Tag Archives: Pew

Speaking Of Christianity…

Yesterday’s post was about the ongoing effort of Christian culture-warriors to maintain their privileged position in American society–their insistence that the laws of the land reflect their particular theological perspectives.

That effort is nothing new. What is new is their diminished percentage of the American population. A recent study by Pew was headlined “Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.”

In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.

Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009. Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population.

The Pew study found that both belief and observance had declined; attendance at religious services is down, especially among younger respondents, reflecting what the report called a “generation gap.” Some forty percent of Millennials are “nones.”

Given the fact that it is evangelical Protestants, rather than members of mainline denominations, who have been most likely to demand prayer in public schools, attempt to post religious texts on public buildings, and protest laws protective of LGBTQ citizens, I was particularly interested in the following:

The share of U.S. adults who are white born-again or evangelical Protestants now stands at 16%, down from 19% a decade ago. The shrinking white evangelical share of the population reflects both demographic changes that have occurred in the United States (where white people constitute a declining share of the population) and broader religious changes in American society (where the share of all adults who identify with Christianity has declined).

The survey reported demographic information only, and didn’t get into motivations, but in addition to the normal historical ebb and flow of religious fervor, it seems likely that the embrace of Donald Trump by evangelicals has repelled people–especially young people. An article by Peter Wehner in the Atlantic makes a point that others have echoed.

The enthusiastic, uncritical embrace of President Trump by white evangelicals is among the most mind-blowing developments of the Trump era. How can a group that for decades—and especially during the Bill Clinton presidency—insisted that character counts and that personal integrity is an essential component of presidential leadership not only turn a blind eye to the ethical and moral transgressions of Donald Trump, but also constantly defend him? Why are those who have been on the vanguard of “family values” so eager to give a man with a sordid personal and sexual history a mulligan?

Wehner worries about the likely consequences of that blatant hypocrisy, a worry that other evangelicals share.

While on the Pacific Coast last week, I had lunch with Karel Coppock, whom I have known for many years and who has played an important role in my Christian pilgrimage. In speaking about the widespread, reflexive evangelical support for the president, Coppock—who is theologically orthodox and generally sympathetic to conservatism—lamented the effect this moral freak show is having, especially on the younger generation. With unusual passion, he told me, “We’re losing an entire generation. They’re just gone. It’s one of the worst things to happen to the Church.”

For years, these “pious” Christians have mounted assaults on separation of church and state. They have insisted that laws should favor their beliefs; they take as a given their right to dominate the culture. They continue to diminish and stigmatize those they label “sinners,” and fight even modest efforts to recognize the equal civic status of those others.

I’m sorry for people like Wehner who truly “walked the walk” and are helplessly watching their co-religionists betray their faith. But I’m not at all sorry that many more Americans have now seen–and rejected– the hypocrisy concealed behind a curtain of false piety.

 

 

The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question

Older readers may recall a quiz show that built to a finale in which the prize was $64,000. During the time the show was popular, when a difficult question would come up in conversation, someone was likely to say “Well, that’s the 64,000 dollar question!”

I thought of that when I read the results of several recent polls showing a majority of Americans disapproving of Donald Trump–with 46% disapproving strongly. (Obama’s “strong disapproval” never approached that number.)

Pew, of course, is the gold standard of polling. Daily Kos recently reproduced Pew’s poll, and its demographic breakout of approvals/disapprovals;  the breakout prompts me to ask that $64,000 question:

Now it’s clear that there’s a dramatic racial divide in our nation’s politics, but there’s a dramatic difference among whites based on whether they have a college degree or not:

                                        APPROVE      DISAPPROVE
WHITE                                51              48
BLACK                                12              80
HISPANIC                          25              72
WHITE, COLLEGE           38              61
WHITE, NO-COLLEGE    57             41

And that white, non-college-educated cohort is Trump’s firewall. He’ll bleed support among all those other groups, but there’s relatively not much room to drop. So if he’s going to end up in the low 30s or even high 20s, very possibly within six months, it’ll be because non-college whites start abandoning him. And if Trump loses those guys, there’s nothing else propping up the GOP. And 2018 will be a political bloodbath.

The question is obvious: What will it take to erode Trump’s support among the non-college-educated whites who still support him? What is it that they see that appeals to them? The easy answer–which may or may not be the correct answer–is that he has given them someone to blame for their discontents, “others” who can be held responsible for whatever economic or social injustices they experience. African-Americans, Mexicans, Jews, immigrants, elitists….

If that is, in fact, the basis of their approval, we may wait a long time for them to realize that his policies will deepen, rather than ameliorate, their distress. If there is one thing Trump is good at, it is blaming others for his own missteps and deficits; if the economic condition of those voters declines (as it is likely to do, given the policies that he and his cabinet choices embrace–policies that will benefit the well-off at the expense of the working poor), he will blame Congress for failing to pay billions for his wall, or the courts for failing to keep “those people” out, or the media for actually reporting what he says and does.

There’s an old saying to the effect that people cannot reason themselves out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place. There was no coherent, logical, reality-based argument for supporting Trump, and overwhelming evidence that he was monumentally unfit for the Oval Office. What will it take to weaken Trump’s support among those who voted for him because they hated Hillary,or would never vote for a woman, or because they thought wealth implied competence, or because they resented having had a black President, or because they always voted for the Republican?

How long will they continue to shrug off the mounting evidence of corruption and dangerous ineptitude as “fake news”? Will they convince themselves that the Russians are really nice guys, and Trump’s cozy relationship with Putin is no big deal? How embarrassing will his behavior have to get in order for them to recognize his mental instability?

What, exactly, will it take?

Canaries in the Coal Mine

Historically—or so we are told—miners tested the breathability of the air in mines by releasing a canary into the space. If the canary continued to fly and look healthy, the air was safe; if the bird died, it wasn’t.

Recently, Pew Research published findings about the millennials who are, for all intents and purposes, our American canaries. As we older citizens die out, the values, fears and ambitions of the millennial generation will determine the direction of the country.

Pew announced six “key takeaways” about this generation. Some were unsurprising: this is a financially burdened generation, largely as a result of student loan debt; as a result, fewer millennials are married than previous cohorts at the same age. They are also the most racially diverse generation thus far.

Two of the characteristics found by Pew deserve special “canary” status.

First,

Millennials have fewer attachments to traditional political and religious institutions, but they connect to personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups through social and digital media. Half of Millennials now describe themselves as political independents and 29% are not affiliated with any religion—numbers that are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the last quarter-century.

My discussions with students in this age cohort anecdotally support this conclusion—and suggest that the public behaviors and pronouncements of political and religious figures is one significant reason they reject those institutions. My students are repulsed by the use of religious or patriotic language in service of discrimination and generally hateful behaviors; rather than rejecting the specific individuals or organizations guilty of such behaviors, they tend to develop a “pox on all of you” attitude.

But a less obvious finding also casts considerable light on the institutionally detached status of this generation:

Millennials are less trusting of others than older Americans are. Asked a long-standing social science survey question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” just 19% of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen Xers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

This really troubling absence of trust manifests itself in a number of ways: millennials don’t expect Social Security to be there for them, for example (although, interestingly, they oppose proposals to cut benefits for current recipients). Their lack of trust in a wide variety of social institutions helps explain their rejection of political and religious identification, their pervasive skepticism about media information sources, and their increased reliance on friends and colleagues.

Assuming these findings continue to hold, what does this “canary” generation tell us about America’s future?

One the one hand, greater diversity and tolerance—together with rejection of dogma and partisanship—bodes well. This generation is likely to reject racism and address the glaring flaws in the criminal justice system, likely to welcome immigrants, likely to scorn anti-LGBT bias.

On the other hand, participation in a democratic polity requires at least a minimal level of trust—trust that the information one receives is credible, trust that the operations of government are mostly fair and ethical, trust that one’s fellow citizens are basically well-intentioned. Without that trust, without social capital, societies cannot function.

The canary isn’t dead. But it’s coughing a lot.

The Retreat of the Puritans

Last week, Irish voters overwhelmingly voted to recognize same-sex marriage. Leave aside, for now, the question whether fundamental rights should ever be subject to popular vote, and consider that Ireland has long been considered a very religious country.

Whatever it may mean to be “very religious” today, for growing numbers of people, it’s clear it doesn’t mean obediently following the doctrinal pronouncements of the relevant clerics. Increasingly, the ways in which people connect with their religious traditions have changed.

Earlier this week, my friend Art Farnsley had an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post, addressing this decline of religious authority. It is well worth reading in its entirety. Art notes the recent, widely-discussed Pew poll showing a decline in the number of Americans identifying as Christian, and suggests that numbers don’t adequately tell the story:

.. behind the story of Christian decline and the rise of “nones” is a long-standing debate about what religion theorists call “secularization,” the broad process by which religion gradually loses its social influence….

By the last two decades of the 20th century, secularization theories were in retreat for a number of good reasons. Most people did not stop being religious in the sense that they still had beliefs, intuitions, feelings and practices they defined as sacred. Modernity had not pushed spirituality out of their lives in America, and maybe not even in Britain or the Netherlands.

As Art notes, whether secularization has grown depends upon how you define the term.

Sociologist Mark Chaves redefined secularization as declining religious authority back in 1994. He suggested we stop worrying about whether individuals thought of themselves as religious and focus instead on religion’s social influence.

The evidence for this kind of secularization, the decline of religious authority, is everywhere. It is quaint to think of a time stores did not open and liquor was not sold on the Sabbath. But that is a small, symbolic change compared with the massive growth in individual choice at the expense of tradition, especially religious tradition.

Understood in this way, secularization is an inevitable consequence of modernity. We no longer see diseases like smallpox as indicators of God’s judgment; we call a doctor. We no longer ask the minister or rabbi to mediate our disputes; we call a lawyer.  For most inhabitants of modern, Western countries, religion is an incubator of values, not the source of binding law. So we have cultural Catholics, social Protestants, ethnic Jews…individuals still attached to their respective traditions who nevertheless feel free to pick and choose aspects of the relevant doctrines.

Change in the role of any social institution is never linear, of course, so we still have a number of the folks I called Puritans in God and Country- the “old time religion” fundamentalists who continue to wage war against religious diversity, women’s rights, same-sex marriage and any effort to grant LGBT citizens equal civil rights.

As Art concluded, they aren’t likely to win that war.

“In the struggle for authority with modern individualism, American religion is slowly losing.” That would be my headline for the recent Pew report. “Christians are declining in America” is just the tip of the iceberg.

 

 

 

Science and Constructed Realities

Americans are, by and large, fans of science. They just don’t know a lot about it.

Recently, the Pew Research Center did a “deep dive” on the attitudes of scientists and the general public, to assess the similarities and differences.

On the one hand, there is high regard and wide support for investments in scientific research: Fully 79% of adults say that science has made life easier for most people, and a majority is positive about science’s impact on the quality of health care, food and the environment. More than half of adults (54%) consider U.S. scientific achievements to be either the best in the world or above average compared with other industrial countries; 92% of AAAS scientists hold similarly praiseworthy views.

When the questions got down into “the weeds,” however, the results were much like surveys about the Constitution (in the words of one report, “Americans Revere Constitution, Have No Idea What’s In It.”)

So we find stark differences between what scientists believe, based upon careful empirical research and the scientific method, and what Americans think scientists believe.

The differences in beliefs about the nature of reality are wide. For example, 88% of scientists think GMO foods are safe; 37% of Americans think they are safe. There are less dramatic, but still substantial, gaps between scientists and the public about the Big Bang, evolution, and climate change.

What is even more interesting, however, is Pew’s finding that Americans who hold beliefs at odds with settled science believe that scientists are “split” on these issues. So Americans who reject the science of climate change tell survey researchers that scientific opinion is divided on the matter. As Pew delicately puts it, “Perceptions of where the scientific community stands on both climate change and evolution tend to be associated with individual views on the issue.”

More evidence–as if we needed it–that we humans see the reality we choose to see.