Pew Research Center

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

So, what is Jeffrey Epstein up to these days?

When beloved public figures pass away, cartoonists picture them sitting on clouds playing harps or chatting up St. Peter at heaven's Pearly Gates. The deaths of notorious individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Epstein tend to inspire a different kind of response.

"The world is now a safer place," one victim of the disgraced New York financier and convicted sex offender told The Daily Mirror. "Jeffrey lived his life on his terms and now he's ended it on his terms too. Justice was not served before, and it will not be served now. I hope he rots in hell."

Social-media judgments were frequent and fiery. After all, this man's personal-contacts file -- politicians, entertainers, Ivy League intellectuals and others -- was both famous and infamous. Epstein knew people who knew people.

"That Jeffrey Epstein was allowed to take the coward's way out & deny justice to his victims is a DISGRACE," tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. "Pedophiles deserve the Ninth Circle of Hell, but not before a full accounting."

The rush to consign Epstein to hell is interesting, since many Americans no longer believe in a place of eternal damnation -- a trend seen in polls in recent decades.

In 1990, a Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans believed in hell and only 4% of respondents thought there was a chance they would go to hell. In 2014, The Pew Research Center's Religious Landscape Study said 58% of American adults believed in hell, defined as a place where "people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished."

The bottom line: For many Americans, hell is for people who have already been damned in the court of public opinion -- since everyone agrees they are extraordinarily bad. This view of eternal life doesn't point to a reality that has anything to do with how normal people make choices and go about their lives. Hell is a vague, majority-vote concept that applies only to mass murderers and sickos involved in sex-abuse scandals.

Many modern people want eternal justice on their own terms. This desire may have little or nothing to do with God.

Doing the United Methodist math: Is the future in the Global South or American pews?

Doing the United Methodist math: Is the future in the Global South or American pews?

For more than 30 years, the Reconciling Ministries Network has openly opposed United Methodist teachings that marriage is the "union of one man and one woman" and that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Now, a special meeting of their denomination's General Conference has affirmed those doctrines and passed laws requiring clergy to follow them -- even in sanctuaries in which they have long been ignored.

Reconciling Ministries leaders were blunt: "The Traditionalist Plan was passed by the efforts of organized opponents to gospel inclusion who … have dared to call out a white nationalist strain of Christianity."

Leaders in Africa's booming United Methodist churches -- key players in efforts to defend ancient doctrines on marriage and sex -- find it "farfetched" to link them to white nationalism, said the Rev. Jerry P. Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia.

It's understandable that many United Methodists are "angry, bitter, discouraged and frustrated," said Kulah, after the St. Louis conference. After all, they invested years of money and work to pass the One Church Plan favored by most bishops, UMC agencies and academic leaders. It would have removed current Book of Discipline teachings on homosexuality and allowed local and regional leaders to settle controversial marriage and ordination issues.

Kulah said United Methodists in Africa and the Global South believe they have centuries of church history on their side.

"For us it is a foregone conclusion that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman -- as taught throughout scripture and as the missionaries from America and Europe taught our parents -- not between two persons of the same sex," he said. "No argument. No compromise."

At the heart of this clash is evolving United Methodist math. Unlike other Protestant bodies, the UMC is truly global, with 12.5 million members worldwide -- a number that is growing. However, there are only 6.9 million in the United States, where key statistics are declining -- especially in the more liberal North and West.

The more converts, the more members, the more votes in General Conference.

Funerals for Bush 41 pulled strong images of heaven into America's public square

Funerals for Bush 41 pulled strong images of heaven into America's public square

During 60 years of friendship, George H.W. Bush went on countless trips with James Baker III, his secretary of state and a confidant so close that America's 41st president liked to call him his "little brother."

On the last day of Bush's life, Baker checked on his friend. The result was an exchange Baker shared several times, including on CNN's "State of the Union."

"Hey, Bake, where are we going today?", asked Bush, alert after days of struggle.

"Well, Jefe, we're going to heaven," Baker replied.

"Good. That's where I want to go," said Bush.

Bush died about 12 hours later, surrounded by family and friends, including his pastor, the Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr. It was a time for prayers and good-byes, and the priest shared some details in sermons during both the state funeral in Washington, D.C., and the final rites at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, the Bush family's home parish for 50 years.

"It was a beautiful end. It was a beautiful beginning. … The president so loved his church -- he loved the Episcopal Church. He so loved our great nation. He so loved you, his friends. He so loved every member of his family," said Levenson, at Washington National Cathedral.

"But he was so ready to go to heaven. … My hunch is heaven, as perfect as it must be, just got a bit kinder and gentler." The priest turned and addressed the coffin, blending faith with language from Bush's days as a Navy pilot: "Mr. President, mission complete. Well done, good and faithful servant. Welcome to your eternal home, where ceiling and visibility are unlimited and life goes on forever."

There is nothing unusual about priests discussing heaven during funerals. After all, the Pew Research Center's massive "religious landscape" study a few years ago indicated that 72 percent of Americans believe in a place "where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded," and the number is 82 percent for those affiliated with a religious tradition.

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

For millions of American evangelicals, a recent Oval Office photo-op was a perfect example of the political realities they face.

A day after his release from a Turkish prison, the Rev. Andrew Brunson knelt and prayed for the president who helped focus a global spotlight on efforts to free him. Brunson had been accused of backing critics of the Turkish regime.

The pastor asked God to give Donald Trump "perseverance, and endurance and courage to stand for truth. I ask that you to protect him from slander from enemies, from those who would undermine. … Fill him with your wisdom and strength and perseverance. And we bless him."

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to smile.

Trump, in jest, asked Brunson and his wife: "Who did you vote for?"

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to groan.

In the current news theory of everything, few numbers in American political life have received more attention than this one -- 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Politicos have paid less attention to signs that many evangelicals cast those votes with reluctance, and some with a sense of dread.

"This was really a faith-based vote -- faith that Trump would operate as a conservative on the issues that mattered the most to evangelicals," said World Magazine editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky, a Christian conservative who, citing character flaws, openly opposed Trump getting the GOP nomination.

"I still don't like him at all, but I have to say that he's coming through. … It's a kind of politics by gesture, but he's pulling it off."

Praying with Brunson was "a perfect gesture," he added. But if Trump had "blown it on the Supreme Court, his support among evangelicals would have plummeted."

Before the election, World consulted 100 evangelical "leaders and insiders" and half of them said they wouldn't vote for Trump, "no matter what." The other half said they would watch for signals that Trump sent about the U.S. Supreme Court.

Christmas in America 2017: The season may be huuuuge, but it's not all that sacred

Christmas in America 2017: The season may be huuuuge, but it's not all that sacred

The way President Donald Trump sees things, his big tax-bill win on Capitol Hill was a giant -- maybe even huuuuge -- Christmas present for America.

"Remember I said we're bringing Christmas back? Christmas is back, bigger and better than ever before," he said, speaking in Utah earlier this week. "We're bringing Christmas back and we say it now with pride. Let me just say, to those here today and all across the country: Merry Christmas to everybody."

That's good rhetoric for a political rally, as long as most of the cheering people think of Christmas as a cultural season built on gifts, travel, fun, food, festivities and activities with friends and family. And that turns out to be true for 43.1 percent of those polled in a new survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute. Only 3.9 percent viewed Christmas exclusively in religious terms and another 11.4 percent as "mostly religious."

"It's important to realize that the commercialization of the season doesn't appear to be the driving factor in what's creating the cultural Christmas we see today," said Marc Pugliese, who teaches religion and theology at Saint Leo University in central Florida.

Many Americans, in fact, are "tired or fed up" with the tsunami of advertising and materialism they see every December, he added. "So you can't just say that the shopping mall has won. … But the reality is that almost everything that's going on is defined by the culture's secular calendar -- what's happening at school, at work and in the media."

The bottom line, he said, is clear: "Christmas is about parties and get-togethers with family and friends."

On the other side of the equation, 42.4 percent of those surveyed picked the "commercialization of the season" as the most annoying American Christmas "tradition," with 38.3 percent saying that the "early start for the Christmas season" got the nod in that department.

Looking for alternative forms of faith in the streets of postmodern Czech Republic

Looking for alternative forms of faith in the streets of postmodern Czech Republic

PRAGUE -- The Czech Republic's capital has long been called the "city of 100 spires" and there are many church steeples among all those soaring medieval landmarks.

But along the winding, cobblestone streets, something else is happening at eye level in the bookstores, artsy shops, coffee hangouts and sidewalk posters. This is where yoga mixes with sacred rocks, folk religion bumps into numerology and dark themes in fantasy comics blend into pop versions of Hinduism and Buddhism.

In today's Czech Republic, people are "still asking questions about what is good and what is bad, and questions about life and death," said Daniel Raus, a journalist and poet known for his years with Czech Radio, covering politics, culture and religion.

"What is different is that (Czechs) are saying, 'I will decide what is good and I will decide what is bad. No one can tell me what to believe about any of this.' "

These trends can be seen in revealing numbers in a new Pew Research Center study entitled "Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe."

Looking at the big picture, the survey shows that the influence and practice of faith is slipping in lands long identified with Catholicism, those closest to the European West. Eastern Orthodoxy is rising, especially in lands in which faith and national identity blend. Among the Orthodox, however, statistics linked to prayer and worship remain sobering.

But the location of the most stunning changes is clear.

"The most dramatic shift … has occurred in the Czech Republic, where the share of the public identifying as Catholic dropped from 44% in 1991 to 21% in the current survey," noted the Pew summary document. "Today, the Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in Europe, with nearly three-quarters of adults (72%) describing their religion as atheist, agnostic or 'nothing in particular.' "

Trump dominated 2016 news, but was not named Religion Newsmaker of the Year?

Trump dominated 2016 news, but was not named Religion Newsmaker of the Year?

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.

Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

No doubt about it, most mainstream pollsters thought the vote totals that rolled in during Election Night 2016 were intriguing, then stunning and, as dawn approached, almost unimaginable.

How did the chattering-class insiders miss what was clearly widespread heartland support for New York billionaire Donald Trump?

But there was one surprise left in the details of the early exit polls. In a race packed with soap-opera conflict and fiery rhetoric about personal ethics, morality and even faith, the experts looked at the role that religion played in 2016 and discovered -- to their shock -- that it was a rather normal modern election year.

"Actually, that's astonishing news," said Gregory A. Smith, who helps coordinate religion polling at the Pew Research Center. "If you consider all of the tumultuous events during this election year and how much tension there has been and all of the other stuff that's been up in the air, it's amazing that things were so steady" in terms of religion and voting, with "only a few numbers up or down a bit.

"Religious groups that have consistently supported the Republicans gave every indication they would back Donald Trump and that's how things turned out. The religious groups that traditionally back Democrats did so, but the turnout was down a bit. The religious groups that are usually divided were divided."

The so-called "God gap" (also known as the "pew gap") held steady, with religious believers who claimed weekly worship attendance backing Trump over Hillary Clinton, 56 percent to 40 percent. Voters who said they never attend religious services backed Clinton by a 31-point margin, 62 percent to 31 percent.