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Gallup Poll team offers an update on faith and our divided states of America

Gallup Poll team offers an update on faith and our divided states of America

The cartoon map of North America began appearing after the bitter "hanging chads" election of 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court put Republican George W. Bush in the White House.

In most Internet variations, part of the map is blue, combining Canada and states along America's left coast and the urban Northeast and Midwest into "The United States of Liberty and Education." The rest is red, with America's Southern and Heartland states united into the "Republic of Jesusland" or tagged with a nasty name beginning with "dumb" and ending with "istan" that cannot be used in a family newspaper.

Variations on the "Jesusland" map have been relevant after nearly every national election in the past two decades. The map's basic shape can also be seen in the latest Gallup survey probing "religiosity" levels in all 50 American states.

Once again, Gallup found that Mississippi was No. 1, with 59 percent of its people claiming "very religious" status, in terms of faith intensity and worship attendance. Vermont was the least religious state, even in the secular New England region, with 21 percent of the population choosing the "very religious" label.

"You can see the 'R&R' connection, which means that -- among white Americans -- the more actively people practice their religion, the more likely they are to vote Republican," said Frank Newport, editor in chief at Gallup.

After Mississippi, the rest of the Top 10 "most religious" states were Alabama, Utah, South Dakota, South Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Georgia. After Vermont, the next nine least religious states were Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Nevada, Alaska, Oregon, Connecticut, Hawaii and New Hampshire.

"Religion isn't always a perfect guide to politics at the state level," said Newport, reached by telephone. "After all, New Hampshire is a swing state and Alaska is just its own thing."

Nevertheless, a reporter with decades of religion-beat experience took these Gallup numbers to the next level, overlapping them with state results in the hard-fought 2016 campaign. In terms of the "pew gap" phenomenon, there are few surprises.

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.

Americans willing to talk about politics, but few anxious to discuss religion

Americans willing to talk about politics, but few anxious to discuss religion

While it's hard to pinpoint the precise moment it happened, it's clear that most American discussions of religious liberty have turned into shouting matches about "religious liberty," a term now commonly framed in "scare quotes."

The recent U.S. Commission on Civil Rights "Peaceful Coexistence" report made this clear, claiming the First Amendment's defense of the free exercise of religion is not as important as some people think. Thus, "civil rights" now trump "religious liberty."

The commission stressed: "Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights."

In a quote that went viral online, commission chair Martin Castro added: "The phrases 'religious liberty' and 'religious freedom' will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia or any form of intolerance."

This creates a major problem for Americans who are worried about civil public discourse or even the odds of having friendly conversations with friends, family and neighbors, noted Scott McConnell, head of LifeWay Research.

"What did our parents tell us when we were growing up? They warned us not to talk about politics, not to talk about religion and not to talk about sex," he said, reached by telephone.

"Well, it's hard to talk about anything that matters these days -- like religious liberty -- without talking about all three of those things and usually at the same time. ... No wonder people are tense."

Just how tense are Americans, when it comes to talking about religion?

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."

What, me worry? Whatever II

EDITOR'S NOTE: Second of two columns on teens and ethics. When pollsters ask Americans the Eternal Question they almost always say, "I believe in God."

Ask young Americans about faith and the response is something like, "I believe in God and stuff." Finding the doctrinal meaning of "and stuff" is tricky.

"God made us and if you ask him for something I believe he gives it to you. Yeah, he hasn't let me down yet," said a 14-year-old Catholic from Pennsylvania, when researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton asked him why religion matters. "God is a spirit that grants you anything you want, but not anything bad."

The key is that this God -- part Divine Butler, part Cosmic Therapist -- watches from a safe distance.

"God's all around you, all the time," said conservative Protestant girl, 17, from Florida. "He believes in forgiving people and what-not, and he's there to guide us, for somebody to talk to and help us through our problems. Of course, he doesn't talk back."

If grown-ups roll their eyes at litanies such as these, most teens offer a chilly response that sums up their creeds -- "whatever."

Thus it was significant, in the Josephson Institute's latest Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, that 48 percent of the students surveyed in 100 random public and private high schools said they had "never" violated their own "religious beliefs" during 2007. Other parts of this survey made headlines, especially its reports that a third of the students said they stole something from a store during the previous year, while 38 percent committed plagiarism, 64 percent cheated on a test and 83 percent lied to a parent about something important.

Few of these young people are "unbelievers" or, heaven forbid, "secularists," noted Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. The overwhelming majority of them -- like their parents -- would insist that they are practicing Christians, Jews, Muslims or whatever.

"Plenty of religious kids do steal and cheat and whatever," he said, responding to the Josephson survey. "They have in their heads some image of what 'religious' really looks like. For many -- not all -- young people, the meaning of that word is so vague it can mean almost anything or nothing whatsoever. The bar is set low and their take on religion certainly doesn't include concepts such as self sacrifice, repentance or self mortification."

These young people are religious, he stressed. They are simply practicing a new religion, one that Smith and Denton called "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." When crunched to its basics, this faith teaches that:

* A God exists who "created and orders the world" and watches over our lives.

* This God wants people to be good, nice and fair to one another, as taught by most major religions.

* The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good.

* God is rarely involved in daily life, except when needed to solve a problem.

* Good people go to heaven.

This is not a faith that can stand on its own, noted Smith, in a lecture at the Princeton Theological Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry. Instead, it is a "parasitic religion" that creates weakened, less rigid versions of other faiths -- such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. There may even, he noted, be "Nonreligious Moralistic Therapeutic Deists" in modern America.

When describing their beliefs, most young people say it's important to be kind to one another and to try to live a good life. There are few limitations on behavior, other than loose rules that say it is wrong to hurt other people, especially one's friends. "Don't be a jerk" is a common refrain.

Words such as "sanctification," "Trinity," "sin," "holiness" and "Eucharist" have little or no meaning. Most references to "grace" refer to the television show "Will and Grace." If teens mention being "justified," this almost always means that they think they have a good reason to do something that others consider questionable.

This faith, Smith explained, blends well with popular culture and media.

"It's a religion that works at the level of email and texting and long hours talking on your cellphones," he said. "It's all about relationships. Your religion has to work with your friends and it has to bring you happiness. That's what really matters."

God words vs. actions

When it comes to religion, modern Americans think religious beliefs are good, but they tend to worry about beliefs that affect other people.

As a rule, religious words are safer than religious actions.

Consider these numbers from a new Ellison Research study that shows surprising support -- on the left and right, among believers and skeptics -- for freedom of expression when it comes to words and symbols.

An overwhelming 90 percent of adults agreed that faith groups should be allowed to rent public property, such as a school gyms, if laws gave non-religious groups the same right. Asked about allowing a moment of silence in public schools, 89 percent said that was fine. Another 88 percent said teachers should have the right to wear jewelry, such as a cross or a Star of David, in public-school classes.

"There is a lot of unity out there about these kinds of issues," said Ron Sellers, president of the research firm in Phoenix. "But the specifics do matter. Wearing a cross on your lapel is not the same thing as showing up a school wearing a t-shirt with a big cross on it and the words, 'Believe in Jesus or you're going to hell.'

"There's no way to say that approving one thing is the same as approving another, even though the same principle is at stake."

The key is that religion is bad if it makes large numbers of people uncomfortable.

For example, 83 percent of the survey participants said it should be legal to put nativity scenes on public property, such as city hall lawns, and 79 percent supported the posting of the Ten Commandments in court buildings. But that number fell to 60 percent when they were asked about Muslim displays on public property during Ramadan.

This study asked another crucial question linked to a religious liberty issue that is affecting a wide variety of faith groups, especially in higher education.

The researchers asked if respondents agreed that it "should be legal for a religious club in a high school or university to determine for itself who can be in their membership, even if certain types of people are excluded." The result was a stark divide, with only 52 percent agreeing that religious groups should be able to enforce their own doctrines among their own members.

"People might respond differently if you asked the same question, but were more specific," said Sellers. "I think most Americans believe that a Jewish student union should have the right to say, 'No, you're Muslim. You cannot join our group.' But what if it's a conservative Christian group that says, 'No, you cannot join our group because you're gay'? American aren't sure what they think about that, right now."

The trend is clear. Vague talk is safer than clear action. Personal beliefs are good, but not if these doctrines lead to actions that indicate that some beliefs are right and others wrong.

Seeking is good, but finding is bad.

Judging is even worse.

For example, a new survey by the Southern Baptist Convention's LifeWay Research team found that 72 percent of "unchurched" Americans who rarely if ever attend worship services believe that "God, a higher or supreme being, actually exists." However, 61 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the God of the Bible is "no different from the gods or spiritual beings depicted by world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc."

The researchers found that 78 percent of the respondents claimed that they would be "willing to listen" if a Christian wanted to share talk about their beliefs. Then again, 44 percent agreed that "Christians get on my nerves."

"There is a sense in our culture that is acceptable to believe in anything spiritual, as long as it makes you a better person and helps you find peace," said Ed Stetzer, leader of the LifeWay Research team. "One's faith only becomes a problem when that belief actually makes claims that contradicts the faith of others."

In an age of "I'm OK, You're OK" spirituality, he added, "American spirituality has glorified 'searching' for spiritual meaning, but de-emphasized 'finding.' In other words, it is good to be looking for spirituality, but it is intolerant to actually believe you have found a right faith. ... Intolerance is defined to mean actually believing that your faith is the correct one."