Pew Forum

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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BBC asks: What is the future of religion? Does organized religion have a future?

BBC asks: What is the future of religion? Does organized religion have a future?

THE QUESTION:

This cosmic theme is raised by a British Broadcasting Corporation article under the headline, “Tomorrow’s Gods: What is the Future of Religion?”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In its early history the BBC (born in 1927, the year of the U.S. Radio Act) was nicknamed “Auntie” for its comforting, old-style tone. But The Beeb goes futuristic in a current online series that takes “the long view of humanity.” An August article offered the forecast about  religion (click here).

Writer Sumit Paul-Choudhury, former editor-in-chief of the New Scientist magazine, notes that religions ebb and flow across eons.

The Parsees’ religion originated with Zarathustra (a.k.a. Zoroaster) in roughly the era of the ancient Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. The faith  had millions of followers in the Persian Empire’s heyday but today counts only 60,000. Christians began as a tiny Jewish sect, spread through the Roman Empire, and today are found  most everywhere and practice the world’s largest religion.

Rather than seeing religions as providing spiritual truths and essential morality, Paul-Choudhury leans toward the “functionalist” theory by which creeds evolved to provide social cohesion. Think Karl Marx, who deemed religion the “opium of the masses.” As clans and tribes gave way to large and diverse nations, people were able to coexist through devotion to “Big Gods,” and so forth.

Importantly, this BBC writer foresees a bleak future. Growing numbers “say they have no religion at all. We obey laws made and enforced by governments, not by God. Secularism is on the rise, with science providing tools to understand and shape the world. Given all that, there’s a growing consensus that the future of religion is that it has no future.”

Thinkers have been promoting that same consensus since the 17th and 18th Century “Enlightenment.”

A special problem hampered religions during the past century, he briefly acknowledges. Nations like Soviet Russia and China “adopted atheism as state policy and frowned on even private religious expression.”

Frowned”?

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From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

I do not go out of my way, as a rule, to praise the religion-beat work of one of my former students in the old Washington Journalism Center (which has now evolved into the New York City Journalism semester at The King’s College).

But it’s time to break that rule.

I say that because of a feature story by Katherine Burgess — a name to watch on the religion beat — that ran at The Memphis Commercial Appeal. The headline: “Bishop Mason built COGIC out of revival, the faith of former slaves.

In roughly 40 years of religion-beat work, I know of no organization that is harder to cover than the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). As a result, this massive Pentecostal flock receives way less coverage than it deserves. I don’t think the denomination’s leaders are hostile to the press (although I have encountered one or two who were), but they certainly do not seek out the attention.

How many news-consumers in West Tennessee, white and black, know the history of this important institution or even know that it is based in their region? Thus, Burgess needed to start at the beginning, with the story of one man:

He preached in living rooms, in the woods and in a cotton gin.

When he returned from the Azusa Street Revival speaking in unknown tongues, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason was followed by just 10 churches out of more than 100 in the split over the theological disagreement.

Today, the denomination founded by Mason, the son of former slaves, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, with more than 6.5 million members.

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2012 flashback: Pollster John C. Green's prophecy -- sort of -- about Democratic debates in 2019

2012 flashback: Pollster John C. Green's prophecy -- sort of -- about Democratic debates in 2019


When news consumers think about politics and religion, they probably think about the clout that evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics have in the post-Ronald Reagan Republican Party.

Can you say “81 percent”? I knew that you could.

There is a very good reason for this state of mind in the news-consuming public. Many (perhaps most) journalists in elite American zip codes have always viewed the Religion Right as the modern version of the vandals sacking Rome. Thus, that is THE religion-and-politics story of the age.

What about the Democrats? What about the evidence of a “pew gap” (active religious believers tend to back the GOP, whether they want to or not) that hurts the Democrats in the American heartland?

It is very rare to see coverage of this kind of story, other than the evergreen (1) rise of the Religious Left news reports or maybe stories about (2) Democrats making new attempts to court people in pews.

In this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — we focused on a recent New York Times piece about the three major divisions inside the Democratic Party, right now, and the role that religion is playing in that drama. This was a follow-up to my recent post: “Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor.”

Before we get to that, check out the top of this interesting news report about the Democrats and their recent debates. Doesn’t the point of view here sound strange?

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Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor

Thinking about modern Democrats: There are three kinds and religion may be a crucial factor

As a rule, your GetReligionistas do not post critiques — positive or negative — about opinion pieces in the mainstream press. The exceptions usually run on weekends, when we point readers to “think pieces” and essays on topics linked to religion-news work.

Every now and then, however, a think piece comes along that does a better job of handling an important news topic than most of the “hard news” pieces on the same or similar topics.

In this case, we are talking about the many, many debates we will be seeing in the weeks and months ahead as Democratic Party leaders attempt to thin out the field of 666 or so candidates who want the right to run against Donald Trump in 2020.

That brings me to a very important New York Times piece that ran the other day — written by Thomas B. Edsall — under this wordy, but important headline:

The Democratic Party Is Actually Three Parties

They have different constituents and prefer different policies. Satisfying them all will not be easy.

Now, it is impossible, these days, to talk about divisions in the American political marketplace without running into controversial issues linked to religion, morality and culture. Can you say religious liberty? Oh, sorry, I meant “religious liberty.”

Obviously, one of these Democratic armies is the world of “woke” folks on Twitter. Then you have the left-of-center party establishment. And then you have the world of “moderates” and conservative Democrats, who still — believe it or not — exist. You can see evidence of that in recent GetReligion posts about the fault lines inside the Democratic Party on subjects linked to abortion.

Here is Edsall’s overture, which is long — but essential:

Democratic Party voters are split. Its most progressive wing, which is supportive of contentious policies on immigration, health care and other issues, is, in the context of the party’s electorate, disproportionately white. So is the party’s middle group of “somewhat liberal” voters. Its more moderate wing, which is pressing bread-and-butter concerns like jobs, taxes and a less totalizing vision of health care reform, is majority nonwhite, with almost half of its support coming from African-American and Hispanic voters.

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Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

Hazel Motes, do not pray for us

The topic should be catnip for any journalist writing about religion: creating a church without God is hard work and sometimes the idea fails.

But Faith Hill’s report for The Atlantic (“They Tried to Start a Church Without God. For a While, It Worked”) does not deliver well, not least because her angle is more about components than convictions. It’s like reading an economist’s insights into romantic poetry.

Hill starts well enough by making the report personal. We meet Justina Walford, who has left the faith of her childhood, but misses the experience of church. But even here the problems in Hill’s reporting arise quickly: she describes Walford as once being “deeply religious,” but losing her interest because of “overseas travel that made her question how any one religious community could have a monopoly on truth.”

This is nearly robotic language to describe a now-lost belief in and engagement with God. The problem is just as bad when Hill tries to convey the purported advantage that traditional churches have compared to their God-free alternatives:

According to data from the latest version of the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual “American Values Atlas,” 25 percent of Americans today are religiously unaffiliated, up from single digits in the 1990s. Among young people, that number is 39 percent. Those numbers describe not just a retreat from organized religion, but also an erosion of community.Many faith congregations have acted as social anchors in their areas, providing a place to see and be seen by the same friendly faces each week. …

In New York and elsewhere, the basic mechanics of keeping a congregation running have proved difficult. To hire musicians and speakers, buy refreshments, and rent out a venue takes a lot of money. A traditional Church has tithings — but leaders of secular communities have found that attendees are highly suspicious of any plea for donations. Many lapsed believers harbor strong negative associations with the collection plate.

“Faith congregations,” “tithings,” “attendees” — this is a foreign dialect. And it’s an undisputed reality that except when tithing is mandatory, it is a minority phenomenon and hardly the basis of an abundant annual income. 

Maybe the narration improves when Hill turns to the challenges faced by the pioneers of God-free mass meetings? Yeah, not so much:

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Daily Beast shocker: The Rev. Mariano Rivera is (#EndOfTheWorld) a Pentecostal minister

Daily Beast shocker: The Rev. Mariano Rivera is (#EndOfTheWorld) a Pentecostal minister

There are few people in the sports world who are universally acknowledged as the Greatest Of All Time at what they do. However, the pros who cast Baseball Hall of Fame ballots made it clear — with a first-ever unanimous vote — who is the GOAT when it comes to cutting down opposing batters in the ninth inning.

That, of course, would be Mariano Rivera, the legendary closer for the New York Yankees.

That would also be the man known as the Rev. Mariano Rivera, the Pentecostal minister who renovated a 107-year-old church sanctuary in New Rochelle, N.Y., to become Refugio de Esperanza, or Refuge of Hope Church. While his wife — the Rev. Clara Rivera — serves as pastor, the former Yankee great is also ordained.

If you know anything about Rivera, you know that he has never been shy about discussing his faith (see this New York Daily News piece in 2011). His Hall of Fame acceptance speech was not a sermon, but it was full of references to Christian faith.

This is where things get tricky. Truth be told, Pentecostal Christians believe many things that would turn a lot of elite-market journalists into pillars of salt (it’s a biblical thing). Quite a few Pentecostal beliefs are considered unusual, even strange, by middle of the road Christians. And some forms of Pentecostalism are seen as more extreme than others. Oh, and “Pentecostalism” and “Evangelicalism” are not the same things.

Are you ready for the shocking part of this equation? Some Pentecostal beliefs have political implications. For example, a high percentage of Pentecostal people can accurately be called “Christian Zionists,” as that term is now defined. Many people think Christian Zionists back Israel for all of the wrong reasons.

By all means, there are valid news stories to report about these topics — if the goal is to understand the life and work of Mariano Rivera. The question, today, is whether an advocacy publication like The Daily Beast can handle this kind of nuanced religion-beat work, especially in the Donald Trump era.

You see, for editors at the Beast, Rivera’s religious faith is only important to the degree that it is political. That belief led to this headline: “Inside Baseball Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera’s Far-Right Politics.” Here is the crucial thesis material near the top of this advocacy piece:

For countless fans, Rivera is baseball royalty — an idol, worshipped for his on-field dominance, deadly mastery of a cut fastball, and pinpoint control.

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Pew gap 2020: Thinking about Emma Green, sad Trump voters and woke wing of Democratic Party

Pew gap 2020: Thinking about Emma Green, sad Trump voters and woke wing of Democratic Party

As the 2020 White House race draws closer, I think I hear a familiar train a comin’. Or maybe it’s this slow train, coming up around the bend. I’ve already bought my new political t-shirt for the months ahead.

Whatever you want to call it, the train that’s coming is more and more coverage of Donald Trump and his white evangelical voters — both enthusiastic supporters and reluctant ones. It’s the same train that so many mainstream journalists spotted in 2016, but never took the time to understand (or were unwilling to make that effort, for some strange reason).

The bottom line: They thought the whole “81 percent” thing was a story about the Republican Party and the Republican Party, alone.

As for me, I keep thinking about all the church-goin’ people that I know who really, really, really do not want to vote for Trump. Yet they hear the train a comin’, since they remain worried about all those familiar issues linked to the First Amendment, abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court, etc. (Click here for my breakdown on the various evangelical voting camps in the Trump era.)

So what is happening on the Democratic Party side of this story?

That brings me to a short, but important, essay by Emma Green (she’s everywhere, these days) that ran at The Atlantic Monthly website with this headline: “Pete Buttigieg Takes Aim at Religious Hypocrisy.” It starts you know where:

On the debate stage, Buttigieg gave voice to a view that has become common among Democratic voters: Many of Trump’s policies, along with his conduct as president, do not reflect Christian values. “The Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” Buttigieg said. “We should call out hypocrisy when we see it.”

Many religious conservatives, of course, agree with that statement, that Trump’s conduct doesn’t “reflect Christian values.” His policies? That’s a bizarre, very mixed bag, for most religious conservatives that I know.

Back to Green:

This has been a theme throughout Buttigieg’s campaign. The mayor has spoken openly about his religious faith and rallied religious rhetoric to his advantage: This spring, he called out Mike Pence for his opposition to same-sex marriage, saying, “Your quarrel, sir, it is with my creator.”

This is a departure from the usual playbook for the Democratic Party.

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