Pew news: You don’t have to be religious to be Jewish

 Readers (and bloggers) “of a certain age” will recall the famous advertising campaign for Levy’s “real Jewish Rye” bread showing photos of people who are distinctly non-Jewish enjoying a sandwich on the famous bread.

Now, a study from the Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life — reportedly the first major Jewish demographic survey in more than a decade — reveals that many American Jews feel people don’t have to be, well, religiously oriented to be Jewish. Several religion reporters were apparently briefed on the study’s results at last week’s Religion Newswriters Association convention in Austin, Texas, and numerous stories broke this past Tuesday, the day the research results were formally released.

The New York Times‘ Laurie Goodstein kicked things off:

The first major survey of American Jews in more than 10 years finds a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish — resulting in rapid assimilation that is sweeping through every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox.

The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews — a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.

“It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York.

The survey, by the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, found that despite the declines in religious identity and participation, American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish and have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”

While Wertheimer might be feeling grim, the survey respondents appear happy enough, both collectively and individually.

Scribe Emily Alpert at the Los Angeles Times focused on someone who appears to fit the “demo” of the survey:

Growing up Jewish, Marilyn McLaughlin loved lighting the braided candle and singing to mark the end of Shabbat. She relished studying the Talmud and weighing its ethical questions.

But sitting in synagogue left her cold. “I was stuffed with religion,” McLaughlin said. “But I had no deep connection to it.”

A new study from the Pew Research Center finds that more than a fifth of Jewish Americans say they have no religion. Yet like McLaughlin, they still identify themselves as Jewish.

Scholars say that the Jewish people have long seen themselves as more than a religious faith, also defining themselves as Jewish through culture or ancestry. Only 15% see being Jewish as “mainly a matter of religion,” the new survey of nearly 3,500 Jewish Americans shows. Less than a third of Jews — even religious Jews — think someone can’t be Jewish without believing in God.

As more Americans of all faiths turn away from religion, Jewish secularism seems to be booming too. Pew found that the share of “Jews of no religion” appears to have surged, compared to a somewhat different survey a dozen years earlier. Younger Jews are much more likely to shrug off religion than their elders.

Alpert’s article puts the Jewish “nones” question in perspective: lots of people in America allegedly are turning to secularist views, so why not in the Jewish community?

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Do religious readers really want quality religion coverage?

It has been awhile since our own Bobby Ross, Jr., quoted that laugh-to-keep-from-crying tweet by New York Times religion scribe Laurie Goodstein that said (all together now): “Will the last one on the religion beat please turn out the lights?”

Mocking the typical newsroom attitude that three anecdotes equals a valid news trend, Ross asked if it was time for someone to write a story about “why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore?”

Discussion ensued, including this item at Poynter.org, and Bobby quickly wrote a follow-up post covering the conversation. In the midst of all that, I asked:

Well, is the issue whether people want to cover religion news or is it that they believe they can personally survive in the changing realities of smaller newsrooms?

To be more precise, what I meant to say is that — in light of the current advertising crisis in the news business — it is understandable that some professionals are questioning whether the religion beat, along with other complicated specialty beats, can thrive in an age of 24/7 journalism, with fewer journalists trying to produce more and more digital news products. There are, of course, many people (see art atop this post) who are convinced that the advertising crisis is going to kill American-model mainstream journalism, period.

On top of this new reality, there is the sad old fact that I stated in The Quill back in 1983:

The major reason few American newspapers and radio and television stations cover religion is simple. Few of the people who decide what news is care about religion.

You might even say that far too many newsroom managers simply do not get religion, or words to that effect.

As the discussion rolled on, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher posted an item under this blunt headline: “Why Are Newspaper Religion Reporters Quitting?” You need to read all of it, but I would like to respond to a few statements in his post. So, let’s proceed:

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Assessing the state of the Godbeat

I posted earlier this week on three veteran superstars of the Godbeat — Ann Rodgers, Bob Smietana and Tim Townsend — deciding to leave major daily newspapers.

I noted a tweet in which The New York Times’ religion writer Laurie Goodstein joked, “Will the last one on the religion beat please turn out the lights?”

Playing off Goodstein’s quip, I suggested that someone — I nominated former GetReligionista and current Religion News Service national correspondent Sarah Pulliam Bailey — should “step up, interview these three and write a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story on why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore.”

My choice of terminology, even while typing with my tongue firmly in cheek, was not the best.

My phrasing prompted a gentle pushback from tmatt in the comments section:

Well, is the issue whether people want to cover religion news or is it that they believe they can personally survive in the changing realities of smaller newsrooms?

I agree. I nominate Sarah to write a definitive piece for Poynter.org

RNS Editor in Chief Kevin Eckstrom, meanwhile, strapped on a rhetorical holster and came out firing (take cover, fellow GetReligion contributors!):

Or, how about this? Rather than conclude (without any basis in reality) that “no one wants to cover religion anymore,” perhaps it’d be a good idea to ask why these folks are leaving the beat (it’s complicated) and whether these positions will be filled (most likely).

But that’s not the way GR does things. Shoot first and never ask the appropriate questions later. C’mon, guys, you can do better than this. Or at least you should.

You can read my response to Eckstrom (and his response to my response) in the comments section of that original post.

Eckstrom complained that Poynter.org picked up on my question and that I didn’t do the religion beat “any favors with careless irresponsible exaggerations.” 

In fact, this was the headline on Poynter’s follow-up on my post:

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Does The New York Times still hate Cardinal Dolan?

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Inspector Gregory: Is there any point to which you wish to draw my attention?
Holmes:  To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.
Col. Ross: The dog did nothing in the night-time.
Holmes: That was the curious incident.

From Silver Blaze, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

If may have taken five weeks, but The New York Times has finally reported the news that New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee were exonerated by a Federal court in Wisconsin of having improperly shielded diocesan assets from the reach of church creditors.

Last month I wrote that The Times‘ silence in the wake of the court’s ruling was curious in light of their pre-verdict coverage: a news story entitled “Dolan Sought to Protect Church Assets, Files Show”; an editorial entitled “Cardinal Dolan and the Sexual Abuse Scandal”; and an op-ed piece entitled “The Church’s Errant Shepherds”.

They were silent in August even though on 30 July the Associated Press and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a Federal District Court judge had ruled that Cardinal Dolan had acted properly — and morally. The Journal Sentinel wrote:

In issuing the ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa said including the funds would violate free exercise of religion under the First Amendment and a 1993 law aimed at protecting religious freedom. Randa cited the Catholic belief in the resurrection, which teaches that the body ultimately reunites with the soul, and the role of Catholic cemeteries in the exercise of that belief under canon law.

“The sacred nature of Catholic cemeteries — and compliance with the church’s historical and religious traditions and mandates requiring their perpetual care — are understood as a fundamental exercise of this core belief,” said Randa in overturning an earlier decision by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley.

Last month, after four weeks  of silence from The Times, I asked:

What message is The New York Times sending by not reporting the court verdict, which as the Journal Sentinel story points out, stressed the judge’s decision that what Cardinal Dolan did was not only lawful, but was a moral act based upon the Catholic Church’s doctrines. Is The Times motivated by animus towards the Roman Catholic Church? Does it hate Cardinal Dolan?

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Et tu, Tim? Townsend latest to leave the Godbeat (updated)

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Speaking of Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes

In the last few weeks, we’ve highlighted the departures of two respected journalists from the Godbeat.

First, Bob Smietana left The Tennessean.

Then Ann Rodgers announced plans to leave the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

Now, a third religion-writing superstar — Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — has decided to leave the Godbeat.

Townsend revealed his plans on Twitter and even provided dramatic music to go along with the announcement:

Townsend’s tweet prompted this response from religion writer Laurie Goodstein  of The New York Times: 

Smietana. Rodgers. Townsend.

Tim Townsend

In journalism, we all know that three examples make a trend. (Or are we up to six now?)

There’s a legitimate news hook here, people. Who will be the enterprising Godbeat soul (if there’s anyone left) who will step up, interview these three and write a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story on why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore? (To anyone out there screaming that I’m overgeneralizing, shhhhhhh. We’ll add context to the piece later, but first we need to inspire someone to take the assignment. The more dramatic, the better.)

My nomination for this assignment: former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, now a rockin’ Godbeat pro herself (at least as of this moment) for Religion News Service.

What say ye, Sarah? You up for it?

In the meantime, kind GetReligion readers, please feel free to leave a comment. If you want, you can reflect on how much you’ll miss Townsend’s excellent journalism with the Post-Dispatch. Or if you prefer, you can speculate on who will be next to leave the Godbeat. No wagering, please.

Update: Sarah just sent the following tweet to RNS Editor in Chief Kevin Eckstrom, so it appears she’s considering the story idea!

 

 

Marriage vs. marriage (or, What is marriage?)

Yesterday morning there was quite a bit of activity in and near the Supreme Court of the United States. You may have heard about that.

Citizens who wish to uphold the traditional understanding of marriage as an institution built around sexual complementarity marched to the Supreme Court where they encountered people who wish to reform that understanding to include same-sex couples.

It was an opportunity for reporters to let their snark fly on Twitter, as Will Saletan of Slate did when he wrote derisively of marriage traditionalists:

Let me get this straight: The guys marching across from the Supreme Court in plaid skirts and puffy hats are AGAINST gay marriage?

A comment like that speaks volumes about the state and quality of media discourse on the topic. But another tweet really got me thinking. It comes from New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein. She writes:

Supreme Court surrounded today by marchers for marriage and their opponents, marchers for marriage.

I love it. Funny but also incisive. That both sides argue they are advocating “marriage” when they are directly opposed to each other reveals a truth that has been obscured through ignorance and/or activism in media coverage. What’s being fought about is what marriage is.

This is not to say that the media should pick sides about which definition is right (although they clearly have) but, rather, that the media should explain the different understandings of marriage and explore the societal ramifications of adopting differing views. We know that an understanding of marriage as an institution built around sexual complementarity has, for instance, the ramification of excluding same-sex couples. That’s been highly explored by the media.

But what about all the ramifications of changing that understanding? What will happen to our understanding of marital norms, if anything, and why? What will happen to our understanding of gender?

There are smart takes on this from both sides of the marriage debate (and, to blow your mind here, there are actually more than two sides to this debate) but in case I’m not being clear, here’s how some traditionalists arguing from natural law explain the two approaches to marriage:

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Pod people: Red America and Bible Belt atheists

On the latest Issues, Etc. podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss my recent post on a Washington Post story that featured a red-state American in her natural habitat.

I explain why I liked that story better than some other post-election autopsies of Republican-leaning states, such as this New York Times story.

While the Post story devoted 1,800 words to attempting to understand a religiously motivated voter, the Times report allowed two paragraphs:

The Rev. Brady Cooper, the pastor of New Vision Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., said he had heard acquaintances in the days since the election speculating that social issues cost the Republicans the White House. To a degree, they were probably right, Mr. Cooper said. But he said that he could not abandon his values to win elections, and was increasingly moving away from politics.

“I’m kind of disillusioned more and more with the political process,” Mr. Cooper said. “One of their top priorities is being re-elected, and that kind of drives a lot of decisions that they make. And it means obviously going with the trends of the culture as opposed to the truth.”

(To be fair, the Times’ Laurie Goodstein provided a more in-depth analysis of the Christian right and the election.)

In the podcast, Wilkin and I also revisit my concerns about the ghost of Prince William County.

And we discuss the unasked question about atheists going to church.

By all means, enjoy the podcast.

 

Bishops are Republicans, Nuns are Catholic


Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been invited to give the closing prayer at this week’s Democratic Convention in Charlotte. The New York Times reports the New York cardinal will be one of matched pair of high profile Catholics to appear on the podium before the Democratic faithful, with Sister Simone Campbell of “Nuns on the Bus” fame completing the set.

Religion reporter Laurie Goodstein’s story “At Democratic Convention, a Cardinal and an Outspoken Nun” sets the scene and offers a bit of the “why” — but I’ve seen little so far on the “how” — and outside of the religious press, not much on whether this is a good idea at all.

The Times reports the news the:

Democrats are giving a convention speaking slot to Sister Simone Campbell, an outspoken advocate for the poor and elderly, according to an aide with President Obama’s campaign who would speak only on background.

In doing so, the Democratic Party has balanced its own Catholic ticket by showcasing both Sister Campbell, who pushed for the passage of the Obama administration’s health care overhaul, and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who is suing the White House over a provision in the health care overhaul that requires employers to cover birth control in their employee insurance plans.

The article is framed in good cop/bad cop terms, but seeks to balance the piece by positing a degree of moral equivalence between the Dolan and Campbell’s political activities.

Cardinal Dolan, who says he is a personal friend of Representative Paul D. Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate. has been perceived by many Catholic commentators as being too cozy with Republicans, while Sister Campbell has been seen as being too supportive of Democratic causes. In June, she led the “Nuns on the Bus” tour to call attention to cuts affecting the poor and elderly in the budget proposed by Mr. Ryan.

The two will have different roles at the convention:

Cardinal Dolan will give the closing prayer at the convention, and Sister Campbell will speak but not offer a prayer.

And the story then r0unds off with a few paragraphs about Sister Campbell. All in all a solid story with an editorial voice that favors the nun over the cardinal. The theme of the article is that the liberal Campbell is balanced by the conservative Dolan.

What would have made the story stronger would have been a development of the why and how themes. We have surface story of the Democrats playing “me too”, inviting Dolan because the Republicans did. The import being the Democrats are seeking to curry favor with Catholic voters in the same way the Republicans have. But Campbell?

The Times article notes her support for the President’s healthcare initiative and suggests she is an alternative Catholic voice. Yet is there more? In an Aug 24 story in the New Yorker — before the invitation from the Democrats was given to Dolan, Hendrick Hertzberg wrote:

Dolan, as you may also have heard, heads up the male hierarchy’s drive to portray Obamacare as an attack on freedom of religion and is a leading enforcer in the Vatican-ordered crackdown on women religious who regard ministering to the poor and the sick as more urgent and more admirable than railing against contraception and homosexuality.

He then cites with approval the Aug 24 edition of the Carville – Greenberg Memorandum, where James Carville argues the Democrats should invite Campbell to spite Dolan and exploit the social justice agenda of the church for their political advantage.

And now, a week later, we have Campbell speaking and Dolan praying in Charlotte.  How did we get to this point? Do Dolan and and Campbell represent different wings of the same church, different views of what it means to live a Catholic life? Is it wise for the Catholic Church to allow individuals to become symbols of the conflicting views of its teachings?

Should the Catholic Church allow itself to be used by the national political parties in this way? I am not speaking of separation of church/state issues, but whether the integrity of the church, any church, is damaged when it comes in contact with secular politics. The assumption here is that it is social good for religious organizations — as opposed to religious individuals — to take a stand in the public square. Is that a valid assumption?

And should these issues be raised in the reporting on these questions? Not every story need be an essay on the merits of the marriage of politics and church leaders — but should there not be a voice offered from time to time that sees the arrangement differently? What say you GetReligion readers? Have I strayed into editorializing here by suggesting that clergy might be seen, but not heard at political conventions? Am I pushing my interpretation ahead of the simple facts of who is doing what in Charlotte — or is there a deeper truth that has yet to be revealed in the reporting of these issues?

And the title to this post? It comes from the Carville video –his mangling (deliberate?) of the old saw, “Bishops are Republicans, Nuns are Democrats.”