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Saturday, December 31, 2005

Writing a religion story? Put Ted Haggard in it.

Oh, would you look at that: Ted Haggard must have some of the best PR people on the planet — or the New York Times doesn't know how to see "religion" unless a megachurch is involved. Friday's paper tells us that "a number of Christians are regularly attending different churches in the course of a week or a month, picking and choosing among programs and services, to satisfy social and spiritual needs." Is this news? Maybe: After all, Mrs Philocrites and I attend several different churches in the course of a month, too — but we're liberal Protestants, and therefore not part of what the Times sees as "Christianity."

The only study reported in the long profile — which turns out to be a mash note to the praise-song youth groups at Haggard's Colorado Springs megachurch — is this paragraph:

In a survey of 13- to 17-year-olds conducted from 2002 through 2003, the National Study of Youth and Religion found that 16 percent of respondents participated in more than one religious congregation. Four percent attend youth groups outside their congregations.

Now this is an important paragraph because the story the Times weaves around this nugget is all about evangelical kids who go to an evangelical church with their parents on Sunday morning and then head off to Ted Haggard's emerald city for some Jesus jams at night. But that's not really what the study described; it's just the spin that happens to be convenient for the National Association of Evangelicals — which Ted Haggard leads.

The study itself isn't news: The published report was issued three months ago, although I can't find any indication that the Times had mentioned it earlier. And the online press release for the published report, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, says:

Though widely practiced and positively valued by teens, faith is also de-prioritized and very poorly understood by them. Nonetheless, religion remains a significant force in shaping their lives.

More broadly, Soul Searching describes what appears to be a major transformation of faith in the U.S., away from the substance of historical religious traditions and toward a new and quite different faith the book describes as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."

Hmm: "Moralistic therapeutic deism" doesn't sound good for orthodoxy, although it represents a major opportunity for evangelism. But the story doesn't once mention the possibility that teens are looking for religious input outside their particular religious communities — or that this phenomenon isn't limited to evangelicals. Instead, we get quotes from Focus on the Family staff, clergy from several evangelical churches in Colorado Springs, and anecdotes about several popular kids. (Scenes from "Saved" race through my mind.) In fact, the only appearance mainline Protestantism makes in the entire story is implicitly in this dubious paragraph:

Many children in evangelical families also see the example their parents have set, leaving the denominations they grew up in to embrace evangelical Christianity as young adults.

This is conservative mythology masquerading as a trend. Exactly how many? According to whom? Did the parents Neela Banerjee interviewed really "leave" a denomination? Which ones? And when? And how involved had they been? As the Christian Century reported earlier this year, the much-repeated truism that evangelical Christianity has boomed because mainline Protestants have fled the "liberal" denominations just isn't true. Anecdotally, I bet some of these parents did go from United Methodist churches to Assemblies of God or something like that — but, anecdotally, ex-fundamentalists keep joining Unitarian Universalist and Episcopal and even Orthodox churches. Anecdotes do not constitute a trend. Many of these people are simply switching from one evangelical or fundamentalist church to another.

Meanwhile, according the Barna Group, an evangelical research group:

Despite the media frenzy surrounding the influence of evangelical Christians during the 2004 presidential election, the new study indicates that evangelicals remain just 7% of the adult population. That number has not changed since the Barna Group began measuring the size of the evangelical public in 1994.

In other words, the Times has hung a story that is really only a modest depiction of evangelical teen churchgoing on a peg about a study that shows that a growing number of kids is sampling a much broader range of religious ideas and practices. What a wasted opportunity.

P.S. For a very different take on the same study, see this Daily Tar Heel story about seekers on college campuses.

("Teenagers mix churches for faith that fits," Neela Banerjee, New York Times 12.30.05, reg req'd; "Inside America's most powerful megachurch," Jeff Sharlet, Harper's 5.05, repr. at The Revealer 5.13.05; "State of the church 2005," The Barna Group 4.11.05; "Depth of religious fervor uncertain," Emily Fisher, Daily Tar Heel 11.29.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 31 December 2005 at 10:57 AM

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December 31, 2005 11:38 AM | Permalink for this comment


I read that story yesterday and tucked it away for a quick deconstruction, too. The ignorance about religion that the Times showcases on their frontpage is simply embarassing for the paper, but they are too dumb to know it. A reporter with even a passing familiarity with Fowler's "Stages of Faith" would have reported it rather differently, not to mention your own parsing of the religious census figures.



January 2, 2006 09:38 AM | Permalink for this comment

Unipalianism in the news! David Yount's column this week discusses the phenomenon of young people mixing and matching religious communities -- and tells a story about his daughter that points to how this trend plays out in the liberal mainline world:

On average, American teenagers devote more time to charity than their parents, typically through their churches, but not necessarily the churches their parents attend. Some 16 percent of American youths divide their time between their parents' church and another congregation, typically one with a developed youth program.

When she was a graduate student, one of our single daughters joined young adult groups at both Episcopal and Unitarian churches. Undeterred by denominational differences, she was attracted by the opportunity to meet Christian men and women who contributed something to the community.

("Youth do not have to follow exact religion of parents," David Yount, Scripps Howard News Service 1.2.06)


January 2, 2006 04:49 PM | Permalink for this comment

Dave is an old friend and colleague and one of the most honest religion columnists in the country.


January 3, 2006 06:58 PM | Permalink for this comment

Barna has a theological definition of evangelical. Gallup just asks, "Do you consider yourself to be evangelical or born again?" 42% of respondents answer "yes". That number has been roughly constant for the 15 years Gallup has been asking the question.

Gallup does a lot of polling about religion, and the results are often quite stable. The percentage reporting that they belong to a church is the same as it was in 1937.

I remember visiting my friends' churches back in the 70s. It isn't clear from these articles that there has been any actual change in this practice.


January 8, 2006 09:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

Barna's defn includes "saying that the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches", which means that anyone who considers the Earth to be more than 6000 years old may not qualify.

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