Rust Belt

Religion ghosts? New York Times says America's biggest economic issue is demographic decline

Religion ghosts? New York Times says America's biggest economic issue is demographic decline

Things were looking good for the Episcopal Church in 1966, when its membership hit 3.6 million — an all-time high. Then the numbers began to decline, year after year and decade after decade. At the moment, there are 1.6 million or so Episcopalians.

Why is this happening? Episcopal Church leaders have been asked that question many times, because it’s a valid and important question.

No one has ever given a more concise — bold, even — answer than the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, when she said down for a “State of the Church” chat with the New York Times Magazine soon after her 2006 election as national presiding bishop. Here is the crucial exchange:

How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children? 

No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

In other words, her critics said, Episcopalians are too smart to have lots of babies (unlike Catholics and Latter-day Saints) and, besides, most members of this flock have theological reasons not to procreate.

What we have here is a classic example of the formula that I keep writing about here at GetReligion, which I state this way, offering a third factor to a familiar equation: Doctrine equals demographics equals destiny.

That brings me to this new headline at the Times:

America’s Biggest Economic Challenge May Be Demographic Decline

Slower growth in the working-age population is a problem in much of the country. Could targeted immigration policy help solve it?

Here is the rather sobering overture:

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Pew Research: There've been three significant religious shifts in U.S. politics since 1994

Pew Research: There've been three significant religious shifts in U.S. politics since 1994

The latest Pew Research Center survey amalgamates (that's our word of the day) 257 surveys over 23 years about the  political alignments of some 350,000 U.S. registered voters, with important data on gender and other demographics.

We also find valuable context for religion reporters covering political dynamics, and for political reporters covering religious dynamics. Rather than lumping all Protestants and Catholics together, Pew’s data carefully distinguish between the two main and very different Protestant camps, white “mainline” vs. “evangelical,” and between white non-Hispanic Catholics and the politically distinct Hispanics who are now 34 percent of U.S. Catholics.

The following numbers will compare January of 1994, the year Republicans regained control of the U.S. House after a 40-year drought, with last December, the end of Donald Trump’s first year as president. The percentages combine those who identify with a political party with those who “lean” that way.

For Democrats, some patterns are stable. Black Protestants’ overwhelming support rose a notch, from 82 percent to 87 percent. Hispanic Catholics’ Democratic affinity slipped from 69 percent to 64 percent. Jews’ loyalty was virtually unchanged at 69 percent vs. the current 67 percent.

White "mainline” Protestants are split between the parties, with Republican support edging up a bit, from 50 percent in 1994 to the current 53 percent. Mormons’ strong Republicanism (a major irony in 19th Century terms) was 80 percent during the 1994 sweep but sagged to 72 percent last December, presumably reflecting some distaste toward Mr. Trump.

This brings us to the three big shifts that will shape national and state elections in 2018 and beyond.

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The Atlantic probes dark fears of working-class America (without asking moral questions)

The Atlantic probes dark fears of working-class America (without asking moral questions)

As a rule, your GetReligionistas appreciate the think pieces that The Atlantic runs focusing on religion topics. This is especially true when these longish features include lots and lots of solid reporting, as opposed to chattering-class people thinking out loud about wonkish things.

See, for example, the cries of hosannah the other day from our own Bobby Ross, Jr., in a post called: "Choose your superlative, but The Atlantic's deep dive on Islamic State radicalization is a must read." That was a classic magazine news feature.

Now we have a think piece from The Atlantic about the 2016 (Cue: Theme From Jaws) campaign that offers some survey data that sheds new light on those stunning Rust Belt wins by Donald Trump, which put him (for now) in the White House. The double-decker headline sets the scene, and then some:

It Was Cultural Anxiety That Drove White, Working-Class Voters to Trump
A new study finds that fear of societal change, not economic pressure, motivated votes for the president among non-salaried workers without college degrees

From my point of view, the key to the story is this: What, precisely, is meant by terms such as "cultural anxiety" and the "fear of societal change"?

Mainstream media orthodoxy would insist that these terms refer to xenophobia, radical nationalism and racism. The big issue, in this case, would be immigration.

Sure enough, this essay includes numbers that certainly point to immigration being a major issue for folks living in white, blue-collar, labor households. But is there something else in there? After all, this piece was written by religion-beat specialist Emma Green.

Thus, it is safe to assume that there may be a religion ghost or two in here somewhere. Let's look for clues in this summary material:

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Who penned this satire gem? Democrats in U.S. Senate or editors at The Politico?

Who penned this satire gem? Democrats in U.S. Senate or editors at The Politico?

All of us have social-media buttons that our friends know how to push to get us to click this or that link, to forward this or that item, to pull out of our email haze and to PAY ATTENTION.

For me, one of the most magic phrases in the world is "Not The Onion." This is especially true when the item is sent by GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc, whose sense of humor has a similar laugh-to-keep-from-crying twist as my own.

But in this case, when I saw the headline, I had my doubts.

This was supposed to be a short story from The Politico. But the whole tone of the thing was just so dry and understated and, well, surreal. How could this not be from The Onion or even the Babylon Bee?

Are you ready? Here is what has to be the first nomination for the Not The Onion headline of 2017:

Democrats hold lessons on how to talk to real people

Alas, there is no second line to this masterpiece of a headline. After all, it would be hard to top the excellence of that first line.

I also liked the fact that the story was so short and that it ignored so many obvious "real people" topics. Yes, like religion and culture. It was like no one in the room had ever even heard of books such as "What's the Matter with Kansas?" or "Hillbilly Elegy."

Once again, life is all about politics and money and that is that. Here is the brilliantly boring opening of the piece:

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Parade of 2016 yearenders: tmatt tweaks the official RNA poll results, saying ...

Parade of 2016 yearenders: tmatt tweaks the official RNA poll results, saying ...

While Donald Trump's crusade to win the White House was the top story of 2016, journalists in the Religion News Association saluted the brash billionaire's opponents by giving their top honor to the Muslim parents who made headlines by denouncing him.

Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who died in Iraq, shared the Religion Newsmaker of the Year honor. The Khans made a dramatic Democratic National Convention appearance to proclaim that Trump's proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the country would be unconstitutional.

The RNA description of the annual poll's No. 1 story stressed that Trump received "strong support from white Christians, especially evangelicals. … Many were alarmed by his vilifying Muslims and illegal immigrants and his backing from white supremacists. GOP keeps majorities in Congress."

The No. 2 story continued: "Post-election assaults and vandalism target Muslims and other minorities. Some assailants cite Donald Trump's victory as validation. Critics denounce the appointment of Stephen Bannon as White House strategist over his ties to white supremacists." News related to Trump appeared in three other RNA Top 10 stories.

While white evangelical votes were crucial, I would have stressed two other religion trends linked to Trump's stunning win.

The first was captured in a mid-summer Christianity Today headline that, citing Pew Research Center polling, stated, "Most Evangelicals Will Vote Trump, But Not For Trump." Pew found that more than half of white evangelicals were upset about 2016 White House options and said their aim was to defeat Hillary Clinton, not support Trump.

Election Night plot twists also showed that Clinton lost because she lacked support from Rust Belt working-class Democrats, many from Catholic, labor-union homes that twice backed President Barack Obama.

The RNA Top 10 selections did not include items linked to bitter battles over religious liberty, Obama White House orders on transgender rights or the Supreme Court opening caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

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RNA poll: Trump dominates 2016, but was not (#Really) Religion Newsmaker of the Year

RNA poll: Trump dominates 2016, but was not (#Really) Religion Newsmaker of the Year

So when did Citizen Donald Trump win the White House? 

You could make a case that it was when Hillary Rodham Clinton kept going to see the musical "Hamilton" over and over, rather than taking her husband's advice and making a few campaign trips to visit with angry working-class, labor-union Catholic families in the deeply depressed corners of Rust Belt states like Wisconsin and Michigan.

Or maybe the key moment in the cultural earthquake that topped this year's Religion News Association Top 10 religion-stories poll -- the subject of this week's Crossroads podcast -- actually took place in 2015.

That's what David Bernstein argued in a Washington Post analysis that ran with this headline: "The Supreme Court oral argument that cost Democrats the presidency." He argued that the crucial moment in this campaign took place on April 28, 2015, during debates at the U.S. Supreme Court (.pdf transcript here) that led to the 5-4 decision on the Obergefell same-sex marriage case.

JUSTICE ALITO:  Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­ exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­sex marriage?
GENERAL VERRILLI: You know, I, I don't think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it's certainly going to be an issue. I, I don't deny that. I don't deny that, Justice Alito.  It is, it is going to be an issue.

From that moment on, argued Bernstein, it was clear that -- for millions of doctrinally conservative religious believers in various faiths -- the future of the Supreme Court and the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause was going to be the No. 1 issue in the 2016 presidential race. I totally agree with his take on that. Hold that thought.

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Trump and the media meltdown: Have elite journalists spotted any religion ghosts yet?

Trump and the media meltdown: Have elite journalists spotted any religion ghosts yet?

Maybe it was just too much to ask our nation's top political journalists to see the facts.

I mean, they have had to wrestle with the fact that -- to be blunt -- Hillary Rodham Clinton is not on her way to the White House for a very simple reason: Not enough Democrats voted for her.

It wasn't the danged white evangelicals. They may have helped in Florida (look for Latino evangelical votes there too) and North Carolina, but a Democrat doesn't lose Wisconsin and Michigan because evangelicals rushed to the polls and took over.

No, as I said in my post the other day -- "Working-class folks: What Bill Clinton knew, and Hillary Rodham failed to learn" -- Hillary Rodham Clinton lost because lots of working-class, labor-family people (male and female, it turned out) who have long been Democrats didn't think she cared about them and their futures. Many of them were Catholics, including good-old cultural Catholics who don't show up in the polls all that much.

I interviewed EWTN anchor Raymond Arroyo about all of this more than a week before Election Day and one of his quotes proved to be spot on. He told me that he was hearing from the Rust Belt a lot and he told me what lots of Catholics were telling him. Thus, that "On Religion" column ended like this:

What now? Arroyo offered this Election Day advice: Watch Catholic men in the Rust Belt.
"Lots of working-class Catholics aren't sure if they're Republicans or Democrats these days," he said. "They keep swinging back and forth. ... What I hear them saying is: 'I'll go in that voting booth and make a choice, but I'm not talking about it. I'll go behind that curtain and do what I have to do.' "

As you would imagine, "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about all of that and more when recording this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in (and sorry for the delay, with some technical complications.)

Meanwhile, journalists have been wrestling, as you would imagine, with the whole "How in the heckfire did we miss this story?" puzzle.

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