National Council of Churches

Grab a company charge card: What religion reference works belong in newsroom libraries?

Grab a company charge card: What religion reference works belong in newsroom libraries?

My May 30 Memo proclaimed the third edition of the “World Christian Encyclopedia," due next year, as a “must-buy” for media organizations because it will provide current overviews and statistics about each religious group in each country on earth, and much else.

This time around, The Guy proposes other religion works media shops savvy enough to maintain reference libraries should have on hand for unexpected breaking news as well as timeless features. Writers might want some items in their personal collections. The following covers print, but some e-editions are available.

Basics

The first essential is a couple comprehensive one-volume encyclopedias or dictionaries describing all world religions, as issued by several reliable publishers. You’ll also want the hefty ($215!) “Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.”

Save money by using a good public or college library for the multi-volume encyclopedias on religion, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaica, Islam, etc. However, via amazon.com you could get the 1987 “Encyclopedia of Religion” for only $275. (Publishers: We really need a 21st Century equivalent of James Hastings’ less abstract “Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics” from 1913!)  

Acquire similar one-volume reference books on Catholicism and Judaism, which on some matters can be supplemented by century-old, multi-volume encyclopedias online here and here. For Protestantism, there’s the latest “Handbook of Denominations in the United States” and more comprehensive one-volume “Encyclopedia of Protestantism.” For Islam, get John Esposito’s dictionary and/or Cyril Glasse’s one-volume encyclopedia. For other world faiths, if those overview volumes do not suffice  tap experts as needed.  

 Baylor professor Gordon Melton compiles the remarkable “Encyclopedia of American Religions,” pretty much mandatory for describing gazillion offbeat sects you’ve never heard of.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

RNS: Religious Left rallies to stop Kavanaugh. Religious Right sitting this one out?

RNS: Religious Left rallies to stop Kavanaugh. Religious Right sitting this one out?

Let’s have a short religion-beat test.

When a story is built on media contacts with the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists, you are really with what part of the cultural and doctrinal part of the marketplace of American religion?

(Cue the think music)

I see that hand on a religion-news desk! These are outspoken churches on the Religious Left. The United Church of Christ is the elite flock that was home to President Barack Obama.

Now, would you be surprised to find out, on cultural issues, group’s such as the National Council of Churches, the National Council of Jewish Women and Muslim networks linked to the pink-hat Women’s March hail from the same basic zip code, in terms of moral, social and religious issues?

Now, what else do these groups have in common? Well, they are all, to be blunt, they are all tiny, in terms of the size of their flocks. However, they have lots of connections in the media-rich Acela Zone between Washington, D.C., and New York City. Odds are, when you see headlines that say “Religious groups” gather to protest this, that or the other, you are talking about these groups, often accompanied by progressive Catholic nuns dressed in pant suits.

What’s my point? Well, it is not that reporters should avoid covering them. GetReligion has been calling for increased coverage of the Religious Left — especially on religious issues, not just political issues — since we went online in 2004.

No, liberal believers matter. However, experienced reporters know that these groups are small and that portraying them as diverse, influential groups that represent mainline Christianity is, well, just about as fair as saying First Baptist Church, Dallas, and Liberty University are perfect voices for all of American evangelicalism.

That brings us to a very normal Religion News Service story with this headline: “After Senate clash, Kavanaugh nomination an occasion for prayer.” The overture:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

News mystery: Why so little interest in 'mainline' Protestants' liberal politicking?

News mystery: Why so little interest in 'mainline' Protestants' liberal politicking?

The dominant religion theme in the U.S. news media across the past two years, without question, has been political fealty to Donald Trump and his works among grassroots evangelical Protestants and a like-minded coterie of old-guard clergy celebrities.   

In the same period, “mainline” Protestant groups have been ardent in politicking for leftward and anti-Trump causes, perhaps even moreso than with the typical evangelical congregation.

You would barely know this, if at all, from reading or viewing most news media reports.  

Take the United Methodist Church (UMC), America’s second-largest Protestant body with 7.7 million members and millions more in overseas jurisdictions. Yes, the UMC is much in the news but only regarding its internal doctrinal dispute over whether to liberalize LGBTQ policy, per last week’s Guy Memo

UMC proclamations come from the General Board of  Church and Society, whose office hard by Capitol Hill is more than strangely warmed (to quote John Wesley) about President Donald Trump. The board has issued repeated directives urging churchgoers to phone or e-mail protests against Trump's actions to members of the House and Senate. (Years ago its former leader Jim Winkler, now National Council of Churches president, called for impeachment of President George W. Bush, a fellow Methodist, over his war policy.)        

Recently, U.S. religious bodies across the board denounced the Trump policy, now  rescinded, of separating “undocumented” immigrants from their children. But the UMC went further, urging funding cuts for immigration enforcement and border protection, and an immediate halt to all arrests and detentions of undocumented border-crossers.

The Methodists were aggrieved at the U.S. Supreme Court for upholding Trump’s travel ban against seven nations, five of them majority Muslim. Rejecting the court’s reasoning and the government’s national-security rationale, the church charged that the policy “institutionalizes Islamophobia, religious intolerance, and racism.”  


Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Newsworthy poll numbers from ABC News and The Washington Post, which combine 5,017 interviewees during 2017, say self-identified “evangelical or born again” white Protestants have slumped to a mere 13 percent of U.S. adults. That compares with 21 percent for “nones” who lack any religious affiliation.

Americans With No Religion Greatly Outnumber White Evangelicals,” New York magazine’s headline proclaimed. If so, that would be political dynamite due to evangelicals’ importance for the Republican coalition and Democrats’ growing dependence on “nones.”

Now, let's be skeptical for a moment -- like journalists. 

Mysteriously, 13 percent is well below counts in other recent polls, so journos ought to dig into whose numbers are best and why.

The 21 percent for “nones” closely tracks other surveys. However, two experts would argue that the “With No Religion” claim in the hed above is misleading. They are Todd Johnson and assistant Gina Zurlo who lead the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC), at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Zurlo is also a researcher with Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.

In the 2016 academic compendium “Sociology of Atheism,” Zurlo and Johnson spent 24 pages analyzing “nones.” One main point was that in the U.S., at least, those who list no affiliation or call their religious identification “nothing in particular” often hold to beliefs or practices -- only minus membership. They include “spiritual but not religious” seekers and young free-floating evangelicals who shun institutional commitments.

The key: This article distinguishes between the unaffiliated and fully non-religious atheists and agnostics. It also explains pitfalls in overseas polling.

Johnson, Zurlo, and other CSGC colleagues are a go-to source for religious statistics that are used in standard reference works, and for interpretation of them. Their regularly updated World Christian Database, newly spiffed up this year, exploits every imaginable source for past, present and future numbers for each religious and ethnic group in 234 nations and territories, alongside ample backgrounding.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

A religiously intriguing lawyer joins Trump defense team as a key adversary exits  

A religiously intriguing lawyer joins Trump defense team as a key adversary exits  

The addition of controversial attorney Jay Sekulow to President Donald Trump’s defense team is a wide-open invitation for journalistic personality stories. By all accounts, Sekulow, 61, is among America’s most zealous -- and effective -- religious litigators. He also hosts a daily radio show and has become an omnipresent Trump advocate on other media. 

Early coverage on his appointment left unexplored territory on the religion aspects of the sort noted by The Forward, the venerable liberal Jewish newspaper whose print and online editions reach a broad readership. Then The Washington Post published a June 27 jaw-dropper on Sekulowian finances.

More on money in a moment. If The Forward’s treatment seemed harsh, that’s certainly predictable. Sekulow has been in the middle of many social issues that are considered “conservative” while the paper has traditionally embraced socialists and liberal Democrats.

Moreover, Sekulow was raised in Reform Judaism, but became a “Messianic Jew” (that is, an evangelical Protestant of Jewish ethnicity) during college years at Mercer University, where he later earned his law degree. After work as a trial attorney for the IRS and a business lawyer in Atlanta, in 1990 he became chief counsel for the new American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson.  

Like Trump’s top lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, Sekulow is no expert in the Washington, D.C., quicksand the President finds himself in. But he’s battle-hardened, having argued 12 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in his religion specialization. Early on, Sekulow grasped that federal judges are less than ardent supporters of religious freedom claims and switched to a civil liberties strategy exploiting other Bill of Rights guarantees, winning for instance a 1987 Supreme Court OK for airport pamphlet distribution by Jews for Jesus.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

New York Times offers solid Religious Left update, with skewed headline that's LOL territory

New York Times offers solid Religious Left update, with skewed headline that's LOL territory

Every now and then, newspapers need to go out of their way to correct errors found in headlines, but not in stories.

This would, for example, help news consumers understand that headlines -- 99.9 percent of the time -- are written by copy-desk editors who do not consult with the professionals who actually reported, wrote and edited the story in question.

My first full-time job in journalism was working as a copy editor -- laying out news pages, doing final edits and, yes, writing headlines. It's hard work and you rarely have time to visit the newsroom for debates with reporters about the wording of headlines.

Anyway, one of the big religion-beat stories of the weekend ran at The New York Times with this double-decker headline: 

Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years. Now They Want in the Game.
Faith leaders whose politics fall to the left of center are getting more involved in politics to fight against President Trump’s policies

That top line is simply wrong. Anyone who has worked the religion beat in recent decades knows that it is wrong -- wrong as in factually wrong.

Read carefully, and note that the headline does not accurately state the primary thesis by religion-beat veteran Laurie Goodstein in this summary material up top:

Across the country, religious leaders whose politics fall to the left of center, and who used to shun the political arena, are getting involved -- and even recruiting political candidates -- to fight back against President Trump’s policies on immigration, health care, poverty and the environment.
Some are calling the holy ruckus a “religious resistance.” Others, mindful that periodic attempts at a resurgence on the religious left have all failed, point to an even loftier ambition than taking on the current White House: After 40 years in which the Christian right has dominated the influence of organized religion on American politics -- souring some people on religion altogether, studies show -- left-leaning faith leaders are hungry to break the right’s grip on setting the nation’s moral agenda.

I would question one piece of that statement. When did religious progressives (defined in terms of doctrine) ever "shun the political arena"?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Hey reporters: Is a more active Religious Left a sign of a growing Religious Left?

Hey reporters: Is a more active Religious Left a sign of a growing Religious Left?

Your GetReligionistas have long argued that the mainstream press doesn't pay enough attention to the Religious Left. In fact, I wish that the Associated Press stylebook team could help us all get consistent on the question of whether -- as with the term Religious Right -- it's "religious left" or "Religious Left." I vote for the second option.

Also, anyone who dug into the details of the famous "Nones on the Rise" materials from the Pew Forum realizes that religion-beat pros need to change our thinking about who is in the Religious Left, these days.

You see, it's not enough to focus on the declining numbers of people in liberal Christian and Jewish pews. That story is still important, and worthy of coverage, but it's old. Journalists really need to think of the new Religious Left as a growing coalition of atheists, agnostics, "Nones" and then doctrinally liberal Christians and Jews. When it comes to hot-button religious, cultural and moral issues this is the coalition that stands together. We will come back to that.

I bring this up because of some interesting passages in the main Religion News Service story about the Women's March in Washington, D.C. (Click here for Julia Duin's wrap-up of other angles linked to that important event.)

The first hint of what is coming is this:

Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist, they rejected the notion that the conservative religious people successfully courted by Trump -- out in force on the National Mall for his inauguration Friday -- represent the only voice of religious America.

But here was the start of the main block of material on this topic:

Andy Miller said his Judaism brought him to Washington Saturday.

Please respect our Commenting Policy