville status is, obviously, one stroller. The opening scene:

A few years ago, the gateways to the courtyard of Peter Bracichowicz’s co-op in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, were empty. Now, there are wall-to-wall baby strollers.

“I actually counted them: 10 on one side, eight on the other,” said Mr. Bracichowicz, a Corcoran agent who used to live in the complex. “And that’s just in the entrance.”

Oh the humanity.

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New York Times offers totally faith-free look at why Hispanic American birth rate is plunging

New York Times offers totally faith-free look at why Hispanic American birth rate is plunging

You know that old saying, “Demographics are destiny”?

Here at GetReligion we have an observation about religion news trends that is linked to that: “Doctrine is destiny,” especially when doctrines are linked to marriage and family.

I thought of that when reading a long New York Times feature that ran the other day with this headline: “Why Birthrates Among Hispanic Americans Have Plummeted.

Now, I am sure that this is a very complex subject and that there are lots of trends linked to it. However, I found it fascinating — stunning, actually — that this story is missing one rather logical word — “Catholic.” How do you write about Latino families, marriage and children and not even mention Catholicism and its doctrines (think contraceptives, for starters) on those subjects?

However, the Times team managed to pull that off. Here is a crucial chunk of this story:

As fertility rates across the United States continue to decline — 2017 had the country’s lowest rate since the government started keeping records — some of the largest drops have been among Hispanics. The birthrate for Hispanic women fell by 31 percent from 2007 to 2017, a steep decline that demographers say has been driven in part by generational differences between Hispanic immigrants and their American-born daughters and granddaughters.

It is a story of becoming more like other Americans. Nearly two-thirds of Hispanics in the United States today are born in this country, a fact that is often lost in the noisy political battles over immigration. Young American-born Hispanic women are less likely to be poor and more likely to be educated than their immigrant mothers and grandmothers, according to the Pew Research Center, and many are delaying childbearing to finish school and start careers, just like other American-born women.

“Hispanics are in essence catching up to their peers,” said Lina Guzman, a demographer at Child Trends, a nonprofit research group.

Catholic thinkers would note that the phrase “catching up” contains some interesting assumptions.

Meanwhile, if you know anything about Catholic culture and Hispanics, you know — at the very least — that the regions in the United States in which the church is growing are those  where immigrants from Mexico and Latin America are thriving.

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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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Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

Three decades of 'On Religion' columns: tmatt offers five 'Big Idea' takeaways

This week was an important one for me, since it marked the 30th anniversary of the start of my weekly national "On Religion" column. That very first column on April 11, 1988, focused on Pat Robertson -- but the real topic was American evangelicals trying to figure out White House Politics (imagine that).

Now, if you do some #DUH math, that would mean that 20 years ago I wrote a 10th anniversary column. In that column I focused on what I thought was the "Big Idea," the central theme, I had spotted in American religion-beat news over that time.

I described a scene that I kept seeing in my work as a journalist, one most easily seen at rallies linked to "culture wars" topics in American public life. Thus, I wrote this in 1998:

A pro-life rally, for example, would feature a Baptist, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a cluster of conservative Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. Then, the pro-choice counter-rally would feature a "moderate" Baptist, a Catholic activist or two, a Reform rabbi and mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.
Similar line-ups would appear at many rallies linked to gay rights, sex-education programs and controversies in media, the arts and even science. Along with other journalists, I kept reporting that today's social issues were creating bizarre coalitions that defied historic and doctrinal boundaries. After several years of writing about "strange bedfellows," it became obvious that what was once unique was now commonplace.

That led me back to the work of the scholar whose work had influenced me the most in that era. You see, all kinds of people use the term "culture wars" these days, but it's important to remember how that term was defined by the man who wrote the book.

Yes, this is precisely where "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I started this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Now, back to the 1998 column. This is long, but essential:

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Plan for this must-cover Godbeat item in 2018: The 50th anniversary of 'Humanae Vitae'

Plan for this must-cover Godbeat item in 2018: The 50th anniversary of 'Humanae Vitae'

Rightly or wrongly, most papal encyclicals land in newsrooms with a thud.

But there were no yawns in 1968 when Pope Paul VI issued his birth-control edict “Humanae Vitae,” which provoked a global uproar inside and outside his church.

Retrospectives will be a must item on reporters’ calendars around July 25, the 50th anniversary of this landmark. News angles include a monthly series at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University to rethink the doctrine, which started in October and runs through May 24. The listing (in Italian) is here (.pdf).

Paul declared that Catholicism, “by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” The Pope believed this fusion of the “unitive” and “procreative” aspects in marital acts is mandated by “natural law” as defined by predecessor Popes Pius XI (1930 encyclical “Casti Connubii”), and Pius XII (1951 “Address to Midwives”). Paul concluded the recent development of  “The Pill” changed nothing.

Though the pope said priests were bound to support this teaching, many joined lay Catholics and Protestants in opposing the church’s “each and every” requirement. Pope John Paul II later supported predecessor Paul, and recently so did Pope Francis, though with a twist

Key themes for reporters to assess:

First: Many analysts argue that the wide-ranging dissent on the birth-control pronouncement has weakened the church’s over-all moral authority.

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Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

How long have journalists been writing stories about the decline of America's liberal mainline churches, both in terms of people in the pews and cultural clout?

I've been studying religion-news coverage since the late 1970s and I cannot remember a time when this was not "a story." For many experts, the key moment was the 1972 release of the book "Why Conservative Churches Are Growing" by Dean M. Kelley of the National Council of Churches.

You could argue, as I have many times on this blog, that the decline of the oldline left is a story that deserved even more press coverage than it has received. Why? Because the decline of the old mainline world helped create a hole in American public life that made room for the rise of the Religious Right.

Now we have reached the point, as "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed in last week's podcast, where the story has become much more complex. While the demographic death dive has continued for liberal religious institutions (as opposed to spiritual-but-not-religious life online and elsewhere), we are now seeking slow decline in parts of conservative religious groups, as well.

What's going on? To be blunt, religious groups are growing or holding their own when they inspire believers to (a) have multiple children, (b) make converts and (c) live out demanding forms of faith that last into future generations. Yes, doctrine matters. So does basic math.

With this in mind, consider the brave attempt that The Baltimore Sun made the other day to describe what is happening in churches in that true-blue progressive city. Here is the overture and, as you read it, get ready for an interesting and, apparently, unintentional twist in the plot:

For a decade and more, Govans Presbyterian Church and Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church have labored in the manner of many mainline Protestant congregations: Working ever harder to provide spiritual resources for dwindling number of congregants.

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Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

If you hang out in the world of organized religion for several decades -- either as a participant, a reporter-outsider or both -- then you reach a point where there is something refreshing about reading an honest report by a faith-based group that's trying to address a real problem.

It's so easy to ignore problems, year after year, until you look up one day and your pews contain a dozen or so people over the age of 70. The next thing you know, you're trying to see how many nonprofits can lease space in your building so that you can keep the heat on and the doors open.

Sound familiar? Plot lines linked to declining numbers and aging sheep have been getting more and more prominent in recent decades, especially among the oldline Protestant churches on both sides of the Atlantic. That's an old story. We talked about that story in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), but only because it was linked to something more complex and, I think, more interesting.

You see, many churches on the doctrinal right are facing some -- repeat "some" -- of the same issues as those on the left. Yes, there is some truth to the claims that American Catholics have been able to hold things together because of rising numbers in Hispanic parishes (while also importing some priests from the Global South). Southern Baptists have drifted into a slight decline, facing numbers that are not as staggering as those seen in the "Seven Sisters" on the Protestant left, but they are bad (especially when it comes to baptisms). The old-guard SBC knows that continued growth among African-American and Latino churches is crucial.

So this brings me to a report that I bumped into last year published (.pdf here) by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in its Journal of Lutheran Mission. What's it about? It's about the 40 years or so of decline in membership in the churches of this conservative synod, a decline that is quite similar to that seen on the left.

Want to see some candor? Check out these bullet points from the introduction to the Journal package:

* ... (A)ll denominations gain the overwhelming majority of their membership from natural growth: from children of adult members raised in the faith. Thus, the retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus.
* The LCMS’s persistent, long-term decline manifests itself both in a massive decrease in child baptisms (down 70 percent since their peak in the late 1950s) and a smaller but still significant decrease in adult converts (down 47 percent since their peak, again in the late 1950s).

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Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

This week's Crossroads podcast is all about connecting the dots.

Warning: This is a rather confusing podcast (click here to tune that in). Host Todd Wilken and I wander all over the map, touching on topics ranging from shuttered Episcopal cathedrals to declining (and growing) Southern Baptist statistics, from Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod arguments about worship to declining numbers of students in Catholic seminaries, as well as in some (repeat some) urban Catholic parish pews.

Along the way, there's lots and lots of talk about religious real estate (as in my recent post, "There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America"). Lots of this once-sacred real estate is for sale in prime urban locations, from sea to shining sea.

Do you see any connections yet? Basically, we are talking about some of the biggest stories in American religion. The thread that connects them is demographics and the tricky subject of why some religious congregations (and denominations) die while others grow.

Ah, you say, that's all about where these institutions are located! How did The New York Times team -- not the religion desk, by the way -- put it the other day, in the latest of many Times stories about religious sanctuaries sporting "for sale" signs? That headline proclaimed: "Struggling to Survive, Congregations Look to Sell Houses of Worship." The key paragraph looked like this:

This situation is playing out again and again across New York City. Upward mobility, suburban growth and the dissolution of traditional ethnic enclaves have all contributed to empty pews, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. Twenty-seven percent of New Yorkers identified as religiously unaffiliated in 2014, compared with 17 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.

Now, in my post I noted that the final sentence there points off the secular real estate map, with a reference to the "Nones" trend that has been one of America's biggest religion-beat themes in recent years.

But, you see, even in New York City there are booming religious movements and congregations, as well as those that are fading. Did you know that?

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