polls

Headline news: Americans’ cup of religious knowledge appears to be half empty

Headline news: Americans’ cup of religious knowledge appears to be half empty

Are old-school newswriters just too pessimistic by nature?

The Religion Guy admits he sees a cup that’s half empty, rather than half full, in pondering a new survey of Americans’ factual knowledge about religions conducted by the ubiquitous Pew Research Center.

Here’s one of the 32 multiple choice questions Pew posed to 10,971 adults in February: “According to the Gospels, who delivered the Sermon on the Mount?” A paper-thin majority (51 percent) correctly chose Jesus — not John, Paul or Peter.

Folks, this is the most celebrated religious discourse in human history. A slightly more promising 56 percent knew that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, Jericho or Jerusalem.

Less surprising, yet no less troubling given America’s increasingly diverse culture, only 60 percent knew that Islam observes the month of Ramadan (not Buddhism, Hinduism or Judaism), while 42 percent were aware that Sikhs wear turbans and small daggers (not Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists). More surprising, only 24 percent could identify Jews’ Rosh Hashana (New Year).

A generation ago, The Guy’s typical upstate New York hometown had roughly equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics, one synagogue and a couple Eastern Orthodox churches, with most residents identified with one faith or another. In that monocultural environment, most students, The Guy included, would have flunked on Buddhism or Hinduism. But it’s hard to imagine classmates wouldn’t know who led Israel’s biblical Exodus from Egypt (missed by 21 percent of Pew respondents) or what Easter celebrates (missed by 19 percent). Something happened.

Fact number one for the media to consider: American adults on average got less than half the answers right, 14.2 out of the 32, (Pew ran a similar survey in 2010, but the questions weren’t comparable so there’s no trend line.)

Religion News Service columnist Mark Silk took Pew’s online test of sample questions and candidly admitted he missed the one about Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. He then made the really important point here, reaffirming Stephen Prothero’s 2008 book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't.”

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News mystery: Why so little interest in 'mainline' Protestants' liberal politicking?

News mystery: Why so little interest in 'mainline' Protestants' liberal politicking?

The dominant religion theme in the U.S. news media across the past two years, without question, has been political fealty to Donald Trump and his works among grassroots evangelical Protestants and a like-minded coterie of old-guard clergy celebrities.   

In the same period, “mainline” Protestant groups have been ardent in politicking for leftward and anti-Trump causes, perhaps even moreso than with the typical evangelical congregation.

You would barely know this, if at all, from reading or viewing most news media reports.  

Take the United Methodist Church (UMC), America’s second-largest Protestant body with 7.7 million members and millions more in overseas jurisdictions. Yes, the UMC is much in the news but only regarding its internal doctrinal dispute over whether to liberalize LGBTQ policy, per last week’s Guy Memo

UMC proclamations come from the General Board of  Church and Society, whose office hard by Capitol Hill is more than strangely warmed (to quote John Wesley) about President Donald Trump. The board has issued repeated directives urging churchgoers to phone or e-mail protests against Trump's actions to members of the House and Senate. (Years ago its former leader Jim Winkler, now National Council of Churches president, called for impeachment of President George W. Bush, a fellow Methodist, over his war policy.)        

Recently, U.S. religious bodies across the board denounced the Trump policy, now  rescinded, of separating “undocumented” immigrants from their children. But the UMC went further, urging funding cuts for immigration enforcement and border protection, and an immediate halt to all arrests and detentions of undocumented border-crossers.

The Methodists were aggrieved at the U.S. Supreme Court for upholding Trump’s travel ban against seven nations, five of them majority Muslim. Rejecting the court’s reasoning and the government’s national-security rationale, the church charged that the policy “institutionalizes Islamophobia, religious intolerance, and racism.”  


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Refusing service to gays? Is pollster asking the right question? Journalists should inquire

Refusing service to gays? Is pollster asking the right question? Journalists should inquire

Religion News Service, a national wire service for which I occasionally freelance, reports that no major U.S. religious group opposes refusing service to gays.

The lede from RNS:

(RNS) In no U.S. religious group does a majority think it’s acceptable for businesspeople to invoke their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays.
This finding from a 2016 Public Religion Research Institute survey is a first, said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the nonprofit research group.
In a 2015 PRRI survey that asked the same question, more than half of white evangelical Protestants and Mormons approved of those who cited religious belief to deny service to LGBT customers.
But in the new 2016 survey, only 50 percent of white evangelical Protestants expressed such approval, as opposed to 56 percent the year before.
Mormons showed the second-highest rates of approval. About 42 percent of Mormons backed businesspeople who deny services in the latest survey, as opposed to the 58 percent who favored them the previous year.

RNS notes that the question asked by PRRI is this:

Do you favor or oppose allowing a small business owner in your state to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people, if doing so violates their religious beliefs?

Here's what I wonder: Is that the right question for the pollster to ask?

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Hey journalists: If you wanted to find Latino Trump voters, where would it be smart to look?

Hey journalists: If you wanted to find Latino Trump voters, where would it be smart to look?

If you want to start an argument, post-Election Day, here is one of the many questions that you can ask: How many Latino voters backed Donald Trump?

The Washington Post political team has been all over this issue, asking: Did 29 percent of Hispanics actually vote for Trump? Was this just a matter of "rural" Latinos, whatever that means, swinging his way?

This is a very, very hot-button topic. During live coverage of the Florida results you could hear a "this is like 9/11" shock in the voices of the on-camera talent (I was mostly watching CNN) as they realized that a smallish, but significant, percentage of the state's complex Latino population was going to back Trump.

As a former resident of West Palm Beach, I looked at the numbers and thought to myself: (1) The Cuban vote alone cannot explain what is happening and (2) someone needs to ask this question: What percentage of Latinos in Florida have converted to evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Protestantism?

So here is the question journalists should think about as we look at another piece of Washington Post coverage on this issue: If you were going to look for Latino Trump voters in Texas, where would you start looking? 

Start with this exercise: Click over to the full blog post and look at the screen shot of this particular Post story, located at the very top of my text. What is the first thing that you see in this image?

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One thing seems clear: When it comes to religion, America is getting less 'mushy'

One thing seems clear: When it comes to religion, America is getting less 'mushy'

When it comes to the fine print in polling about politics and religion, journalists are always looking for sources who have the ability to connect the dots and then explain the connections in language that can be understood by news consumers (and news editors, too).

Oh, right. It also helps when they have a good track record when it comes to being right.

So with that in mind, let's take a trip back in time with John C. Green of the University of Akron, a major player in years of Pew Forum polling. This trip is linked to the second wave of Pew Forum data linked to the "nones," a blast of numbers that is getting lots of news attention this week. Earlier today, our own Richard Ostling offered a memo on this topic.

The year was 2008 and Green paid a visit to my Washington Journalism Center classroom to brief a circle of international journalists on some trends in American religion and, yes, politics. What ended up on our whiteboard that day?

On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.
In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America's liberal religious denominations (such as the "seven sisters" of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up ... and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.
The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion.

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Pew 'nones' study 2.0: Perhaps America’s religion cup is only half empty?

Pew 'nones' study 2.0: Perhaps America’s religion cup is only half empty?

In teaching journalism classes the Religion Guy has often used the little 1954 classic “How to Lie with Statistics,” a great primer for any reporter, especially one like this writer who is mathematically challenged. The following has nothing to do with “lies,” but reminds us that though numbers appear to be hard facts they’re always subject to some spin.

That theme is raised as the media report on the new second installment of data from the Pew Research Center’s 2014 survey about religion with 35,071 respondents.

Such a massive sample allows a small margin of error. And unlike most pollsters the Pew team is very sophisticated about religion. For instance, if a person identifies as “Presbyterian,” is that the moderate to liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) or staunchly conservative Presbyterian Church in America, or some other body?

One caution:  Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow would want us to note down on page 126 that the “response rate” among attempted phone calls was only 11.1 percent for landlines and 10.2 percent for cell phones. As the Religion Guy noted previously, this is a nagging problem in 21st Century polling.

Pew’s first installment last May grabbed many a headline with the news that Americans with no religious affiliation -- those headline-grabbing "nones" -- increased from 16 percent in a comparable survey in 2007 to the current 23 percent. (Hurrah to Pew for replicating its prior poll to show us such trending.) 

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Wait! Which religious schools teach what about the moral status of gay sex?

Wait! Which religious schools teach what about the moral status of gay sex?

In recent years, I have been amazed -- when reading mainstream religion-news coverage -- to see basic moral and cultural beliefs that have been around in traditional forms of for millennia described as convictions that belong to "evangelical" Protestants, alone.

I understand what is going on when this happens. It's easier to bash away at televangelists for saying that sex outside of marriage is sin, as opposed to noting that these same beliefs have been articulated by popes, Orthodox rabbis, traditional Muslim leaders and others. Evangelical Protestants are popular enemies. The problem is that this presentation skews the facts of history.

Thus, I flinched the other day when I read a Salt Lake City Tribune report, picked up by Religion News service, about a Princeton Review ranking of campuses of higher learning that are opposed to recent trends in gay rights. Here is the top of the story. If you are holding a beverage, please set it aside to protect your screen and keyboard.

SALT LAKE CITY -- Brigham Young University remains one of the most hostile campuses in the country for gay and transgender students, according to an annual college ranking list.
But the private university does not top the list of LGBT-unfriendly schools. In fact, it came in sixth in a list of 10, mostly religious, schools. Grove City College (Grove City, Pa.) a Christian liberal arts school of 2,500 students. and Hampden-Sydney College, an all-male liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in Hampden Sydney Va., came in first and second.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that same-sex attraction is not a sin, but that acting on it is.

And? And? Isn't that an accurate description of the beliefs of millions and millions of other believers in a host of different traditions? 

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Regarding that maligned study on same-sex marriage opinions: What Poynter said

Regarding that maligned study on same-sex marriage opinions: What Poynter said

Nine out of 10 Americans turn to GetReligion for clear, compelling analysis of religion news coverage. 

Trust me on that: I've done a survey.

"Wait a minute," somebody in Cyberland protests. "Can I please see details on the polling process and the specific questions asked?"

What, you don't believe me!? Would it help if I produced an official-looking news release? 

I am joking, of course.

But my point is serious, given recent headlines concerning a maligned study on same-sex marriage opinions that drew a ton of media coverage.

The news sparked a front-page story in Tuesday's New York Times.

The Times reported:

He was a graduate student who seemingly had it all: drive, a big idea and the financial backing to pay for a sprawling study to test it.
In 2012, as same-sex marriage advocates were working to build support in California, Michael LaCour, a political science researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, asked a critical question: Can canvassers with a personal stake in an issue — in this case, gay men and women — actually sway voters’ opinions in a lasting way?
He would need an influential partner to help frame, interpret and place into context his findings — to produce an authoritative scientific answer. And he went to one of the giants in the field, Donald P. Green, a Columbia University professor and co-author of a widely used text on field experiments.
Last week, their finding that gay canvassers were in fact powerfully persuasive with people who had voted against same-sex marriage — published in December in Science, one of the world’s leading scientific journals — collapsed amid accusations that Mr. LaCour had misrepresented his study methods and lacked the evidence to back up his findings.

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Yes, it's often dangerous for reporters to dance with polls

Yes, it's often dangerous for reporters to dance with polls

Be wary. Be very wary when reporting survey results, those microwave-ready story hooks -- perfect for slow news days -- that purport to provide objective data revealing, well, sometimes nothing. That goes double for polls that claim to measure religious beliefs and practices.

That's because all but the very best crafted ones fail to get anywhere close to the subtleties that turn generalized numbers into accurate snapshots of how beliefs and practices truly play out in individual lives.

Case in point: A recent WIN/Gallup International survey claiming to measure religious belief around the world. One of the nations surveyed was Israel, where religion is as politicized as it is anywhere, making it particularly difficult to label individual religious choices.

Take, for example, my Israeli-born wife's cousin, Ayala. She's a leader in her Jerusalem synagogue but would probably physically recoil if you called her religious because of the divisive social and political connotations the term carries in Israel.

Ayala speaks contemptuously of those theologically ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews who consider themselves the only true practitioners of Judaism in Israel. Nor does she speak well of the politically right wing Orthodox Zionist hardliners who are the backbone of the West Bank settler movement.

Want to get into a sure fire argument in Israel?

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