RNA Journal II

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Day 2 of the Religion Newswriters Association conference featured the presentation of some new survey research by three of the leading institutional players in the field: Pew, Baylor, and the Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religious Research (HIRR). Actually, what Pew offered had been around for a couple of weeks: its latest survey of the views of American Muslims. The survey tracks Pew’s earlier findings on the subject; as the headline puts it: “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism. Mainstream and Moderate Attitudes.” That’s good news, of course, but given post-9/11 concerns about government scrutiny and the ratcheting up of anti-Muslim activity around the country, should we really expect Muslims who, say, support al Qaeda to share their views with someone who calls them up on the phone and says he’s from the Pew Research Center?

Baylor’s stuff was hot off the press–actually, one chart could have used a little more copy-editing–but I can’t say anything about it because it’s embargoed until 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. Suffice to say that, in the Baylor manner, the results are very interesting, if you accept the theological premises that underlie the questions.

That leaves HIRR, which specializes in the study of congregations, and has the longitudinal data to tell you what’s happening out there. Their new Faith Communities Today study, “A Decade of Change in American Congregations, 2000-2010,” provides some important insights into the condition of religion in America today. Among the trends: Contemporary worship and the use of electronic technology are rapidly become norms in non-Catholic American Christianity. Congregations composed mostly of racial and ethnic minorities are on the rise, increasing their market share from just over one-fifth to nearly one-third of all American congregations. On the political front, where roughly equal percentages of evangelical and “oldline” (i.e. mainline) Protestant congregations did voter education and registration in 2000, now more than twice the proportion (26 percent to 12 percent) of evangelical churches do.

HIRR remains somewhat hobbled by its research model, under which specific denominations and traditions underwrite, help conduct, and in the end control the data collected for their own congregations. This time around, however, the Hartford researchers go beyond providing aggregate results and make some invidious comparisons. If you want to understand why mainline Protestantism is in even worse shape than its membership numbers indicate, take a look at the age distributions. In more than 40 percent of mainline congregations, one-third of the members re over 65. By contrast, in the “non-denominational” (i.e. generic evangelical) congregations, it’s only 13 percent.

What the headlines will say is decline. For the totality of congregations, membership is down, financial health is down, and spiritual vitality (as assessed by the members) is down. That wasn’t good news for the shrinking cadre of religion newswriters. If it heartened anyone at the conference, it was Bart Ehrman,Todd Stiefel, and Wendy Kaminer, the three speakers on an “Atheism Revisited” panel. As the program put it, “The Godless movement is growing increasingly bold, and for the first time in memory, gaining traction in the broader public.” Evidently so.