'Backsliders' and the 'unchurched' equal the 'Nones'?

Old-school preachers used to call them "backsliders," those folks who were raised in the pews but then fled. Sociologists and church-growth professionals eventually pinned more bookish labels on these people, calling them the "unchurched" or describing them as "spiritual, but not religious."

Pollsters at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and similar think tanks are now using a more neutral term to describe a key trend in various religious traditions, talking about a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans who are "religiously unaffiliated."

That's certainly an awkward, non-snappy label that's hard to use in headlines. It's so much easier to call them the "Nones."

Anyone who cares about the role of religion in public life had to pay attention to last year's "Nones of the Rise" study by the Pew researchers, especially the jarring fact that 20 percent of U.S. adults -- including 32 percent under the age of 30 -- embrace that "religiously unaffiliated" label. The question some experts are asking now is whether Americans have simply changed how they describe their beliefs, rather than making radical changes at the level of faith and practice.

While there has certainly been a rise in the number of "religiously unaffiliated" people, when researchers "dig down inside the numbers they will find that there hasn't been that much change in the practice of religion in America," said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief at Gallup, in a recent telephone interview.

"What's happening is that people who weren't practicing their faith and have never really practiced a faith are now, for some reason, much more likely to be honest about that fact," he said. "People used to say that didn't go to church, but they would still call themselves 'Baptists,' or 'Catholics' or whatever. ...

"It's that lukewarm, vague sense of religious identity that is fading. We're seeing a lot more truth in the reporting, right now."

It's especially important to note that young people who were raised in intensely religious, traditional homes are much more likely to continue practicing their faith, or to become active in a similar faith, according to a new Focus on the Family report (.pdf), built on the Pew Research Center numbers and the most recent General Social Survey from the National Science Foundation.

In the Millennial Generation -- young people born in the 1980s and '90s -- only 11 percent of those who now call themselves "religiously unaffiliated" said they were raised in a home in which a faith tradition was enthusiastically lived and taught.

The Focus on the Family study noted: "This is not a crisis of faith, per se, but of parenting. ... Young adults cannot keep what they were never given."

So what has changed? Experts at the Gallup Poll have been asking similar questions about religious identity and practice for decades, noted Newport, and it's clear that in the past it was much harder for Americans to face a pollster and muster up the courage to openly reject religion -- period.

"I found the survey in the '50s where it was zero percent 'none.' How's that? I mean literally, it rounded down to zero," said Newport, drawing laughter during a recent Pew Forum event. "So it's amazing that back when the Gallup interviewer came a-calling -- and it was in person in the '50s -- literally it looks like almost every single respondent chose a religious identification other than 'none.' "

Now, it's becoming clear that -- perhaps following the cultural earthquakes of the 1960s -- many Americans have stopped pretending they are linked to faith traditions that they have no interest in practicing. These "unreligious" Americans, Newport told the Pew gathering, are not really changing how they live their lives, they "are just changing the way that they label themselves."

Meanwhile, it may be time for researchers to pay renewed attention to what is happening among the Americans on the other end of the spectrum -- those who remain committed to faith-centered ways of life, said Newport, in the telephone interview.

"It's possible that if you really claim a religion today, then it's much more likely that your religious identity is pure, that you're making sacrifices to practice your faith because it really means something to you," he said. "Maybe it's significant that so many people are willing to stand up and say that they still believe."

God, Barbies and girlie girls

It's a question that can cause tension and tears in a circle of home-school moms in a Bible Belt church fellowship hall. It's a question that can have the same jarring impact in a circle of feminist mothers in a Manhattan coffee shop.

Here it is: Will you buy your daughter a Barbie doll? Other questions follow in the wake of this one, linked to clothes, self esteem, cellphones, makeup, reality TV shows and the entire commercialized princess culture.

The Barbie question is not uniquely religious, which is one reason why it can be so symbolic for mothers and daughters in liberal as well as conservative circles.

Yet questions about religion, morality, health, culture, education, sexuality and, of course, "family values," loom in the background, noted Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former Wall Street Journal editor who is best known for her writing on faith, education and the lives of modern young people. Many parents simply worry about the powerful forces that keep pushing their daughters -- as experts put it -- to "grow older, younger."

"Mothers are divided on this whole issue and some can get very upset just talking about it. Yet others are not upset," noted Riley. "You'll see all kinds of women, religious and non-religious, who taking their 6-year-old daughters to get manicures and to get their hair done, trying to look pretty just like the girls on TV and in all the magazines.

"Then there are women who are the total opposite of all that. They may be evangelical Christians or they may be feminists, but they see this as an attack on what they believe."

Barbie dolls are not the only products that define this dilemma, but they are highly symbolic. In an essay for the journal Books & Culture, Riley noted the power of a story recounted in "Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture," a book by feminist Peggy Orenstein. The anecdote begins with her filmmaker husband approving a Barbie purchase for their young daughter.

"I demanded that he take it away from her. She started to cry. So I gave it back," wrote Orenstein.

The parents argued some more and the Barbie went back on the Target shelf.

At that point the debate evolved into a clash over quality. Orenstein explained: "I promised I would get her a well-made Barbie instead, perhaps a Cleopatra Barbie I had seen on eBay, which, at the very least, was not white or blond and had something to offer besides high-heeled feet. As if the ankh pendant and peculiar tan made it all okay."

The daughter began crying and said, "Never mind, Mama. ... I don't need it."

Many mothers will tear up reading those lines, said Riley, because the scene is so familiar and can be triggered by so many products in shopping malls and just about anywhere on cable television. Moms may be urged to buy a pink Ouija board ("Who will text me next?") or a Monopoly Pink Boutique Edition. They can dive into the parallel universe of Disney Princess products for toddlers, tweens, teens and young women ("Disney Bridal Gowns: Have a Disney Princess Wedding"). The list goes on and on.

Then there are the television shows. Riley, who has a 4-year-old daughter, noted that the style and content are essentially the same -- whether the stars are preschoolers or aged veterans such as Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry. These shows lead young viewers into the world of reality television, with offerings ranging from "Teen Mom" to "Bridezillas," from "Jersey Shore" to "Say Yes to the Dress."

Once again, these subjects are just as likely to be discussed by girls gossiping after a suburban church service as by those chatting at the local mall.

This commercialized, highly sexualized culture, said Riley, has become the dominant culture. The question is whether parents dare to challenge it.

"There's more to this than parents trying to be countercultural," she said. "The big question is whether they will -- for religious reasons or whatever -- dare to take a stand and say, 'I have a right to be THE major influence in the lives of my children.' ...

"It's hard to say that, in this day and age. It takes a certain amount of courage for a mom to say, 'Look, I don't think padded bras are appropriate for 10-year-olds.' "

Are there 'virtual' sins?

It has been a few weeks since the kids ripped off the Christmas wrappings and, after plugging in a few cables, soared off into the private universes inside their new video games.

Since then, most of them have been slaying armies of evil aliens, orcs, zombies or Nazis. Then again, they may -- with pounding pulses and razor-sharp reflexes -- have slaughtered innocent bystanders, bedded prostitutes, sold hard drugs to children and used stolen vehicles to flatten cops.

"Gamer" Jeff Hooten is worried that most parents have no idea what is going on in the digital domains behind those closed doors.

"Parents probably know that some researchers say these games are bad and that other researchers say they're OK. ... Also, these games aren't in the news because no one has walked into a school lately and shot the place up," said Hooten, author of a first-person Citizen Magazine essay entitled "Point. Click. Kill. A Father's Confession."

"But these games have changed and matured so much. It's a whole new world and parents need to know that."

The statistics describing the video-game industry are both stunning and almost irrelevant, since it is growing so fast. But when it comes to media sales, the gaming industry is poised to overtake music and movies in the next decade. The Entertainment Software Association claims that half of all Americans have played video games and a 2003 Gallup survey found that 70 percent of teen-aged boys had played one of the "Grand Theft Auto" games, which are rated "mature" or even "adults only."

Hooten wanted to explore this world, so he mastered "Halo 2," "Doom 3," Resident Evil," "Vice City" and other popular games intended for players 17 and older. He got used to the profanity and the sight of dismembered bodies. He felt no major pangs of guilt, until his young son walked in and asked: "Daddy, can I watch you play the bad game?"

One hard question leads to another. Is "virtual sin" real? Should parents forbid their children to play video games or, like television and movies, teach them to make wise choices? Should religious leaders and politicians seek tighter controls on the most violent and lurid games?

While researchers have focused on how these games affect the lives and habits of children, Christine Rosen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center is convinced that it's time to ask about their impact on our culture as a whole.

For millions of people, video games are the "new playgrounds of the self" in which players create imaginary identities that let them do things that they would never do in the real world, noted Rosen, in the journal "The New Atlantis." Digital technology allows a person to morph from one imaginary personality to another -- from chatty teen to midnight cyber assassin, from high-tech entrepreneur to lonely spouse seeking solace from online lovers. The interactive game world combines all of this.

A study called "Got Game" quoted one enthusiast saying: ?Games give us freedom to be, think, do, create, destroy. They let us change the answer to the question, 'Who am I?' in ways never before possible. Games let us reach the highest highs and the lowest lows, let us play with reality and reshape it to our own ends. They give us hope and meaning, show us that our journey through life is not pointless."

For real? At some point, argues Rosen, someone must ask: "Are we becoming so immersed in virtual reality that we end up devoting more time to the care and tending of our multiple, virtual identities than to the things in the real world that contribute to the formation of healthy identity?"

Hooten isn't ready to go that far, in part because he believes many of the games are creative and fun. But parents must wake up and pay attention.

"I'm not saying that video games are the devil's playground," said Hooten, who currently works as an Internet editor at Focus on the Family. "What I'm trying to say is, 'This is what I did. This is what it felt like. This is what these games are all about.' ...

"It is like entering another world. I guess that I had fun, if that's the right word for it. You really get immersed in these games and it's hard to stop."

Neo-traditional born-again dads

They show up for dinner, help with homework, lead the rituals of bedtime and park their butts in the bleachers when their kids are in action.

They are heavy on discipline, but also eager to praise. They have been known to spank their children, but they are also more likely to hug them. They certainly take their families to church -- early and often.

They are totally off the radar screens in Hollywood and elite academia.

They are ordinary, faithful, evangelical and Catholic men and University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox has survey data showing that they appear to be more involved, more dedicated fathers than their secular counterparts, or even those who worship in more "progressive" pews.

"Conservative Protestant Churches and parachurch ministries have stressed values such as traditional gender attitudes, strict discipline, expressive parenting and parental involvement," noted Wilcox, in the Journal of Marriage and Family. "Moreover, because of their pietist tradition of worship and increasingly therapeutic approach to relationships, conservative Protestant churches have an expressive ethos that may carry over into family life."

It would be wrong, Wilcox explained, to call these fathers old-fashioned traditionalists who rule their homes with an iron hand and a stiff upper lip. Instead, Wilcox called them "neo-traditionalists" who are trying to blend discipline and doctrine with a new style of parenting that is also heavy on "affection and sensitivity."

The result is not "some kind of flashback to the 1950s," said Wilcox. "I think what we are seeing is evidence that there are lots of evangelical and Catholic fathers who are truly changing their lives to try to spend more time with their children. The evidence is that they are doing this because they believe God wants them to."

This survey will certainly be seen as a paradox, if not a threat, by other researchers, noted theologian Russell D. Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

"After all," he said, "wouldn't one expect that conservative evangelical dads would dismiss childrearing as 'women's work,' while they attend Billy Graham crusades or uproot South American rain forests, or do, well, whatever it is that evangelical men do?" But perhaps, he added, "evangelical fathers are more committed to their children, not in spite of their biblical understanding of the family, but because of it."

The national study of 1,000 fathers who live at home focused on several practical questions about daily life. Wilcox found that evangelicals were more likely to spend one-on-one time with their children and to take part in family meals and church activities. Catholic fathers had similar high scores, but tended to favor non-religious activities with their children.

Evangelical and Catholic fathers consistently scored higher than those from the denominations that researchers have long considered "mainline" and progressive. In his study, Wilcox included Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Methodists and Congregationalists in this "mainline" camp. Meanwhile, the evangelicals included participants from Southern Baptist, the Assembly of God, Christian Reformed, Pentecostal and other conservative churches.

Yet Wilcox understood that the "mainline" world is not monolithic, since he was raised as an Episcopalian before converting to Roman Catholicism. While the mainline denominations lean left on moral and cultural issues, they also include many individual congregations that are quite conservative.

Thus, Wilcox was able to dig into his data and test his thesis that beliefs make a difference. He discovered that about 30 percent of the "mainline" men identified themselves as conservatives on issues of biblical authority and whether the Bible was their final guide on "practical issues they face in daily life." Sure enough, he said, these conservative men were more child and family oriented than the typical fathers in the "mainline" denominations.

There was no way to avoid this theme in the data, he said.

"There is no doubt in my mind," said Wilcox, "that part of what is going on here is that these fathers have a strong belief that there is such a thing as a biblical worldview, one that stresses that God wants to play a vital, active role in their lives. They also believe God wants them to pass this belief on to their children, right there in their homes. So that's what they're trying to do."