Republicans

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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Hey Axios: Americans are bitterly divided by news-media brands. Is this about politics, alone?

Hey Axios: Americans are bitterly divided by news-media brands. Is this about politics, alone?

This just in: More and more Americans are making media choices based on their political convictions.

Surprised? Who could be surprised by this news — in an important new Morning Consult poll — after a rising tide of acid in public life that has been getting worse year after year and decade after decade.

But here is the question I want to ask about this new poll, and the Axios report that pointed me to it: Is this trend linked to politics, alone?

Yes, Donald Trump and the whole “fake news” whipping post are important (#DUH). But if journalists dig into the roots of this growing divide at the heart of American public discourse they will hit disputes — many linked to religion and culture — that are much deeper than the shallow ink slick that is the Trump era.

Hold that thought.. Here is the top of the bite-sized, news you can use Axios report:

News media companies make up 12 of the 15 most polarizing brands in America today, according to a new Morning Consult poll provided to Axios media trends expert Sara Fischer.

— CNN and Fox News continue to be the most divisive news companies.

— Why it matters: The gap between how Republicans and Democrats view national media brands like CNN and Fox News continues to widen, according to the polling, which points to an increase in America's polarization.

Between the lines: The gap is being driven by substantial decreases in Republican approval of media brands other than Fox News. 

— The difference between how the two parties viewed CNN grew from a 66-point gap last year to an 80-point gap this year, due to a 12-point drop in net favorability among Republicans, from -13% to -25%.

Hear me say this: It is completely accurate to stress Trump’s role in all of this and for pollsters to push hard with questions about political party identity.

But does anyone doubt that researchers would have seen the same split it they had asked questions about third-trimester abortion, trigger-based speech codes on university campuses, the First Amendment rights of wedding-cake artists, government funding for trans treatments in the U.S. military and dozens of other questions that, for millions of Americans, are directly linked to religious doctrines?

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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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Just for fun: A look at journalism word games and RIP for The Weekly Standard

Just for fun: A look at journalism word games and RIP for The Weekly Standard

The Religion Guy Memo usually explores religion beat issues, tips of the trade, or stories and sources worth consideration.

But this non-religious item, just for fun, regards word games that journalists enjoy, including a farewell to a verbally clever magazine, The Weekly Standard. Actually, come to think of it, the Standard was a news-and-commentary magazine often paid close attention to religious and cultural trends.

The New Yorker’s obituary proclaimed the Standard to be America’s “most influential, and often the most interesting” conservative periodical. (Yes, The Guy also consumes ample liberal journalism.)

Most coverage blamed the weekly’s demise on its consistent criticisms of President Donald Trump. True, former editor William Kristol was an outspoken #NeverTrump voice. However, it’s more accurate to say TWS was favorable when the president backed its longstanding conservative or hawkish or Republican principles, and hostile on the numerous occasions when he did not.

Politics aside, The Guy hails the magazine’s original reporting alongside the usual thumbsucking, stylish authors, and its Lincoln-esque exploitation of humor, a cherished commodity amid drearily earnest and self-important political journalism.

We’ll miss the back page Parody and occasional Not A Parody, pungent Ramirez cartoons, devilish caricatures on the cover, and the continual ribbing of liberal cant, including squibs up front in The Scrapbook, e.g. the immortal “Articles We Tried Not to Read,” and “Sentences We Didn’t Finish.”

TWS should not vanish without also noting the astute cultural coverage, for instance a Dec. 24 disquisition on the word “schadenfreude.” The Dec. 10 edition served up this gem, an amusing 10-page history of proper word usage per the popular “American Heritage Dictionary” and its advisory panel. Author David Skinner was a panel member before the publisher abolished it “without ceremony” last February.

Back in 1961, elitists were aghast when the unbuttoned third edition of “Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged” radically reduced “slang” labels and abolished “colloquial.”

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Sen. Ben Sasse stands out politically, and religiously, in the post-election GOP

Sen. Ben Sasse stands out politically, and religiously, in the post-election GOP

When journalists have sifted through the tea leaves and the ashes left by campaign 2018, they'll doubtless be watching a singular Nebraskan, Sen. Ben Sasse, 46. He'll be the intellectual leader of Donald Trump-wary conservatives in Congress who embrace the Republicans' 1856-2015 heritage. Sasse will be up for re-election in 2020 (unless he retires).

Though a Republican or independent presidential run seems most unlikely, Sasse bids for a voice on the nation's future with his October book "Them," subtitled "Why We Hate Each Other -- and How to Heal" St. Martin's Press). Showing off his chops as a Yale Ph.D. in American history (his dissertation treated President Ronald Reagan and the "religious right"), Sasse analyzes massive disruptions in the economy and the culture that he says will continue to erode Americans' confidence and sense of shared purpose.

As a remedy, he proposes reviving old-fashioned local communities. He also wants Americans to shun destructive media and decries the partisan furies that characterize the Trump era, though the book barely mentions the president or their disagreements. He appeals for vigorous public policy debates that respect the dignity of opponents as fellow citizens. The book’s handling of religious liberty disputes is especially important.

Future media write-ups should emphasize that Sasse is also the most interesting evangelical Protestant in Congress. He previewed “Them” in a 2017 commencement address when The Guy’s daughter graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (for the good stuff, skip ahead to 9:40). Sasse also spoke that year to the Gospel Coalition and in 2016 at Westminster Seminary — California. And here’s what Sasse said on the Senate floor about #MeToo and Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Journalists will want to peruse his religiously-pitched 2016 interview with World, a Christian newsmagazine. Secular outlets have portrayed Sasse as sort of impressive but lamentably conservative, as in Mother Jones just before the 2016 election when Sasse declined to vote for Trump, slate.com in 2017 and Vanity Fair last month.

“Them” barely mentions a theme The Guy considers essential for a Sasse interview: What’s the role for religion, especially local congregations, in the healthy restored culture Sasse yearns for?

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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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That U.S. Senate race in Bible Belt Tennessee: What matters more, Trump or cultural issues?

That U.S. Senate race in Bible Belt Tennessee: What matters more, Trump or cultural issues?

Let’s see. What was going on in America before public discourse went totally bonkers, once again?

Oh, right. The mid-term elections are coming up, with Democrats hoping to win enough seats in the U.S. Senate to put Mike Pence in the White House.

To the shock of just about everyone here in the three cultures of Tennessee (think Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville), this Bible Belt state has a real, live U.S. Senate race on its hands in 2018. This is what happens when Democrats are willing to nominate an old-guard politico who has a track record as an economic centrist, back in the days before religious, moral and cultural issues took complete control of American politics.

On top of that, megastar Taylor Swift has even jumped into the fight, with a blunt endorsement of an old, white guy, saying he is the best way to defend Tennesseans from a female candidate’s conservative beliefs about gender and sexuality.

In other words, it’s absolutely impossible to talk about the Tennessee U.S. Senate race without talking about religion and culture.

So, how did The Washington Post political desk do in its recent feature — “In deep-red Tennessee, Republicans are anxious about the U.S. Senate race“ — on this topic? Here is the overture, with the lede set right here in my back yard:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jeanie Brakebill voted for President Trump. But when a conservative canvasser showed up at the 63-year-old’s door here recently, she confided that she had grown tired of Trump’s confrontational brand of politics and was leaning toward voting Democratic in the upcoming midterm election.

“I would vote for Bredesen, to help out Tennessee — even if it means giving Democrats the majority in the Senate,” said Brakebill, referring to Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen.

The sentiments expressed by Brakebill and voters like her have raised fresh worries for Republicans in this deep red state, which overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016 but where voters remain divided just weeks before a midterm election that could determine which party controls the Senate.

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