Pew Research

WABAC machine time again: Many Americans indifferent on politics? Ask different questions

WABAC machine time again: Many Americans indifferent on politics? Ask different questions

Wait! You mean all of America isn’t represented in the daily tsunami of acid that is political Twitter?

That’s the thesis of an interesting, but ultimately hollow, New York Times piece built on three days of Gray Lady representatives doing National Geographic-style heart-to-hearts with ordinary Americans who live in and around Scranton, Pa.

Why focus on this specific location, if the goal is to listen to the heart of America? Why, isn’t the logic — the political logic, that is — perfectly obvious? Here is the overture:

SCRANTON, Pa. — This hilly, green stretch of northeastern Pennsylvania is a critical front line in next year’s battle for control of the country. Donald J. Trump made huge gains among white working-class voters here, and Democrats want to win them back. Joe Biden, who was born here, can’t stop talking about it.

But just because Mr. Biden can’t stop talking about Scranton doesn’t mean everyone in Scranton is talking about Mr. Biden, the president, or politics at all. In three days of interviews here recently, many people said they were just scraping by and didn’t have a lot of patience for politics. Many said they didn’t follow the news and tried to stay out of political discussions, whether online or in person. National politics, they said, was practiced in a distant land by other people and had little effect on their lives.

This leads to this somber double-decker Times headline:

The America That Isn’t Polarized

Political institutions may be more divided than they’ve been in a century and a half, but how divided are Americans themselves?

So the goal is to learn why many average Americans are not as enraged about politics as are, well, New York Times editors and reporters who live on Twitter? Or think of it another way: Is this article, in part, a response to liberal and conservative critics (shout out to Liz Spayd, the Times public editor pushed out two years ago) who have complained that America’s most influential newsroom isn’t all that interested in covering half or more of America?

So what subjects were avoided in this epic piece? For starters, here are some terms that readers will not encounter as they work through it — “Supreme Court,” “God,” “abortion,” “schools,” “bathrooms” and, to probe recent fights among conservatives, “Drag queen story hour.”

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When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

Baylor University historian and Christian Century columnist Philip Jenkins set forth 21st Century prospects in his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” (Oxford University Press, 2002, updated 3rd edition 2011). His work underscores a theme that has become familiar to all religion specialists, the shift of Christianity’s center of population and power away from traditional Western Europe and North America toward the “Global South,” especially in Africa and Asia.

When time permits, journalists should consider updating that scenario — with accompanying graphics. If you need a local or regional news angle, check out the links to tensions inside the United Methodist Church.

Then, for a fresh global angle, focus on the implications if Christianity is supplanted by Islam as the world’s largest religion. That brings us to data recently posted by Pew Research Center’s Jeff Diamant (a former colleague covering the religion beat).

Pew estimates that as of 2015 there were 2,276,250,000 Christians globally, compared with 1,752,620,000 Muslims. Its projection for 2060 is that the totals will be nearly even, 3,054,460,000 versus 2,987,390,000. Flip that a couple percentage points and Islam would take the lead, and current trend lines suggest Islam could become number one at some point in our century. Birth rates play a key role in this drama.

Hold that thought.

Pew is one of two major players in world religion statistics. Another, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, projects for 2050 (not 2060) a slightly lower 2.7 billion for Muslims and significantly higher 3.4 billion for Christians. This even though CSGC figures that in this century’s first decade Islam was growing faster than Christianity, at 1.86 percent per year, as opposed to Christianity’s 1.31 percent (and a world population rate of 1.2 percent).

These two agencies of number-crunchers are friendly partners in some ventures but have some differences on method.

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Populist wave continues: Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to European elections

Populist wave continues: Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to European elections

Italians will go to the ballot box on May 26 to elect members of the country’s delegation to the European Parliament.

The vote — part of elections held across the European Union — will be another litmus test regarding Italy’s two populist political parties and whether they can withstand challenges from the left. What this latest electoral test will also do is reveal Italy’s love-hate relationship with the Catholic church.

The country’s Democratic Party, which holds a majority of seats, is likely to go down in defeat like it did in last year’s national elections. That’s where two populist parties, the League, which is on the right, and the Five-Star Movement, on the left, joined forces since neither had gained a majority in parliament.

The result? Matteo Salvini, who leads the League party, could take his anti-immigration stances to Brussels if opinion polls prove correct. His hardline stance on the issue has put him at odds with the Catholic church in Italy as well as with Pope Francis, who has repeatedly spoken in favor of refugees seeking asylum in Western Europe.

Like the Brexit fiasco, this clash has also divided Italians, where a majority remain Roman Catholic. However, a Pew Research study found that only 27 percent of Italian adults consider themselves “highly religious,” putting them in 13th place among Europeans. Nevertheless, Pew also found that Italy remains in first place in Western Europe when it comes to Christians who attend services regularly at 40 percent. That’s higher than Ireland (at 34%) and the United Kingdom (at just 18 percent).

Salvini, like President Donald Trump in the United States, has made closing the borders a priority since becoming Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Secretary. Last summer, Salvini ordered that ships containing migrants not dock at Italian ports. As a result, they were diverted to Spain, angering the European Union and the Catholic church. 

The European elections have also allowed Salvini to take his message outside of Italy’s boot-shaped borders in an attempt to create a pan-populist movement that puts it on a collision course with the continent’s Christian roots and the message emanating from the Holy See these days.

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Yet again, another take on those evangelicals and Donald Trump, this version from an insider   

Yet again, another take on those evangelicals and Donald Trump, this version from an insider   

Political reporters, pundits, and party strategists trying to understand U.S. evangelicals sometimes seem like David Livingstone or Margaret Mead scrutinizing an exotic jungle tribe they’ve stumbled upon. Analysts especially scratch heads on how those nice churchgoing Protestant folks could ever vote for a dissolute guy like Donald Trump. 

(Standard terminology note: In American political-speak, “Evangelicals” almost always means white evangelicals, because African-American Protestants, though often similar in faith, are so distinct culturally and politically.) 

That Trump conundrum is taken up yet again by a self-described “friendly observer/participant” with evangelicalism, Regent University political scientist A.J. Nolte. His school’s CEO, Pat Robertson, proclaimed candidate Trump “God’s man for the job.” Yet Nolte posted his point of view on Charlie Sykes’s thebulwark.com. This young site brands Trump “a serial liar, a narcissist and a bully, a con man who mocks the disabled and women, a man with no fixed principles who has the vocabulary of an emotionally insecure 9-year-old.” Don’t hold back, #NeverTrump folks.

Nolte, a Catholic University Ph.D. who belongs on your source list, did not vote for the president and remains “deeply Trump-skeptical.” He considers evangelicals’ bond with Trump  “unwise” in the long term and “almost certain to do more harm than good.” He thinks believers’ Trump support “is shallower and more conditional than it appears” and even muses about a serious primary challenge. The Religion Guy disputes that, but agrees with Nolte that evangelical women under 45 are the most likely to spurn the president next year. 

Nolte offers a nicely nuanced version of outsiders’ scenario that “existential fear” on religious-liberty issues drove Trump support in 2016 and still does.

Is this irrational?

Nolte says evangelicals have “a valid concern that religion and religious arguments will be pushed out of the public square altogether.”

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Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

Nostalgia for a journalistic golden age has gushed forth from an HBO documentary about New York City tabloid columnists Pete Hamill and the late Jimmy Breslin, combined with simultaneous obituaries about the era’s wry counterpart at The New York Times, Russell Baker.

It’s a pleasant distraction from current realities.

Pew Research data documents the “hollowing out” of the nation’s newsrooms, as lamented in the Memo last Nov. 15. Further developments require The Religion Guy to revisit the struggles in the news business.

Why? Let me state this sad reality once again: When times are tough, specialized beats like religion get hit first, and worst.

In just the past two weeks, a couple thousand media workers lost their jobs. The ubiquitous Gannett, known for eyeing the bottom line, enacted its latest round of layoffs even while facing a takeover threat from a colder-eyed print piranha. Particularly unnerving are the drawdowns at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Vice and Yahoo, because online operations were supposed to make enough money to offset jobs lost at declining “dead tree” newspapers and magazines.

As Farhad Manjoo commented in a New York Times column (“Why the Latest Layoffs Are Devastating to Democracy”), there’s a “market pathology” at work. Digital advertising is simply unable to fund hardly anything except “monopolistic tech giants.” And those big players are “dumping the news” in favor of easier ways to make money. Results: “slow-motion doom” and “a democratic emergency in the making, with no end in sight.”

All this occurs as a U.S. President emits unprecedented public hate toward reporters, with Main Stream Media outlets then taking the bait to become ever more hostile and partisan, thus sullying their stature.

On the MSM facts front, don’t miss Glenn Greenwald’s list of the “10 Worst, Most Embarrassing” blunders regarding Donald Trump and Russia. And my goodness did you see those lapses about First Lady Melania in the respected London Telegraph?!

Now along come two important insider accounts of what’s been going on across the industry: “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now” (Farrar, Straus) by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of Britain’s The Guardian, and “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts” (Simon & Schuster) by Jill Abramson, former Washington bureau chief and executive editor of the Times. Note that both of their dailies have fared relatively well in online competition.

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Will the 'God gap' persist on Nov. 6? What else should religion-news pros look for?

Will the 'God gap' persist on Nov. 6? What else should religion-news pros look for?

Election Day 2018 culminates the universally proclaimed “year of the woman” in American politics. The media will be totaling up victors among the unprecedented number of female candidates and checking whether exit polls show a Donald Trump-era widening of the “gender gap” between the customary majorities of women for Democrats and men for Republicans.

Except for pondering evangelicals’ GOP fealty, the media often ignore religious factors that sometimes rival or exceed the impact of that male-female divide.

This time around, will the usual religious alignments persist? Intensify? Reporters should include this in the agenda for post-election analyses.

The related “God gap” came to the fore in 2004 when Democrat John Kerry scored 62 percent with voters who said they never attended religious services vs. churchgoers’ lopsided support for Republican George W. Bush. (Through much of U.S. history there was little difference in basic religiosity between the two major parties, while Protestants leaned Republican and Catholics Democratic.) State-by-state exit polls are unlikely to ask about that and data won’t come till later.

Since 2004, religiously unaffiliated “nones” have increased substantially in polling numbers. Pew Research says they made up fully 28 percent of Democratic voters in the 2014 midterms, outpacing all religious blocs in the party's coalition. Democratic nones neatly balance out evangelicals’ perennial Republican enthusiasm, but pundits say it’s tough for Democrats to organize them on campaign support and turnout.

Now, something new may be occurring.

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With elections looming, let’s freshen up that old evangelicals-and-Trump theme

With elections looming, let’s freshen up that old evangelicals-and-Trump theme

Time for reporters who cover politics, or religion, or both, to start planning those big-picture election analyses.

If they’re like The Religion Guy, desks and files are all a-clutter with clippings about why oh why so many evangelicals voted for President Donald Trump and why so many still support him.

Pardon The Guy for once again griping about media neglect of why, oh why, non-Hispanic Catholics also helped deliver the states that gave Trump the White House. Exit polling showed Trump was backed by 81 percent of white evangelicals (with 40 percent casting those votes reluctantly), but also 60 percent of white Catholics.

These numbers are very close to both groups’ Republican support in 2012, but increases from white Catholics’ 52 percent and evangelicals’ 74 percent in 2008.

The fresh angle to exploit is accumulating evidence of broad change across America, with today’s Trumpublican Party as a mere symptom. Presumably Nov. 6 will tell us more about alienated white Americans who resent elitists in education, economics and cultural influence. Here’s some material journalists should ponder.

Recall that in 2012 Charles Murray analyzed five decades of data in “Coming Apart: The State of White America” to profile the growing gap in behavior and values between a thriving upper class that he contrasted with an emerging lower class that suffers eroding family and community life, religion included.

That same year, University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and colleagues issued a less-noticed but important academic study on the decline of religious and family life for the white working class, under the snappy headline “No Money, No Honey, No Church.”

In April, 2017, pundit Peter Beinart wrote a prescient piece for The Atlantic titled “Breaking Faith.” He contended that a secularized America with so many citizens lacking involvement in religious groups (yes, that much-discussed rise of the “nones”) means many identify the politics of “us” versus “them” in increasingly “primal and irreconcilable ways.”

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Thinking about America's new sort-of-civil war: Dividing lines are politics, religion and ...

Thinking about America's new sort-of-civil war: Dividing lines are politics, religion and ...

Yes, it's the "Jesusland" map again.

With good cause. Trust me on that.

I can't think of a better illustration, when it comes to the following must-read think piece by David French, one of our nation's most important #NeverTrump cultural conservatives.

But first, if you never read his National Review piece describing the alt-right's war on his family, because of his opposition to the candidacy of Donald Trump, then read it now. Here is the unforgettable first sentence: "I distinctly remember the first time I saw a picture of my then-seven-year-old daughter’s face in a gas chamber."

Now he is back, with a think piece about the bitter, growing, divisions at the heart of America's alleged public life. This piece -- "We’re Not in a Civil War, but We Are Drifting Toward Divorce" -- contains so many must-booknote URLs and Big Ideas linked to religion news that I hardly know where to start or stop. You know how it is when a book hits you so hard that you basically highlight 90 percent of its contents, turning it into a sea of yellow patches?

The big idea: 

Our national political polarization is by now so well established that the only real debate is over the nature of our cultural, political, and religious conflict. Are we in the midst of a more or less conventional culture war? Are we, as Dennis Prager and others argue, fighting a kind of “cold” civil war? Or are we facing something else entirely?
I’d argue that we face “something else,” and that something else is more akin to the beginning stages of a national divorce than it is to a civil war.

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