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GetReligion drinking game: Trends, demographics and Ryan Burge's newsy charts

GetReligion drinking game: Trends, demographics and Ryan Burge's newsy charts

It’s been a while since we had a good GetReligion drinking game.

So here’s the rule for this one: You take a drinking of an adult beverage whenever a GetReligion post mentions demographics, birth rates or, what the heck, “81 percent.”

These discussions may increase in the future, because a very interesting progressive Baptist fellow, who is also a political scientist, has said that it is fine with him if your GetReligionistas reproduce some of this fascinating charts that focus on religion, politics and, often, religion and politics.

The main thing is that these charts often point to valid news stories. Here at GetReligion, we like that. Here’s a large chunk of a recent “On Religion” column that focused on this scholar’s work. This is long, but essential:

Earlier this year, political scientist Ryan P. Burge of Eastern Illinois University dug into the 2018 General Social Survey, crunched some data and then took to Twitter to note that Americans with ties to no particular religious tradition were now about 23% of the population. That percentage is slightly higher than evangelical Protestantism and almost exactly the same as Roman Catholicism.

"At that point my phone went crazy and I started hearing from everyone" in the mainstream media, said Burge, who is co-founder of the Religion In Public weblog. "All of a sudden it was time to talk about the 'nones' all over again."

Burge recently started another hot discussion on Twitter with some GSS statistics showing trends among believers — young and old — in several crucial flocks.

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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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Everybody sing: Why can't a Southern Baptist be more like a Methodist? Or a Lutheran? Or ...

Everybody sing: Why can't a Southern Baptist be more like a Methodist? Or a Lutheran? Or ...

Long ago, a leader in the “moderate” wing of the Southern Baptists used an interesting image as he described how the national convention carried out it’s work.

The Southern Baptist Convention, he told me, really wasn’t a “denomination” in the same sense as United Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans are part of national denominations. Southern Baptists — including those on the doctrinal left on a few issues — really do believe in the autonomy of the local church.

Then there are the ties that bind at the regional level, in Southern Baptist “associations.” Then there are the state conventions (in a few cases, there are more than one — as is the case in Texas Baptist life— because of doctrinal differences). Then, finally, there is the national Southern Baptist Convention that meets once a year to do its business, including selecting boards for the giant agencies and programs built on donations to the Cooperative Program.

Note that word “cooperative.” Hear the Baptist, congregational, “free church” sound of that?

In the end, this Baptist moderate said, the whole SBC idea is like a hummingbird. On paper, it should not be able to fly — but it does.

This is the subject at the heart of this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) about sexual abuse in America’s largest non-Catholic flock. Why can’t the SBC just create a national institution of some kind to ordain clergy, or approve and register ordinations done by churches, and then force local churches to hire and fire clergy and staff with the mandatory guidance of this national agency?

This new institution would then be responsible for tracking and shutting down clergy accused of sexual abuse. Somehow. It would warn churches about predators , if there is legal reason to do so. Somehow.

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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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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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Friday Five: Heidi Hall's last story, mainline blues, praying to plants, FFRF stenography, Ukraine scoop

Friday Five: Heidi Hall's last story, mainline blues, praying to plants, FFRF stenography, Ukraine scoop

Friends and loved ones mourn Wednesday’s death of Heidi Hall, a former religion and education editor for The Tennessean.

As noted by that newspaper, the cause of her passing was metastatic colorectal cancer. She was 49.

Hall wrote a final story, published Thursday.

“It's the story of her life — of losing everything when she left the (Jehovah’s) Witnesses — and finding a new family of her own,” RNS editor-in-chief Bob Smietana noted on Twitter.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Yes, our own Terry Mattingly is a tough critic.

But he gave an extremely positive review to Washington Post religion writer Julie Zauzmer’s piece that ran this week with this headline: The circuit preacher was an idea of the frontier past. Now it’s the cutting-edge response to shrinking churches.”

“If you start reading this one, you will want to read it all,” tmatt said.

Amen.

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Mainline blues update: WPost offers sobering facts, lovely images about circuit-riding pastors

Mainline blues update: WPost offers sobering facts, lovely images about circuit-riding pastors

Talk to scholars that study American religion and most will say that the implosion of the “Seven Sisters” of old-line Protestantism has to be at the top of any list of big trends in the past half century.

For those who need to refresh their memories, the “Seven Sisters” are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Many reporters, when dealing with mainline blues stories (think churches “for sale”) never pause to probe the “WHY?” factor in that old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how.”

Often, journalists don’t give readers key facts about the mainline decline at all. In recent years, I’ve seen more than a few stories suggesting that the slight (but important) declines in some conservative flocks have the same root causes as the 30-50% declines seen in mainline churches since the 1960s.

Thus, it’s important to praise a news feature that includes all the basic facts, when talking about this trend, and then goes the extra mile to include waves of poignant details offering readers a pew-level view of what this decline feels like to the remaining believers.

That brings me to a must-read Washington Post feature that just ran with this headline: “The circuit preacher was an idea of the frontier past. Now it’s the cutting-edge response to shrinking churches.”

The setting for this story is a dense, mountainous corner of West Virginia, which is home to a wife-and-husband team of pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the story even pauses to explain the term “evangelical” in this context). Linked to that, readers are also told that this particular Lutheran body holds “more-liberal positions on issues such as homosexuality and the role of women.”

How busy is this duo? Here is a crucial summary passage that includes many of the crucial facts:

[The Rev. Jess Felici], 36, and her husband, the Rev. Jason Felici, 33, serve together as the pastors of five churches in one of the most isolated pockets of America. Their weekly acrobatics of military-precision timing and long-distance driving are what it takes to make Sunday church services happen in a place where churchgoers are aging, pews are getting emptier and church budgets are getting smaller.

That makes Appalachia much like the rest of the country when it comes to mainline Protestant churches.

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Do generic Scouts have a future? (Wait! What was that about Latter-day Saints cutting ties?)

Do generic Scouts have a future? (Wait! What was that about Latter-day Saints cutting ties?)

No doubt about it, the generic Scouts are in trouble.

There are a number of important reasons for this, including a tsunami of legal problems linked to decades of hidden sexual abuse. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it — because of an important Washington Post story with this headline: “Lawsuits. Possible bankruptcy. Declining numbers. Is there a future for the Boy Scouts?”

But here is my main question today: What are the crucial factors that are — statistically speaking — threatening the future of Scouting? Let me add: Is there more to this than the current legal climate?

To answer that question, let’s flash back to a 2015 piece from the news service of the United Methodist Church that ran with this headline: “Churches can have gay Boy Scout leaders.” As you would imagine, United Methodists were divided on the wisdom of that Scouting policy change, as they are divided on every important issue linked to faith and sexuality. However, this story includes a crucial number:

As part of the resolution approved July 27, the Boy Scouts’ executive board also committed to indemnify and defend legally any religious chartered group against discrimination claims. Federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling in 2012, have ruled that religious bodies are free to set their own rules for choosing and dismissing leaders. …

More than 71 percent of Scout units are chartered to faith-based groups, reports Boy Scouts of America. The United Methodist Church is second only to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the number of congregations that host Boy Scouts of America units. The United Methodist Church also has the highest number of Cub Scouts, with an estimated 200,000 members.

So, 71 percent of all Scout units were, at that time, linked to faith-based groups, with the LDS ranked No. 1 and the United Methodists No. 2. And what about the Baptists? As of two years ago — when the Boy Scouts decided to accept girls who identify as boys — the Association of Baptists for Scouting (ABS) reported that it had nearly 2.3 million members. At that time, about 60 percent of the association’s members were Southern Baptists.

It would appear that it is hard to ponder Scouting’s future without considering the impact of the movement’s policies on sex and gender and its standing among religious groups — especially the United Methodists and various kinds of Baptists. And the believers formerly known as Mormons?

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Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Back in the fall of 1993, I made — believe it or not — my first-ever trip as an adult to New York City. I had covered many important news stories in American and around the world, but had never hit the Big Apple.

I stayed in a guest room at Union Theological Seminary, since I would be attending what turned out to be, for me, a pivotal religion-beat conference at the nearby Columbia University School of Journalism. But that’s another story for another day.

Here is the story for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which is linked this week’s Twitter explosion in which Union Seminary students confessed their environmental sins to some plants and sought forgiveness.

On that beautiful New York Sunday morning, I decided to head to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I was, at the time, an evangelical Episcopalian (with high-church sympathies) at I was trying to run into my wife’s favorite author — Madeleine L’Engle (click here for my tribute when she died). She was writer in residence at the cathedral, but later told me that she worshipped at an evangelical parish in the city.

Why did she do that? Well, in part because of services like the “Missa Gaia (Earth Mass)” I attended that Sunday. As I wrote later in a piece called “Liturgical Dances With Wolves”:

In the Kyrie, the saxophonist and his ensemble improvised to the taped cry of a timber wolf. A humpback whale led the Sanctus.

Skeptic Carl Sagan preached, covering turf from the joyful “bisexual embraces'' of earthworms to the greedy sins of capitalists. The earth, he stressed, is one body made of creatures who eat and drink each other, inhabit each other's bodies, and form a sacred “web of interaction and interdependence that embraces the planet.'' … The final procession was spectacular and included an elephant, a camel, a vulture, a swarm of bees in a glass frame, a bowl of blue-green algae and an elegantly decorated banana.

The key moment for me?

Before the bread and wine were brought to the altar, the musicians offered a rhythmic chant that soared into the cathedral vault. … “Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Ausar, ruler of Amenta, the realm of the ancestors. Praises to Ra and Ausar, rulers of the light and the resurrected soul.” …

Then the congregation joined in and everyone sang “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.' “

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