nones

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.

Religious leaders struggle to reach 'emerging adults'

When leaders of traditional faith groups think about reaching out to Millennials, religious seekers, unaffiliated "Nones" and other postmodern young Americans, this is the voice that many keep hearing in their heads.

"Morality is how I feel too, because in my heart, I could feel it," said one person interviewed in the National Study of Youth and Religion. "You could feel what's right and wrong in your heart as well as your mind. Most of the time, I always felt, I feel it in my heart and it makes it easier for me to morally decide what's right and wrong. Because if I feel about doing something, I'm going to feel it in my heart, and if it feels good, I'm going to do it."

Seconds later, young people caught up in what experts now call "emerging adulthood" may stress that they are open to attending multigenerational congregations that offer roots, tradition and mentors. But how will they know when they have found the right spiritual home?

Right. When they feel it.

That's a hard target to hit, said Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of "Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back." Many religious leaders are struggling to find a "sweet spot between deep religious messages that sound cool" and faith that "seems like it comes from a sappy self-help book," she noted.

In light of current trends, it's also hard for clergy to take comfort in the trend seen in previous generations, which is that young people who abandon the pews usually return when they are married and have children. Trouble is, increasing numbers of Americans between 20 and 40 are delaying marriage, family and any community ties that bind. Some are opting out of marriage altogether.

This creates strong moral tensions.

An honest Easter with doubters and the 'nones'

It's the first thing people do after meeting strangers in coffee shops and clubs favored by the young professionals now flocking into Austin, Portland and America's other trendy postmodern cities. Job one is to define themselves in terms of what they do and what they believe. "I am an accountant," one will say. "I am a vegetarian," or "I am gay," or "I am a techie," others will reply. Hipsters don't need to say, "I am a hipster," because everyone can see the obvious.

"Usually, our identity will emerge as a composite" of these kinds of labels, noted the Rev. Jonathan Dodson of Austin and the Rev. Brad Watson of Portland, in a small book of meditations on the resurrection entitled "Raised?"

"It will have a hidden mantra that goes something like this: I am what I eat, who I sleep with, how I make money, what I wear, what I look like, or where I came from. ... If you cannot imagine yourself without that statement being true, you have likely found something that is core to your identity."

For many Americans that core still includes a religious label, like "I am a Christian," noted Dodson, founding pastor of City Life Church, which meets in the Ballet Austin complex near downtown. And millions who make that claim, with varying degrees of fervor, will flock to churches this weekend for the year's one service in which almost all pews are full -- Easter.

Instead of affirming a "sentimental" or "mushy" faith on this Christian holy day, Dodson thinks more pastors should ask a blunt question: Do you really believe Jesus was raised from the dead?

If some people confess doubts, that would be good because sincere doubt leads to true faith more often than hidden apathy. This is especially true when discussing the brash claim that has been at the heart of Christianity for 2,000 years, he said. Thus, it's time to ask lukewarm believers to question their faith and to ask modern doubters to question their doubts.

This blunt approach would be timely in light of surveys indicating that more Americans -- especially the young -- are changing how they think about faith, including the role of scripture and the need for any ties to organized religion.

For example, the American Bible Society's recent "State of the Bible" survey found that the percentage of "Bible skeptics" is now precisely the same -- 19 percent -- as for those who are truly "engaged" in Bible reading and who strongly value biblical authority. The "Bible friendly" segment of the population shrank from 45 to 37 percent.

The 19 percent figure for "Bible skeptics" matched the key finding in a headline-producing Pew Research Center survey in 2012, which found that nearly 20 percent of American adults -- the so-called "nones" -- no longer identify with any given religion. The "religiously unaffiliated" number was 30 percent for those under the age of 30.

Meanwhile, one common theme in recent surveys is that an increasing number of Americans no longer believe they need to claim a traditional faith, and Christianity in particular, because they no longer see themselves as sinners -- especially when discussing doctrinal issues linked to sexuality.

This moral sea change could, for some people, even undercut belief in the resurrection. After all, if the resurrection actually happened, that validates the central claim of Christian tradition, which in turn validates biblical teachings about sin, repentance and forgiveness.

"What ruffles feathers is the God-sized claim" that Jesus died to atone for the sins of humanity, noted Dodson and Watson. This insistence "that we all need an atoning representative troubles our dignity. ... In light of recent horror trends, we might be more inclined to believe in a zombie emerging from the dead than a resurrected and fully restored person."

With doubts and open unbelief on the rise, it's time for church leaders to face this issue head on, said Dodson. This is no time to duck the central question at Easter.

"In so much of popular Christianity today, people are just nodding their heads and saying they believe all of these doctrines, but this really isn't having much of an impact on their lives," he said. "If they actually believe in the resurrection, it should make a difference. … The resurrection matters more than the Easter bunny."

'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."

Surviving the Easter crush, 2013

There must a law, deep in the cosmic base code, that if parents dress their nine children in Easter white -- especially when the New England snow is melting -- at least one will fall into the mud. "It was tough," said Simcha Fisher, describing this Easter's obstacle course, "but we survived all that and made it to Mass."

This was not an ordinary Mass, of course. The Fishers -- with children ranging from 15 months to nearly 15 years -- were trying to get into the 11:15 a.m. rites on the day when their New Hampshire parish would be jammed with those known, in commentaries on modern church life, as Christmas and Easter Only Catholics (CEOs), Poinsettia and Lily Catholics or even Two-Timers.

In a kind of Easter miracle, the Fishers found adequate real estate in a pew. "The church was, of course, packed," noted Fisher, in a telephone interview. "The family in front of us was dressed to the nines and they seemed to be trying to break the world record for the consumption of gum" during Mass.

Fisher knows that this narration sounds whiny. After all, this year she approached the most important day on the Christian calendar even more aware than normal of the tensions between Christmas and Easter Only worshipers and the faithful who attend week after week. As Holy Week came to a close, the National Catholic Register columnist had committed herself, in print, to being more hopeful and welcoming this Easter.

That's nice, but what are church-going Catholics supposed to do when faced with CEOs chattering during Mass "like they're in a football stadium," while turning the "Resurrection of our Lord into a photo op, turning what should be the most joyous holy days into an occasion of sin for faithful Catholics," she wrote.

It's one thing to promise to be more understanding, he noted. It's something else to struggle with the reality of legions of almost visitors.

"I really am glad that they're there," wrote Fisher. "It's got to be better than never going to Mass, and I do believe that the Holy Spirit could easily use that opportunity to send a powerful word, a lingering image, a stray idea into the mind or heart of a fallen-away Catholic, and a casual visit that was made just out of habit, or to please someone's grandma, might be the first step to coming back home to the faith. And yeah, they're not being reverent. Neither am I, by going through the motions while grumbling in my heart.

"But I know my limits. I know I'm not going to suddenly turn into Mother Teresa, especially if I show up 40 minutes early and STILL have to spend the whole Mass on my poor tired feet, trying to keep nine kids docile and attentive when the strangers who did get a seat are playing on their Gameboys. With the sound on."

At some point, this crush will affect whether some believers -- even the most faithful -- are willing to endure the tension in Easter pews, noted Joe Carter, senior editor at the Acton Institute. Recent numbers from LifeWay Research indicated that only 58 percent of self-identified Protestants, 57 percent of Catholics and 45 percent of nondenominational church members said they were likely to attend Easter services. It's legitimate to ask why so many believers are staying away, he argued.

Perhaps this trend can be explained with the help of a quip by baseball legend Yogi Berra, said Carter. When asked why he no longer frequented a popular restaurant, Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

Fisher said that, before opting out of Easter rites, frustrated parents could seek less popular services in the parish schedule, make strategic plans to arrive 45 minutes early and have family pep talks with their children about what to expect. And then there is the "Hallmark trap" in which worshipers are tempted to expect a picture-perfect Easter packed with emotional goodies.

It's easy to mutter, "But I DESERVE a flood of peace and grace and joy on Easter, because it's the Resurrection, dammit! But there's no guarantee Easter will work out that way," wrote Fisher. "We need Easter because we're crappy people who get mad at other people, even during Mass. ... Thank God the graces of the Risen Lord don't come to us only when it's a picture-perfect Mass."

Talking to real, live 'Nones'

Like many computer pros whose lives revolve around the Internet, Marc Yoder eventually created a weblog in which to share his views on life, technology, faith and other cultural issues that happened to cross his path. His "Marc5Solas" site -- the musings of a self-proclaimed "nobody from nowhere" -- drew a quiet hundred readers a week.

Then the 42-year-old Yoder wrote his "Top 10 Reasons our Kids Leave Church" post, based on dozens of face-to-face conversations with college students and 20-something agnostics and atheists in San Antonio. He offered them coffee, the occasional lunch and a chance to vent. They did just that.

"We all know them, the kids who were raised in church. They were stars of the youth group. They maybe even sang in the praise band or led worship," noted Yoder.

Then they vanish. About 70 percent slip away somewhere between high school, college and the office, according to researchers. How many return?

"Half. Let that sink in," noted Yoder. "There's no easy way to say this: The American Evangelical church has lost, is losing and will almost certainly continue to lose OUR YOUTH."

Before he knew it, 500,000-plus people had visited the website and his manifesto went viral on Twitter and other social-media platforms. Then the agonized digital epistles began arriving. A few religious leaders started looking for the man behind the brash post.

"There was lots of church bashing, but I expected that," said Yoder, reached by telephone. What hit him hard were the "worried voices" of "people concerned that something fundamental had gone wrong in modern churches and they couldn't put their finger on what that something was," he said.

What Yoder had done was tap into one of 2012's hottest cultural trends, which was the rise of the "religiously unaffiliated" -- the so-called "nones." The key numbers emerged from research backed by the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life and the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

The study's findings have loomed over a variety of news events in recent months, from debates about gay marriage to the challenges facing a new pope. The key facts: One-fifth of the U.S. public -- and a third of adults under 30 -- are now religiously unaffiliated. The ranks of the unaffiliated have risen, in only five years, from about 15 percent of American adults to nearly 20 percent. This trend appears to be accelerating.

What is happening with the dropouts? Among Yoder's blunt observations:

* Churches offering the atmosphere of Starbucks/Dave & Buster's "knockoffs" are no longer cool for the young. "Our kids meet the real world and our 'look, we're cool like you' posing is mocked. ... The middle-aged pastor trying to look like his 20-something audience isn't relevant. Dress him up in skinny jeans and hand him a latte, it doesn't matter. ... The minute you aim to be 'authentic,' you're no longer authentic."

* Many young people have never been to a real church, since they were raised in multi-media nurseries and then taken into hip church services built around jumbo video screens and rock bands. "They've never sat on a pew between a set of new parents with a fussy baby and a senior citizen on an oxygen tank," he argued. In short, many have never seen faith applied to the full timeline of real life.

* Rather than teaching tough truths about tough issues, many religious leaders now sell a faith rooted in emotions and pragmatism. "Rather than an external, objective, historical faith, we've given our youth an internal, subjective faith. The evangelical church isn't catechizing or teaching our kids the fundamentals, ... we're simply encouraging them to 'be nice' and 'love Jesus'," he said.

* Young people are also supposed to be winners all the time and there is little room for "depression, or struggle, or doubt" in many big churches, argued Yoder. The bottom like: "Turn that frown upside down or move along."

It's hard to talk about sin, repentance, grace and forgiveness in that kind of happy-talk environment. Far too many of what Yoder called the "big box" churches are not the kinds of places in which young believers learn to wrestle with the timeless tragedies and modern temptations of life.

"The church," he said, "is simply a place to learn life-application principles to achieve a better life. ... You don't need a crucified Jesus for that."