Demographics

See that thinning flock of pew sitters with gray hair? That's a big religion-beat trend

See that thinning flock of pew sitters with gray hair? That's a big religion-beat trend

If you are interested in the future of American religion, then you have to be willing to talk about these kinds of topics — birth rates, conversions and, increasingly, the average age of people in the pews.

In other words, it’s time, once again, to discuss that old saying: “Demographics are destiny.”

GetReligion readers: How often have you seen posts that discuss questions of this kind? The reason we keep bringing this up is that reporters have to be willing to ask questions about issues rooted in demographics — that is, if they want to anticipate future news trends.

That’s true in politics, for sure. You know Republicans are worried about younger voters right now. You also know that savvy Democrats are starting to pay attention to the rising number of Latinos who are worshiping in evangelical and Pentecostal pews.

All of this is, of course, leading up to this week’s thought-provoking graphic offering from political scientist Ryan Burge, who is also an ordained Baptist progressive. Journalists who cover religion need to follow this guy on Twitter and bookmark this website: Religion in Public.

Here’s the Big Idea for this week:

“The average Muslim in America is nearly 22 years younger than the average Mainline Protestant.”

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Washington Post: Catholics should follow Germany's gospel when seeking future growth

Washington Post: Catholics should follow Germany's gospel when seeking future growth

When it comes to Catholic demographics — think birth rate, membership and new clergy — researchers know where to look if they want to find the good news and the bad news.

It you are seeking new life and growth, all roads lead to Africa — where the Catholic population has grown by nearly 250% since 1980.

Anyone seeking bad news can examine trends in Europe.

Take Germany, for example. The Catholic church lost 216,078 members in 2018, according to the German Bishops’ Conference. Researchers at the University of Freiburg predict that Catholic membership totals will fall another 50% by 2060. How is the priesthood doing? Things were already pretty bad in 2005, with 122 diocesan priests ordained in Germany. That number fell to 58 in 2015.

So here is a question for journalists: If you were writing about the rising influence of German Catholic bishops in the bitter global debates about the future of Catholic doctrine, worship and tradition, how much material would your story need to include about the health of the German church? Would you assume that the Catholic world needs to be more like Germany, if the goal is growth and “reform”? Would it be wise — when discussing efforts to modernize the faith — to quote Catholic leaders from Africa (and Asia)?

This leads us to a fascinating report from the international desk of The Washington Post, with this headline: “German bishops want to modernize the church. Are they getting too far ahead of Pope Francis?

That headline says it all. The German bishops are the good guys, but it appears that they may be moving too fast and, thus, are hurting the “reform” efforts of the ultimate good guy. The story notes that the German bishops are plunging forward on four topics — church authority, the “priestly way of life,” the role of women in the church and various sexual morality issues.

The overture is a masterpiece of semi-editorial writing:

ESSEN, Germany — Among those who believe the Catholic Church must liberalize to save itself from perpetual decline, some of the staunchest advocates are church leaders here in Germany.

Some German bishops have spoken in favor of abandoning the celibacy requirement for priests and vaulting women into leadership roles that are now off-limits. Some have urged updating the Vatican’s stern stance on sexual morality, saying the church can’t afford to be out of touch or alienating.

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Thinking along with Douthat and Burge: Where are the empty pews and why are they empty?

Thinking along with Douthat and Burge: Where are the empty pews and why are they empty?

I have been traveling the last few days — a national college media conference and a baptism involving family — and I failed let GetReligion readers take a look at some interesting Ryan Burge graphics linked to two of the dominant religion-news stories of our time.

One of the stories is, of course, the collapse of the safe, vague ground in the middle of the marketplace of American religion. It’s an equation that comes up at GetReligion all the time, with traditional forms of religion holding their own (signs of slow decline and slight growth in some sectors) while the rise of the religiously unaffiliated gets lots and logs of ink (with good reason).

In the middle of all that is story No. 2, which is the demographic death dive of the old world of mainline, liberal Protestantism.

So take a look the chart at the top of this post — especially that dramatic “X” created by the rise of the nones and the fall of the mainline middle.

So, some will say: This is just a projection, not a set of carved in stone facts. True, that. However, Burge is only attempting to project trends 10 years into the future. That’s not a giant leap, when you are using trend lines dating back four decades. (I’d like to see that chart enlarged to 1960 or so, which would give us the true peak of old Mainline power and cultural prestige.)

Now, keep that chart in mind while reading the following column by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat — “The Overstated Collapse of American Christianity.” Here’s a crucial piece of the intro:

… (The) new consensus is that secularization was actually just delayed, and with the swift 21st-century collapse of Christian affiliation, a more European destination for American religiosity has belatedly arrived. “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace” ran the headline on a new Pew Research Center survey of American religion this month, summing up a consensus shared by pessimistic religious conservatives, eager anticlericalists and the regretfully unbelieving sort of journalist who suspects that we may miss organized religion when it’s gone.

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Reporters: Forget the evangelicals. Will white Catholics dump Donald Trump in 2020?

Reporters: Forget the evangelicals. Will white Catholics dump Donald Trump in 2020?

The following assumes that President Donald Trump will be impeached by the Democratic House, kept in office by the Republican Senate and then will appear on the November 2020 ballot.

The key is that are are already some hints of softening support for him in a Public Religion Research Institute survey released October 17.

To be blunt, 27 percent of those who identified as Republican or leaned Republican would prefer a different nominee. Only 39 percent of Americans approved of his job performance as president in this poll, though he did notably better with white (non-Hispanic) Catholics (48 percent) and white mainline Protestants (54 percent) -- and of course white (non-minority) evangelicals (77 percent).

Just under three-fourths (73 percent) of Americans wished Trump’s speech and behavior followed the example set by prior presidents and so did 70 percent of all Catholics and 72 percent of white mainline Protestants.

PRRI provoked the usual commentary about why-oh-why all those white evangelical Protestants favor the president. Certain evangelical thinkers fret that association with his embarrassments is damaging the Christian witness for years to come. That’s an important topic for journalism, since evangelicals are the nation’s largest religious bloc.

But just now reporters are necessarily consumed by 2020 and PRRI reports that white evangelicals favor Trump.

Ho hum. They vote for Republicans, period. By Pew Research data, in 2004 they voted 78 percent for the born-again George W. Bush. In 2008 they slipped to 74 percent for the less overtly pious John McCain, who had tangled with “religious right” preachers. In 2012 they went 78 percent for the devout Mitt Romney despite aversion toward his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faith. In 2016 they gave 81 percent to the secularized Donald Trump, a proud vulgarian.

But The Guy keeps emphasizing that white Catholics gave Trump 59 percent support, and similarly for Romney.

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Big news stories lurk on both sides of shrinking middle ground in American religion

Big news stories lurk on both sides of shrinking middle ground in American religion

Religion and politics. Religion and politics. Religion and politics.

Or, sometimes it’s politics and religion.

Either way, we all know what factor — more often than not — turns a religion-news story into a big news story in the eyes of most newsroom managers. Well, sex scandals are good, too.

Normally, this politics-and-religion reality bugs me, because there is so much more to the religion beat than whatever content happens to overlap with the current political headlines.

But, right now, I think it’s obvious that the biggest news story in American politics is directly linked to the biggest story in American religion. I am talking about a trend that has been discussed in several 2019 Crossroads podcasts — including this week’s edition (click here to tune that in).

It’s the growing polarization between the world of traditional religious believers (defined primarily in terms of the PRACTICE of their faith) and the growing flock of open atheists-agnostics and the spiritual-but-not-religious phenomenon that overlaps with the growth of the religiously unaffiliated. It lines up with the hotter-than-hades rift in American culture and politics.

There are so many stories linked to this. We’re talking about the demographic implosion of the old liberal Protestant mainline. Then there’s the surging number of independent churches and nondenominational believers. There’s a growing number of Americans — small, but important — in other world religions. There are people (like me) who grew up in one tradition (Southern Baptist, in this case) and converted to another (Eastern Orthodoxy).

There are so many numbers, so many polls. The Pew Research Center, LifeWay Research, Barna and others keep cracking out fascinating numbers.

In the podcast, I mentioned — once again — Donald Trump and the infamous “81% of white evangelicals just love Donald” theme that can be found in news coverage on a daily basis (or so it seems). Yes, about half of those white evangelicals wanted to vote to some other GOP candidate. And about 40% of evangelicals appear to have stayed home or some voted third party.

Out of all of the topics that floated into this week’s podcast, let me stress one — the changing religious world of Latino Americans. Consider this lede atop a recent Crux report:

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Major survey of U.S. young adults has startling data on Protestants' two-party system

Major survey of U.S. young adults has startling data on Protestants' two-party system

The Religion Guy confesses that, like so many writers, he has tended to depict U.S. Protestantism’s two-party system of “Mainline” vs. “Evangelical” mostly in terms of newsworthy LGBTQ issues. In more sophisticated moments, he might briefly note the underlying differences on Bible interpretation. But maybe something even more basic is occurring.

While scanning an important new research work, “The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular lives of American Young Adults” (Oxford), The Guy was gobsmacked by a graph on page 32.

You want news?

How about the prospect that U.S. Protestantism does not just involve that familiar biblical rivalry but could be evolving toward a future with two starkly different belief systems.

All U.S. religion writers and church strategists are anxiously watching the younger generation, and there’s been important research both here (care of Princeton University Press), here (make that Oxford University Press) and finally here (Oxford, again).

The project published as “The Twentysomething Soul,” led by authors Tim Clydesdale (sociology, College of New Jersey, clydesda@tcnj.edu) and Kathleen Garces-Foley (religious studies, Marymount University, kgarcesfoley@marymount.edu), surveyed an unusually large sample of Americans ages 20 to 30 and could fully categorize religious identifications, beliefs and practices.

The graph that grabbed The Guy involved who God is.

In this question’s option one, he is “a personal being, involved in the lives of people today.” Hard to think of a Christian belief more basic than that. In other options, God is “not personal, but something like a cosmic life force,” a fuzzy New Age-ish idea. Or God only created the world “but is not involved in the world now,” what’s known as Deism. Or the respondent lacked any sort of belief in God.

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This week's religion charts: Are young folks the only problem in empty sanctuaries?

This week's religion charts: Are young folks the only problem in empty sanctuaries?

For the past 17 years, your GetReligionistas have written about a growing trend in religion polls (here’s the late George Gallup Jr., 15 years ago) that has obvious implications for American life in general.

Here it is: When looking at the spectrum of American life — in terms of religious beliefs, as seen in the practice of faith — the number of “traditional” believers is remaining remarkably stable, while the number of atheists, agnostics and the religiously unaffiliated has risen sharply.

What’s vanishing is sort-of believers in the middle of the spectrum.

Young people in that cohort tend to grab the headlines, since that is the future.

But check out this week’s charts from political scientist Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University (who is also a progressive Baptist pastor. Religion-beat pros and news consumers need to bookmark the Religion in Public website — especially to dig into the details of the General Social Survey data that he uses, along with other polling sources.

So, let’s ask fearful religious establishment leaders: Are the kids the only problem out there? Maybe the infamous Baby Boomers have something to do with all of this angst?

Read on.

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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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Deja vu all over again: BBC does another fun cathedrals story that skips somber facts (again)

Deja vu all over again: BBC does another fun cathedrals story that skips somber facts (again)

So here is the journalism question for today: Is the implosion of the Church of England, especially in terms of worship attendance, so common knowledge that it doesn’t even need to be mentioned in a news story linked to this topic?

It was news when attendance slid under 1 million, earlier this decade. Then the numbers kept falling. Here’s a Guardian report from a year or so ago. The big statistic reported in 2018 was that Sunday attendance was down to “722,000 — 18,000 fewer than in 2016.”

The story I want to look at did not run on a small website or in a niche-market newspaper. It was produced by the BBC, one of the top two or three most important news organizations on the planet.

Maybe this subject is too bleak to be mentioned in what is clearly meant to be a fun story? Here’s the headline on this long feature: “Why are cathedrals hosting helter-skelters and golf courses?” And the overture:

From giant models of Earth and the Moon to a helter-skelter and crazy golf course, cathedrals are increasingly playing host to large artworks and attractions. Why are buildings built for worship being used in the pursuit of fun?

Cathedrals might traditionally be viewed as hallowed places meant for sombre reflection and hushed reverence.

Vast, vaulted ceilings soar high over whispering huddles of wide-eyed tourists as robed wardens patrol the pews to silence anything that could detract from the sanctity of worship.

But cathedral chiefs across the country have been keen to shake free from the shushing stereotype.

Let’s see. There is a glimpse of the “why?” in this story. Why are these Anglican leaders so intent on opening the doors to let people have some fun of this kind?

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