agnostics

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

NEW YORK -- Believe it or not, most Americans think their nation is becoming more tolerant, at least when it comes to warm feelings about most religious believers.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, in terms of "thermometer" ratings, Americans felt "warmer" about nearly all religious groups than they did in 2014. Even chilly ratings for atheists and Muslims are approaching a neutral 50 score.

But there was one glitch in this warming trend, with evangelical Protestants stuck on a plateau. Christianity Today magazine noted that, when the views of evangelicals were removed from the mix, only a third of non-evangelical Americans had warm feelings toward evangelicals. Flip that around and that means two-thirds of non-evangelicals have lukewarm or cold feelings about evangelical Christians.

"There's a sharp divide in this country and it's getting stronger. … This tension has been obvious for years, for anyone with the eyes to see," said political scientist Louis Bolce of Baruch College in the City University of New York. "It's all about moral and social issues. Some people don't like the judgmental streak that they see in traditional forms of Christianity, like in evangelicalism and among traditional Roman Catholics."

Bolce and colleague Gerald De Maio have, over two decades, mustered research demonstrating that journalists have shown little or no interest in the liberal side of this divide. While offering in-depth coverage of the Christian Right, journalists have all but ignored a corresponding rise in what the Baruch College duo have called "anti-fundamentalist" activists. Among Democrats, the term "evangelical" has become as negative as the old "fundamentalist" label.

When journalists deal with religion and politics, "prejudice is attributed to people on the Religious Right, but not to people on the secular and religious left. Everything flows from that," said De Maio.

'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."

Fewer Protestants, but better Protestants?

After decades of sobering statistics about rising intermarriage rates, falling birthrates and their declining flocks, eventually Jewish clergy began talking about a future in which there would be "fewer Jews, but better Jews." Faced with sobering evidence that the number of priests was falling, along with statistics for Confession and weekly Mass, many Catholic leaders started talking about a future in which there would be "fewer Catholics, but better Catholics."

Now, according to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Protestant leaders should start preparing for a future in which there will be "fewer Protestants, but better Protestants."

For the first time, America lacks a Protestant majority, with only 48 percent of the population claiming ties to Protestant denominations. Meanwhile, the surging tide of Americans rejecting ties specific religious groups -- the so-called "Nones" -- appears to pose a new threat to the declining "seven sisters" of liberal Protestantism. These churches, in descending order by size, are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

This survey shows that "it's going to be much more difficult for mainline churches to turn things around simply by focusing on higher levels of commitment," said political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron, after a briefing at the annual meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association of America. This research was a cooperative effort with the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Part of the problem is that fewer Americans remain committed to supporting religious institutions and a high percentage of those who do seem to favor faiths that embrace the very doctrines and traditions the unaffiliated often reject. It also appears that young people who are rejecting traditional faiths -- during the past five years in particular -- are quitting organized religion altogether, rather than joining progressive institutions.

"It's going to be hard for something like a 'fewer Methodists, but better Methodists' approach to work because these mainline churches are already so small and there are so many of them," said Green. "The mainliners will have to find their niche. But who are they? What do they believe? Do they know?"

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Americans -- especially the young -- are now willing to say that they do not believe. The Pew Research Center numbers indicate that millions of Americans are no longer willing, as was common in the past, to remain lukewarm members of religious bodies in which they were raised. Other key survey findings include:

* One-fifth of the U.S. public -- a third of those under 30 -- are now religiously unaffiliated, for a total of 46 million Americans. The unaffiliated have risen from just over 15 percent of the adult population to nearly 20 percent in five years. More than 70 percent of the unaffiliated called themselves "nothing in particular," as opposed to being either atheists or agnostics.

* Many "Nones" fit the "spiritual, but not religious" label used by many researchers, with more than two-thirds -- including some self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics -- saying they believe in God or a "higher power." More than half claim a deep connection with nature.

* In 2007, 60 percent of those who said they "seldom or never" attend worship services continued to claim some tie to a religious tradition. But today, only 50 percent in this camp retain such a tie -- a 10 percent drop in only five years. At the same time, 88 percent of the "Nones" said they are not interested in considering future to ties to religious institutions, either liberal or conservative.

* The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters -- with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."