polling

Splicing and dicing American religion today: How about a seven-party Pew typology?

Splicing and dicing American religion today: How about a seven-party Pew typology?

U.S. religious categories were never as simple as indicated in “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” Will Herberg’s tripartite classic from 1956.

What kind of Jew? Protestants, ever complicated, have become ever moreso. Catholics, too, are more of a checkerboard these days. With the 1965 immigration law, Islam and Asian religions came to the fore. Recently, “nones” with no religious affiliation emerged as a major category.

Now the ubiquitous Pew Research Center is splicing and dicing its survey data to discern a new seven-party system,  what the title of its latest report calls “The Religious Typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans By Religion.” That’s “the” typology, not merely “a” new concept, which seems presumptuous and yet intriguing.  

Journalists who saw news in this August 29 release have already written about it. But The Religion Guy recommends that beat specialists spend quality time reading or re-reading the full 98-page version (.pdf here), to provoke fresh thinking about the complex U.S. religious landscape.

Pew asked 16 questions and applied “cluster analysis” to sort Americans into the seven categories based upon broad religious attitudes and reported behavior across the traditional lines of formal membership or self-identification. Pew labels 40 percent of U.S. adults as “highly religious," sharing traditional belief in the God of the Bible and looking upon faith fondly, segmented into these three groups. 

(1) “Sunday Stalwarts” (17 percent of the Americans surveyed) -- These devout folks are weekly worshipers of whatever faith who mostly read the Bible daily, pray often, and consider religion their most important source of meaning and helpful for society. They’re also the most active in non-religious community causes and charities and – notably – lean Republican and are the most likely to vote in local elections.

(2) “God-and-Country Believers” (12 percent) -- This group stands out as the only one expressing majority approval for President Donald Trump’s performance.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Mosque and state: Cut 'n' paste approach mars stories on polling controversy

Mosque and state: Cut 'n' paste approach mars stories on polling controversy

What would happen if mainstream media did their own reporting? They just might avoid the kinds of gaps and gaffes marring the coverage of a controversy over a South Florida mosque.

The Islamic Center of Boca Raton has been used as a polling site for some years by the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections, but this year she changed her mind. Why? Because she says she got a lot of complaints, including threats. 

It's a more than worthwhile story acting as a kind of microcosm for national questions of tolerance, terrorism, religious freedom and church (or mosque) and state. And it's worth more than the cut 'n' paste jobs that have been passing for, you know, showing up and/or phoning.

The story came out last Friday in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, but it wasn't till midweek that it caught on in national media. 

Then the gaffes began.

The New York Daily News ran a photo supposedly showing the Islamic Center. But it's really the Assalam Center, a different mosque a little more than a mile south. And the Washington Post today led with, "Since at least the year 2010, citizens have cast their votes within the pastel green walls of the mosque. No, they haven't. The light green mosque opened in 2012. Before then, the members rented space at a shopping plaza.

And those are just the easiest soft spots to spot.

Aside from its error on the ICBR building, the WaPo article may not contain a single original word. It's assembled from eight sources -- including the Sun Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post and West Palm Beach-based WPTV. The newspaper also added canned statements from two Congress members, the Florida Family Association and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. WaPo's only redeeming feature is admitting its sources.

The Associated Press doesn't even wait for you to read its lede. "People Vote in Churches and Synagogues. Why Not a Mosque?," says its headline, which was used by ABC News and elsewhere.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Flawed Pew survey question produces flawed answer on how many Israeli Jews want Arabs kicked out

Flawed Pew survey question produces flawed answer on how many Israeli Jews want Arabs kicked out

A Pew survey released last week had all the ingredients for another damning story about Israel and its Jewish citizens. Nearly half of Israeli Jews surveyed, Pew reported, said they favored the expulsion or transfer of Arabs out of Israel.

Given the superficial manner in which most news media, American and otherwise, cover the extraordinarily complicated, and sadly dehumanizing and deadly, Middle East -- and its long-running Israel-Palestinian subplot in particular -- the Pew story seemed a natural headline-grabber.

It turned out to be otherwise. Nonetheless, it did underscore the importance of raising journalistic red flags when reporting on dumbed-down, highly generalized and potentially inflammatory survey questions that purport to accurately measure real-world complexities.

Let's start with these telling New York Times stories about the survey. Click here to read the first one. Then click here to read the second.

Why are they telling?

Because The Times'  initial Web offering was a standard wire service report that led -- predictably -- with the international red-meat angle, the more easily written expulsion aspect that, given the hostility to Israel in much of the world, was virtually assured of gaining wide play.

But also because the second piece, written by a Times' Jerusalem bureau staffer that ran in the dead wood edition the following day, buried the expulsion angle and led instead with the more complicated to report survey results dealing with the deep religious and political rifts within Israeli Jewish society.

The expulsion angle wasn't mentioned until the eighth paragraph.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

One more time: So many ways in which polls can be appalling as well as appealing

One more time: So many ways in which polls can be appalling as well as appealing

Is the Religion Guy the only American who’s already sick of the constant news reports on political polls, and yet can’t help following them because this  may be the most aberrant campaign since 1860?

Polls can be interesting but also problematic, as discussed in the  Sept. 8 Memo “Are polls about people and pews appealing or appalling? Warnings for journalists.” That item scanned complaints from Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, one of the leading U.S. sociologists of religion, in a new book:  “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith” (Oxford University Press, published October 1).

Wuthnow asserts that polling in general is increasingly slippery, largely because response rates are so low that it’s impossible to know whether results are representative. He also thinks religion is an especially tricky field for opinion surveying and that media reports about results can distort public perceptions.

 Following up, the sort of material reporters can pursue is seen in an interview with Wuthnow by Andrew Aghapour, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for religiondispatches.org. (This online magazine is well worth monitoring if you’re not familiar with it. Editor Diane Winston, Ph.D., associate professor at U.S.C.’s Annenberg School, was a well-regarded Godbeat toiler in Raleigh, Baltimore, and Dallas.)

Wuthnow cites Jimmy Carter’s presidential win in 1976, which media dubbed the “year of the evangelical.” Actually it was the year some media suddenly discovered evangelicalism. 

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Are polls about people and pews appealing or appalling? Warnings for journalists

Are polls about people and pews appealing or appalling? Warnings for journalists

A memorable though possibly apocryphal religious quip dates from the days when Norman Vincent Peale was a famed author and preacher. Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson supposedly said “I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.”

What he found appalling was either Peale’s criticism of Stevenson’s divorce (in 1952), or of candidate Kennedy’s Catholicism (in 1960), or both.

So are polls appealing or appalling?

Eminent sociologist Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University lays out warnings that journalists should heed in “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith,” due for October 1 release from Oxford University Press and previewed  in the current First Things magazine.

Polls were never mathematically precise to begin with and are becoming ever more unreliable, even as they take up infinite airtime and column inches during the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign. Wuthnow reports this billion-dollar industry with some 1,200 companies conducted more than 37,000 polls during the 2012 U.S. campaign. Election predictions have sometimes proven  well off the mark, as recently with Britain, Israel, and America’s 2014 midterms. Public surveys involve not just politics but closely watched trends on key matters like consumer confidence and unemployment rates.

A poll’s fine print lists a “margin of error,” often ignored in the media, that can skew results. However, Wuthnow says today’s critically important crisis in  reliability is that huge numbers don’t answer the phone, causing terribly low “response rates.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

U.S. Catholic bishops quietly offer update on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the pews

U.S. Catholic bishops quietly offer update on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the pews

The U.S. Catholic bishops just heard a major -- terrifying is a better word -- presentation on the doctrinal state of life in their pews, especially among the young. I realize that arguments about Pope Francis and politics are fun, and all that, but this new survey offered some really crucial stuff, folks, if you care about the future of the church (and the news that it makes).

Good luck trying to find this in the news today. Am I missing something? What are the magic search terms?

Meanwhile, sink your journalistic teeth into the Catholic News Agency story, which ran with this headline: "Agree to disagree: Why young Catholics pose a unique challenge for the Church."

For more than three years, a working group at the bishops’ conference has conducted research aimed at finding ways to more effectively communicate the Catholic faith.  The research examined “Catholics in the pew,” looking at why they accept or disregard Church teaching on various subjects.  ...

Many engaged parishioners, regular Mass attendees involved in parish life, demonstrate great pride in their faith and are deeply tied to their community, the study showed. However, they have a tendency to set aside rules that they do not understand, complain about the Church being involved in politics, and avoid causes that they see as “judgmental.”

And among the young? 

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Pod people: That 'mushy middle' in American religion and an old mystery on the religious left

Pod people: That 'mushy middle' in American religion and an old mystery on the religious left

For several decades now, I have been hearing pollsters -- with organizations on the left, right and in the middle -- asking some very similar questions about trends on the left side of the marketplace of ideas that is American religion. In fact, they have often, been asking precisely the same question.

That doesn't happen very often. So when it does, I think that it behooves those of us who report and write about religion to pay attention.

Here's the key question: If more and more Americans are moving toward liberalism on questions of faith and morality, then why are the membership statistics continuing to spiral down in doctrinally liberal churches?

That question came up again this week in our "Crossroads" podcast, when host Todd Wilken and I talked about the heritage of research done by the late George Gallup, Jr., and how it related to a new LifeWay Research survey -- the "Theological Awareness Benchmark Study" conducted for Ligonier Ministries of Orlando, Fla. Click here to listen in.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Latest box scores from France: USA 67 -- Islam 19

Latest box scores from France: USA 67 -- Islam 19

Voters were no longer the subjects of politics, democratic citizens deciding the fate of their country. They were objects to be counted, studied, and counted again. The proliferation of polls had allowed almost any newspaper or televisions station in the nation to measure the feelings of any population. Measurement, not democratic debate, was becoming the stuff of American politics.

-- E.J. Dionne "The Illusion of Technique" in Media Polls in American Politics (1992)

The wire service AFP reports that a poll published at the end of June finds the French have a pretty high opinion of the United States, but they don't like immigrants or Islam. The headline in the French daily Midi Libre states: "Sondage : la "famille" plébiscitée, "immigrés" et "islam" massivement rejetés" (Poll: Acclaim for the "Family", "Immigrants" and "Islam" massively rejected."

Those cheese eating surrender monkeys really like us, they really like us (to mix Simpsons and Sally Fields metaphors). But how is this news?

Please respect our Commenting Policy