Those consistently complex “Catholic voters”

51772329If you read the comments threads on the Divine Mrs. MZ’s recent post on Notre Dame, President Barack Obama and the U.S. Catholic bishops (or some of them, at least), you can see that we are veering back into familiar territory. I am referring to the tendency among many mainstream journalists to make references to trends among “Catholic voters,” “American Catholics” and other broadly defined terms that reveal next to nothing in terms of usable information.

The truth, of course, is that it is becoming harder and harder to argue that American Catholics are part of one church, with one approach to doctrine, morality or church life.

At the Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein managed to pack some of this complexity into a way-to-short update under the headline, “Notre Dame’s Obama Award OK with Most Catholics.” The word “most” is crucial, of course. Here’s the lede:

There is a vocal and influential constituency of American Catholics who disapprove of the University of Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to speak at the Catholic university and receive an honorary degree in mid-May. But almost twice as many Catholics approve of the invite — not a total shock since the majority of American Catholic voters cast ballots for the president.

Catholics upset with Notre Dame for giving Obama (a supporter of abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research) what many see as American Catholicism’s highest award have been slamming Notre Dame since the honor was announced.

So who are these angry Catholics? The road, as usual, leads to the omnipresent pollsters at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. And once again, the most significant statistic can be found further into the report, way past the headline grabbing fact that 50 percent “of Catholics” (whatever) back Notre Dame’s decision to violate a U.S. Catholic Bishops policy (full text here) by giving Obama an honorary doctorate, while 22 percent “say they disaprove.”

But here is the key statistic, if you want to understand the complexity that many reporters are missing — especially in newsrooms without experienced religion-beat professionals.

… (A)uthors of the poll note that there is a gap in the Notre Dame controversy that persists in so many arenas — between more and less observant Catholics. Among white, non-Hispanic Catholics who attend church weekly or more often, approval of the decision plummets to 37 percent. Forty-five percent said the decision was wrong. Among those who attend “less often,” 56 percent support the invite while 23 percent oppose it.

Pew’s poll also shows that weekly attending white Catholics are now noticeably more negative toward Obama’s performance compared with earlier this year. In fact, a plurality of this group (45%) now disapproves of the job Obama is doing, more than double the figure in February (20%).

Here is the actual language from the poll’s executive summary:

… (A) new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life also finds a deep division on this issue between the most-observant Catholics and those who are less observant, as defined by frequency of worship service attendance. These findings are consistent with Catholic’s overall views of Obama: a majority voted for him in the 2008 presidential election and express approval of his performance in office thus far. The new findings are also consistent with Catholics’ views on abortion and embryonic stem cell research, with pluralities in the poll expressing support for each. But a division between the most-observant Catholics and less-observant Catholics also is apparent on these issues.

Did you catch that? The disagreement over Notre Dame and Obama is essentially the same as the disagreement among clashing American Catholic camps over the issue of the moral and legal status of abortion itself. In fact, 61 percent of the “attend less often” Catholics believe that abortion rights should be protected in all or most cases, as opposed to 30 percent (still an interesting number) among the “attend weekly” Catholics.

Clearly, there needs to be another line drawn inside the “attend weekly” flock if we are interested in finding what unites the Catholics — the pro-catechism Catholics? — who back the U.S. bishops’ statement opposing the granting of honors to those who actively oppose Catholic teachings. We need to know more about the Catholics who are mad at Notre Dame.

Thus, let me once again share the four-pronged typology that a veteran priest here in Washington, D.C., gave me a few years ago. There are, he said, four kinds of Catholics in this country and, thus, four “Catholic votes” on almost any issue. Any news report that lumps these groups together isn’t worth very much.

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. Cultural conservatives have no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be one of those all-important “undecided voters” depending on what’s happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

So, who is cheering for Notre Dame? Who is booing?

I confess (key word) that I think the pros at the Pew Forum needed to ask one more question. The weekly Mass question is crucial, but what about that other controversial sacrament? What about people who do and don’t go to confession?

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Seeing Thew Forrester for the trees

KTFCover.jpgBack in February, Terry noted the story of the election of Father Kevin Thew Forrester as the new bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan. Thew Forrester’s views on Christianity are less than traditional. He wondered why the story — lighting up the blogosphere — didn’t attract more mainstream media attention. And a few weeks ago Terry noted an interview Arkansas Democrat-Gazette religion editor Frank Lockwood secured with Thew Forrester.

Well, Lockwood is back with another interesting installment. It’s probably best read by following the entire story and backstory at his BibleBeltBlogger site, but Lockwood contacted the roughly 100 U.S. dioceses to find out whether the House of Bishops will even consent to Thew Forrester’s election. And, it turns out, the odds aren’t in his favor:

If a majority withhold their consent, Thew Forrester will be the first bishop-elect since the 1930s to be vetoed by the bishops of the church.

Bishops on the left and right say they’ll vote “no.”

“Statistically or politically, however you may like to describe it, there is only a slim chance of [Thew] Forrester pulling this one out,” predicts the Rev. George Conger, an Episcopal priest and chief correspondent for the Church of England Newspaper.

In the blogosphere and in official church publications, the focus has been on the dispute over the bishop-elect’s Zen Buddhist meditation practices and the unconventional process that led to his election. However, Lockwood finds out through his old-fashioned reporting techniques that the large number of Episcopal bishops object to him on theological and liturgical grounds. They say the meditation practices and the election process are not the key stumbling blocks, according to Lockwood.

Now I don’t know if this has been ignored by the rest of the mainstream media because the larger story involves doctrine about something other than sex or because it doesn’t fit the preferred narrative that The Episcopal Church should be syncretistic, but it’s a shame. Lockwood, by contacting each diocese, gets some great information from those who oppose the election. The 10 who do support Thew Forrester have not given public defenses of his views.

The [Right] Rev. Paul V. Marshall, for example, expressed doubts that Thew Forrester would “proclaim unambiguously the gospel of Christ in all its fullness.”

“As a Church we are increasingly a laughingstock. Not because we welcome lesbian and gay people, and carry on social ministries that enact the sacrifice of Christ on a corporate basis, and certainly not because of our latitude and the conversation it engenders. We are a laughingstock because we do not consistently proclaim a solid core, words as simple as ‘all have sinned and come short of the glory of God [Romans 3:23],’ yet ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself [2 Corinthians 5:19],’” wrote Marshall, the bishop of Bethlehem, Pa.

“Increasingly it seems that the Cross has become foolishness in the Church. … If our embarrassment is going to end, the voices of bishops as clear, traditional and powerful evangelists need to be raised in the churches and in the marketplace.” Bishops like Marshall began wrestling with Thew Forrester’s fate in March. They have until July to cast their votes.

Yesterday I pointed out the importance of getting quotes where actual religious views are expressed. This is a great example of doing just that rather than using the more popular political quotes.

Along with the main story, Lockwood posted three sidebars. One deals with quotes from other Anglicans and other Christians about Thew Forrester’s views. The second compares the bishop-elect’s views with quotes from Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer, a Jesus Seminar fellow, Bishop John Shelby Spong and Bart Ehrman. The third sidebar contains quotes from the bishop-elect about sin, salvation and Buddhism. These sidebars help provide perspective on Thew Forrester’s views in the context of the larger world and history of Christianity.

Too bad there’s no sex scandal to get the rest of the mainstream media interested!

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So how many bishops back Notre Dame now?

obamacatholicsWith so many Roman Catholic bishops speaking out against Notre Dame University’s decision to honor President Barack Obama at this year’s commencement, we’ve seen quite a few stories in the mainstream press. When Mary Ann Glendon declined to receive the Laetare Medal in protest, we saw even more. But it’s been hard to put the story in perspective or context since there have been few stories looking at the overall scenario.

So I was happy to see Eric Gorski’s piece for the Associated Press that discusses the general situation. He begins with the news that Orlando Bishop Thomas Wenski will celebrate a Mass of Reparation to make amends for sins against God in response to what Wenski calls Notre Dame’s “clueless” decision to bestow on Obama an honorary doctorate:

The nation’s flagship Catholic university’s honoring of a politician whose abortion rights record clashes with a fundamental church teaching has triggered a reaction among the nation’s Catholic bishops that is remarkable in scope and tone, church observers say.

At least 55 bishops have publicly denounced or questioned Notre Dame in recent weeks, employing an arsenal of terms ranging from “travesty” and “debacle” to “extreme embarrassment.”

The bishops’ response is part of a decades-long march to make abortion the paramount issue for their activism, a marker of the kind of bishops Rome has sent to the U.S. and the latest front in a struggle over Catholic identity that has exposed rifts between hierarchy and flock.

Triggers, arsenals and marches, oh my! Apart from the metaphors, perhaps, it’s nice to have what’s happening explained in context of the Catholic hierarchy and its role in the public square. Gorski explains that those who have spoken out represent “20%” of the bishops and describes them as a minority but more than double the number who publicly said then-Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry, a Catholic, should be refused Communion or refrain from it because of his abortion stance. It might be nice to be told how many Catholic bishops have supported Notre Dame’s decision. I believe that the total number is zero, too small to even be a minority.

Gorski includes a helpful quote that explains the perspective of Catholics who support the church’s teachings and why they don’t support honoring Obama. He also explains that Wenski is not among the nation’s more confrontational bishops and decided to encourage Catholics to pray.

Wenski said he will not “preach a tirade against Notre Dame” during the Monday night Mass at Orlando’s Cathedral of St. James. What must be atoned for, Wenski said, is complacency among U.S. Catholics about the legal killing of unborn children, which contributed to the climate that allowed Notre Dame to think it was all right to honor Obama.

You know, the paragraph above is a good example of great reporting and it is shocking how rarely we see it. This is how many bishops speak. This is how many clergy speak. It’s not political so we rarely see it included in stories. This Christian perspective about sin and complacency and the need for repentance among the flock is common — but it doesn’t fit the typical narrative about Christians hypocritically taking pitchforks to others, and so we don’t see it enough. I’m always struck by the variance between what I hear in Christian circles and how Christianity is presented in the mainstream media. I bet most of the bishops, clergy and laypeople who are upset about honoring Obama have discussed this complacency problem and yet this is the first time I’ve seen it presented in the mainstream media.

Unfortunately, the story has some weaknesses, too. It claims Mary Ann Glendon turned down the medal “because she was to have shared the stage with Obama.” Um, not exactly. Otherwise she would have turned it down the moment he was announced. And if it was about sharing the stage with Obama, why would she have given four reasons for declining the medal, none of which have to do with sharing a stage with him?

Or what about this section which begins by saying bishops have long fought abortion “but it’s never been their sole focus.” It’s not now, either, of course:

Many Catholic bishops, however, worried that abortion was getting shortchanged. Those who argue abortion trumps everything say that other issues are irrelevant without the beginning of life and that things like capital punishment and war are sometimes justified.

Bishops hammered that home in November 2007 with a statement on faithful citizenship that said: “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many.”

The second paragraph is clear but I find the first a bit confusing. Anyway, there have been quite a few reporters wondering — on their blogs or otherwise — why people are so much more upset about Obama’s abortion stance than other politicians’ stance on other issues. That quote from the bishops — which has been around for some time, of course, helps clarify.

The story goes on to suggest a major rift between the Catholic bishops and Catholics in general:

So far, the Notre Dame saga doesn’t seem to be resonating. Only about half of Catholics surveyed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life from April 23 to 27 had heard about the controversy.

About half of U.S. Catholics supported Notre Dame, 28% said the school was wrong and 22% had no opinion, the poll found. People who attend Mass frequently were more likely to oppose the university’s stance, and also gave Obama lower job performance marks.

I just find this a bit weak. I mean, I don’t even know if the percentage of Catholics who have heard about the controversy is more or less than the American average. And when Pew sent its press release about the poll to me, they pitched it as something completely different. People who don’t attend Mass weekly and are otherwise less observant were fine with Notre Dame’s invite. Those who do attend Mass weekly said it was wrong for Notre Dame to invite Obama. Catholics are such a huge percentage of the population that most reporting on them is served by breaking down observance levels. Particularly since there is a somewhat unique practice among Catholics of retaining the identity apart from any subscription to the church’s teachings, practices or devotional schedule. There’s also the issue that many Catholics supported Obama for President.

And since we’re talking about resonance and the abortion debate, it might be good to include another, even more recent Pew poll that shows a dramatic slip in American support for legalized abortion. I have yet to read any mainstream coverage of this poll. The proportion saying that abortion should be legal in all or most cases has declined to 46 percent from 54 percent just last August. The poll doesn’t ask people why they are changing their positions but certainly it’s worth considering whether the public voice of the Catholic bishops has any influence.

The piece ends nicely, though, with more discussion of Wenski, who explains that the bishops are not angry at Obama but the university leadership. Still, they are frustrated with the Obama administration’s decision to fund overseas groups that perform abortions, expansions of research that destroys human embryos and proposed revisions to conscience clauses that protect health workers. Gorski notes that Wenski speaks out about torture and immigration as well and quotes Wenski explaining that bishops are not looking for a fight but standing on principle. It’s nice to get some more perspective from these bishops who are speaking out so much against Notre Dame University.

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Obama seeking right church on left?

Now that the White House has settled the puppy issue, folks inside the DC Beltway have returned to whispering about the even more symbolic issue — the First Family’s church home. This means it’s time for a trip into tmatt’s folder of GetReligion guilt.

You see, a team of Washington Post reporters offered a news feature on that topic a week ago and some of the details in it were so specific that — honest — I thought a decision might be right around the corner. But another week has passed, so let me note the sections of this piece that rang the bell for me.

The headline focused on the highly personal element of all this for African-American church leaders around here: “Quiet Prayer in D.C. Churches for Obama’s Decision — Questions of Race, Faith Fold Into One: Will He Choose Us?” But, the story also notes another theme that has, until now, played only a minor role in mainstream reports on this topic.

What might that be? It can be stated as a question that has been asked before here at GetReligion: What if Barack and Michelle Obama have some strong theological beliefs and they actually want to join a church that shares their approach to doctrine and faith?

I know that this cuts against the views of some on the right that the president is faking his faith. I have always argued that this is not the case and that he is what he has said he is — a sincere, liberal, mainline Protestant whose approach to faith is built on a modernist, non-literal approach to scripture.

But this creates an awkward situation here in Washington, where the most powerful, high-profile African-American churches may or may not be able to affirm that Obama approach to faith, morality and doctrine. Clearly, they want to embrace the president and his family, but, well, certain subjects could cause trouble.

So here is the dominant image that reporters are using and the questions they are asking:

Will the Obamas affiliate themselves with a black church, which could signal that they are still comfortable making their spiritual home one that is predominantly African American? Or will they choose a mostly white or racially integrated church, sending the message that they are interested in shifting the paradigm of religion and race?

That’s the normal template. But later in the story we read that, in addition to Nineteenth Street Baptist Church and other obvious choices, the Obamas are considering some interesting options. For example:

Other churches are familiar to the White House because prominent staff members have long ties in the city. Melody C. Barnes, White House domestic policy director, is an active member of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ, a church that is theologically liberal and not opposed to same-sex marriage, an issue that has been a political hot button for the president.

Obama came to Christian faith in the context of a liberal African-American church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, then led by, of course, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The UCC is his natural home. Then again, the idea of seeking a liberal African-American congregation — on basic biblical issues — adds an interesting element of risk and difficulty to the equation.

peoplescongregationalRead between the lines of this statement by the Rev. Keith Byrd of Zion Baptist Church, which opens with a reference to Wright and Trinity:

The family’s ultimate decision not to join another predominantly black church might be because they are worried about that kind of conflict, said Byrd of Zion Baptist. “There is a tradition in black churches of speaking truth to power,” he said. The pastor Obama chooses “has to be clean as a whistle and have past viewpoints consistent with the president’s.”

The worshipers at Nineteenth Street Baptist are undeterred. Theirs is a congregation with a traditional worship service, a gospel choir that favors hymns and a relatively liberal church structure that ordains women as ministers and deacons. It also has a ministry that serves the homeless and one that has done educational outreach on HIV and AIDS prevention in the black community.

So the pastor and Obama will need to see eye to eye, as much as possible. And it’s positive that Nineteenth Street Baptist is active in HIV and AIDS ministry. But that isn’t the issue, is it? Many traditional Christian churches are active in these kinds of ministries, including early, trailblazing work in AIDS hospice work by Catholics, traditional Anglicans and others.

It’s a complex and interesting issue, with the Post getting closer to seeing some of the key pieces on the game board. Good job.

If you want to see this decision through a wider lens, you may want to read or watch (above) Obama’s famous, scripture-drenched campaign sermon delivered from the Ebenezer Baptist Church pulpit of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is the sermon that won over gay activist Andrew Sullivan, since Obama — in effect — is telling an African-American congregation that it needs to change it’s doctrine and get on God’s side on the gay-rights issue. Here’s the famous quote:

For most of this country’s history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man. And all of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays — on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community. We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them.

Second image: Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ.

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The return of Jewish prayer


As the perceptive people at the blog Jewschool note, the article in Wednesday’s Washington Post on alternative prayer services was smartly done but it did not advance the story much beyond a New York Times article on the same subject in 2007. Here is the lead of the Post story:

Gathering in group homes and college dormitories, in rural woods and apartment buildings, a growing number of young Jews are spurning traditional synagogues and forming worship communities that blend ancient traditions with modern values in ways that religion scholars say could redefine American Judaism.

The Times story had a slower lead but made much of the same point. Here is how it began:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 – There are no pews at Tikkun Leil Shabbat, no rabbis, no one with children or gray hair.

Instead, one rainy Friday night, the young worshipers sat in concentric circles in the basement of an office building, damp stragglers four deep against the walls. In the middle, Megan Brudney and Rob Levy played guitar, drums and sang, leading about 120 people through the full Shabbat liturgy in Hebrew.

Without a building and budget, Tikkun Leil Shabbat is one of the independent prayer groups, or minyanim, that Jews in their 20s and 30s have organized in the last five years in at least 27 cities around the country. They are challenging traditional Jewish notions of prayer, community and identity.

Jewschool points out that the Post story does include the new fact that the organized Jewish community is taking these groups more seriously and is even providing funding for some of their activities in the old logic of if-you-can’t-beat-’em-co-opt them.

I liked the Post story but was a bit uneasy with the occasional lack of attribution, like this claim: “Analysts estimate that about 20,000 Jews attend the unconventional services each week.” That’s a number that seems wildly inflated to me so I’d like to know who the analysts are.

On the plus side, it is always good to revisit these trends and give them a local angle. I’m not sure I agree with the Post that these independent prayer groups are poised to “redefine American Judaism” but they are certainly worth watching.

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Religion ghost drifting into baseball

Religion ghosts float in and out of news stories, good stories as well as shallow, incomplete stories. Sometimes people see the ghosts and that’s a good thing.

See here Tmatt’s examination of a funeral home trend story and the absence of religion. For a similar example of a religion ghost driving into a Major League Baseball news article, see this Atlanta Journal-Constitution story on Jordan Schafer, one of the best baseball prospects right now famous for hitting a home run in his first major league at bat.

Unfortunately, Schafer is also famous for serving a 50 game suspension for alleged human growth hormone use. Since you can’t really test for positive HGH use, it is hard to know for sure who uses it, but the accusation certainly raises questions about Schafer’s character, which the article addresses nicely.

But this is a feel-good story with good and evil floating around Schafer’s life like bumble bees on a hot summer day at the park. You never know when one might strike with a religious element:

There is no test for human growth hormone, and Schafer denies ever taking it, but he was linked to it and admitted to “hanging with the wrong people.”

“If you hang around dogs long enough, you’re going to catch fleas,’” Schafer explained.

Diaz was just the friend he needed.

Diaz is known in the Braves clubhouse for being humble and down-to-earth, with a strong Christian faith. If there was anyone to lead Schafer down the right path, this was the guy.

If you wanted to know more about the “strong Christian faith” of Braves left fielder Matt Diaz, you won’t find much about it in this article. We get some more details about the religious element that developed between Diaz and Schafer, but it is hardly developed as a meaningful aspect of the story:

They’d hit together several times a week. They played pingpong at Diaz’s house. One Sunday late in the offseason, Schafer went to church with Diaz. They talked about how to move forward from the suspension.

“Being able to talk with Matt, I don’t have any anger about it anymore,” Schafer said. “I’ve moved on. I’m totally content with the way things have been. Like he says, things happen for a reason. You have to be able to put your faith in God and let everything work itself out.”

Going on Diaz’s advice, Schafer wore collared shirts to the ballpark in spring training. He gave away his flashy red glove.

What do dressing nicely and having a normal glove have to do with going to church with a teammate?

When Schafer says that he wants to put his faith in God, does that mean he converted to Christianity recently or that he has re-newed his faith in God? Also, the article implies a generic Christianity, but a few details would give readers a much more complete idea of the religion ghosts present in this story. Maybe we’ll get more details later this season.

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Ch-ch-ch-changes in pews (saith Pew)

pewoptionsThere are times when I really feel the pain of the brilliant folks who work with the polling and research division of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

After all, how would you like to try to put the astonishingly complex world of American religion into those short, punchy phrases that pollsters have to use? You have to use words that mean something to people on sidewalks and in living rooms, yet the phrases also have to have some connection to the actual doctrines and historical facts that are used by insiders and scholars.

Then, to make matters worse, all of this is going to be reporting in mainstream public media in short, short and shorter reports, at times by reporters who have no clue what they are doing.

You can see the problems, even when Pew Forum research ends up in the hands of veteran, skilled reporters who definitely know what they are doing. Here is Jacqueline L. Salmon of the Washington Post, describing the new Pew Forum report that attempts to shed light on the reasons that Americans give for switching from one religion to another.

More Americans have given up their faith or changed religions because of a gradual spiritual drift than switched because of a disillusionment over their churches’ policies, according to a new study released today which illustrates how personal spiritual attitudes are taking precedence over denominational traditions.

The survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is the first large-scale study of the reasons behind Americans switching their religious faith and found that more than half of people have done so at least once during their lifetime. Almost three-quarters of Catholics and Protestants who are now unaffiliated with a religion said they had “just gradually drifted away” from their faith. And more than three-quarters of Catholics and half of Protestants currently not associated with a faith said that, over time, they stopped believing in their religion’s teachings.

The problem, of course, is that it is almost impossible to precisely define what it means to “change religions.” Is there, for example, a difference between “changing” and “converting”?

Clearly, if people convert from Christianity to Judaism, they have changed religions. But most of the numbers, in this poll, reflect changes inside Christianity, including the hip change from membership in a specific church to the freelance “spiritual, not religious,” but still “Christian sort-of” status. The pollsters knew this and included a crucial line in their survey: “Raised Protestant, now different Protestant faith.”

So if you are Southern Baptist and become an Episcopalian, that is a change.

However, truth be told, I have known people whose faith changed more — in terms of doctrinal content — when they went from membership in a Southern Baptist church to being part of a “moderate” Southern Baptist church, than if that those same people had gone from membership in Southern Baptist congregations to membership in a low-church, evangelical Anglican parishes.

How about Southern Baptist to American Baptist? Episcopalian to Charismatic Episcopalian? A cultural Greek Orthodox parish to a convert-friendly Greek Orthodox parish? Evangelical Lutheran and Missouri-Synod Lutheran? Reform Jew to Orthodox Jew? Etc., etc.

Like I said, I feel the Pew folks’ pain. The online talking points about this study hint at another problem that is out there:

Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change. Many people who leave the Catholic Church do so for religious reasons; two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated say they left the Catholic faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, as do half of former Catholics who are now Protestant. Fewer than three-in-ten former Catholics, however, say the clergy sexual abuse scandal factored into their decision to leave Catholicism.

In contrast with other groups, those who switch from one Protestant denominational family to another (e.g., were raised Baptist and are now Methodist) tend to be more likely to do so in response to changed circumstances in their lives. Nearly four-in-ten people who have changed religious affiliation within Protestantism say they left their childhood faith, in part, because they relocated to a new community, and nearly as many say they left their former faith because they married someone from a different religious background.

How much of this, in other words, is simply generic church shopping? The marriage factor is also huge for people whose faith is not that central to their lives. It’s easy for people to switch when the switch doesn’t mean that much to them.

Over at USA Today, Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman’s report also included a sobering summary for Catholic leaders. It appears that the mainline Protestant-ization of American Catholicism continues at a rapid pace. Perhaps generic, everyday Catholicism isn’t all that radically different these days?

Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change: The 10% of U.S. adults who have quit the church vastly outnumber the 2.6% who are incoming Catholics. Two in three who became unaffiliated — and half of those who became Protestant — say they left the Catholic Church because they “stopped believing its teachings.” The sexual abuse scandal was a factor for fewer than three in 10 former Catholics.

In conclusion, let me note one other issue that may be hidden down in this Pew Forum research (and I intend to ask about it).

Anyone who works in the wider world of modern religion knows about the so-called 80-20 rule. This states that about 80 percent of the work, worship and giving is done by about 20 percent of the membership, the most dedicated members who have the strongest ties to their particular faith and to the content of its doctrine.

What happens when these people convert from one faith to another? What are the doctrinal fuses that must be lit to drive a devout believer — say a clergyperson — from Canterbury to Rome, from Nashville to Geneva, from Jerusalem to Athens? I know, from experience (my Orthodox parish is about 90 percent converts), that this is a radically matter than making a church switch due to marriage or a change in zip code.

Alas, how do you put that kind of human blood, sweat and tears into a poll questionnaire?

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The $600,000 sermon

riverside_church_11There was something about the story in Monday’s New York Daily News that just didn’t have the ring of truth. The headline was “New Riverside Church Pastor Says His Raise Was Lord-Approved” and it began like this:

The incoming pastor of Riverside Church broke his silence over his massive pay package Saturday, saying God was behind him as he took the reins of the iconic Manhattan sanctuary.

“God told me all week, ‘I got you.’” the Rev. Brad Braxton said to thunderous applause.

Braxton was installed as senior pastor despite some parishioners filing a lawsuit to trim his $600,000 in salary and perks.

Could it be, I wondered, that the new minister, a 40-year-old theology professor from Vanderbilt Divinity, would discuss his salary from the pulpit on the Sunday of his installation? And would he say something so seemingly arrogant? God approved my salary?

Riverside Church, built by John D. Rockefeller at the height of the Depression, is one of the city’s most prominent churches. The story of the new minister’s compensation package — and an attempt by a group of unhappy parishioners to stop his installation — has been in the local papers for days. The Riverside Church media office did not answer my request for a text of Braxton’s sermon so I went to the church website and listened to the service on line.

As it turns out, there was a mention of the new minister’s salary, but not by Braxton. Billy Jones, chairman of the Church Committee, announced that the installations was proceeding because the efforts to stop it were defeated in court. Without going into details, he said that the dissident members had exaggerated the compensation package and that it was, in fact, in line with what the leaders of other major Manhattan churches earn. The actual salary, he said, was $250,000.

The line quoted in the Daily News — “I got you” — was indeed uttered by Braxton but not in the context of his salary but in the development of his sermon which he titled “Fear Not.” Braxton spoke about the fears people have going into new situations and used his own transition as an example. This, he said, was a time that tested both the faith of the church and the minister. “Riverside Church,” he said, “Fear not. God told me all week, ‘I got you.’ God’s presence is our present. It’s a gracious gift to know that God’s got us.”

That’s not “breaking the silence” on his salary but good old fashioned Baptist preaching. Braxton went on to layout his agenda for his ministry. A few days earlier, I read in The New York Times that in addition to the salary issue some in the church had other problems with Braxton:

They also complained that Dr. Braxton was moving Riverside away from its tradition of interracial progressivism and toward a conservative style of religious practice.

Conservative religious practice? The Times didn’t explain what that meant. Was he a social conservative? Far from it, I learned as I listened to the rest of the sermon. Braxton said that once a person overcame fear, he or she could “move mountains.” He spoke of moving the mountains of racism, economic despair, injustice against immigrants and “sexual bigotry.” He announced his support for gay marriage, which is now heading for a vote in New York state legislature. Braxton attacked what he called “Christian imperialism” and challenged President Barack Obama to withdraw immediately not only from Iraq but from Afghansitan. Certainly not your run-of-the-mill religious conservative.

Braxton got his loudest applause when he attacked the Daily News. “I promised the Lord I would only meddle one time today,” he said and added after a meaningful pause: “And I hope this one gets on the front page of the Daily News.” At the mention of the name of the newspaper, a loud boo went up from the crowd. He continued:

It’s time for us to move the mountain of HIV-AIDS by encouraging the use of condoms in African countries and other global communities. I wonder if that will make the front page of the Daily News.

There was one more mountain he wanted to move. He asked God to “move the mountain of distrust and animosity in this congregation by speaking the truth in love.”

In short, I got a very different impression of the new minister of Riverside when I listened to his sermon. The New York newspapers, so focused on the dollars, simply didn’t do him or his theology justice.

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