To paraphrase my friend Dan Kearns, The Washington Post‘s story about the Pew study is too much Aristotle and too little Plato and Thucydides. It contained interesting facts and figures, but lacked a big idea or organizing device.
Journalists don’t exactly have reputation as numbers crunchers. So it was refreshing to read Post Reporters Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline L. Salmon detail the religious landscape:
(The) survey confirms on a grand scale trends that demographers have noted for years: the slipping percentage of Protestants, now down to 51, and the rise of people who call themselves unaffiliated, now at 16 percent, up from similar surveys.
The survey also lays out … the Catholic Church’s challenge here: no American faith group has lost more adherents. Among U.S. adults, about the same percentage — 24 — call themselves Catholic as in the past, but that statistic masks significant turnover. The percentage has held up primarily because of the huge number of recent Latino immigrants, who are largely Catholic, the survey found. Sixty-eight percent of people raised Catholic still identify with their childhood
Also, Boorstein and Salmon provided useful statistics about American Catholics:
Some Catholic researchers played down the survey’s finding that about 10 percent of U.S. adults are former Catholics, and they said the church has always been significantly impacted by immigration. They also said the church’s membership has increased by about 20 million since 1965.
The problem with the Post‘s story is that the facts and figures were disconnected from one another. It was too much micro and too little macro. Yes, like other reporters who wrote about the Pew study, Boorstein and Salmon wrote on a tight deadline. And yes, they broached one larger theme:
Old barometers of religiosity such as church membership are becoming less important as Americans craft a more bottom-up, individualized concept of faith.
Leave aside the term “old barometers.” Concentrate on the phrase “bottom-up, individualized concept of faith.” Does this refer to what Robert Putnam calls privatized religion? To flexidoxy? To apatheism? To indifferentism?
Those questions might sound like quibbles, but they are not. The Post‘s story failed to tell readers the significance of the trends it described. More Americans switch religions and denominations, more Catholics are leaving the faith while more people are becoming non-religious — readers want to know what’s all the fuss about. What are the social implications of the move toward a individualized concept of faith?
To take one example, political scientist Putnam argues that Americans’ embrace of privatized religion is a symptom of civic decay. Americans are less and less likely to work together to solve problems, especially those that afflict the poor and neglected. Instead of working through their churches to serve the community as a whole, they go to church to save themselves.
The tight deadline on this story made it difficult for reporters to give readers the big picture or an interpretive framework. But they still have time this week. They should go for it: deliver a factual and intellectual scoop. A little Thucydides can go a long way.