It’s Easter in America. Kids run gleefully through their yards, hunting for eggs in their Sunday best. Drugstore displays offer cross-shaped chocolates in pastel-colored foil. Preachers dust off their resurrection sermons.
And Newsweek’s cover declares “The End of Christian America.”
Every year, the media seem to get the great Easter triduum backwards. For us, Christ dies on Friday and rises on Easter. For them, Christianity flares up on Good Friday — and dies out by Sunday.
In the online version of Jon Meacham’s Newsweek essay, the banner opener explains the story like this: “The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 points in the past two decades. How that statistic explains who we are now — and what, as a nation, we are about to become.”
The essay finds one concerned evangelical Christian leader to quote, but then its arguments are strangely stale: It speaks of the rise of interest in evolution; it calls our culture’s status “post-Christian” (which it admits is a phrase from 1929); it notes the diminishing influence of faith on public life; and it meditates on Nietzsche, a 19th-century philosopher who declared that “God is dead.”
Not only is this yesterday’s news. It is news that is fully 100 years old.
When it cites polls, the article is more interested in employing statistical sleight of hand to prop up its argument than it is in providing illuminating research to tell the true story of religion in America today.
Take that headline stat about the percentage of Christians falling 10 points in 20 years.
It’s a reference to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), and the error Newsweek makes is not unique. CNN reported it this way: “America becoming less Christian, survey finds.”
But here’s what Tom McFeely reported on the Register’s website, NCRegister.com: ”A new survey of religion in America has found the nation’s Christian faith to be quite resilient in the face of contemporary secularizing trends.”
In fact, the report found only a minute decline in the percentage of Christians in 2008 compared to the last ARIS survey in 2001.
How can the media report the opposite of what the statistics say? Because there was indeed a sharp drop in the 1990s. But not since. For a magazine reporting 100-year-old news, merely decade-old news is worth trumpeting.
“The percentage of Christians in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2% to 76.7%, has now edged down to 76%,” noted a March 9 press release about the survey issued by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., which conducted the survey.
In other words, after a sharp decline in the 1990s, the percentage of Christian Americans has remained virtually stable this decade.
At the same time, the ARIS survey did unearth a very worrisome trend for some Protestant denominations.
Of the drop in the percentage of Christians since 1990, 90% of the decline “comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans and the United Church of Christ,” the press release stated. “These groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7% in 1990 to 17.2% in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9%.”
The big gains among the country’s Christian population have occurred among those who identify themselves as evangelical Christians. The numbers of people who characterize themselves as “Christian,” “Evangelical/Born Again,” or “non-denominational Christian” increased from 5% of the population in 1990 to 8.5% in 2001 to 11.8% in 2008. The survey says 38.6% of mainline Protestants now identify themselves as evangelical or born again.
The Catholic share of the population also edged up from 24.5% of the national population in 2001 to 25.1% in 2008, but that’s slightly below the 26.2% share in 1990.
You may have noticed the growth in your own parish. If you haven’t, local newspapers have. Two standouts are Phoenix and Baltimore.
In Phoenix, the Catholics Come Home TV ad campaign has made major inroads.
“An estimated 92,000 inactive Catholics in the Phoenix Diocese have come back to the Church in the last year thanks in large part to a groundbreaking television advertising campaign called Catholics Come Home,” reports Catholic News Service.
Mass attendance was up 22% at nine sample parishes since the ad campaign began. Expect that to spread. The Catholics Come Home spots (see them at CatholicsComeHome.org) will appear in more than a dozen other dioceses around the country later in 2009 or early 2010. By the time Advent rolls around in 2010, organizers say they’ll go national on major networks.
Baltimore saw a surge even without the ads.
The Baltimore Sun reported that 984 “local adults are preparing to become Catholics during Holy Week this year, a third more than joined the Church locally in 2008. The surge has caught archdiocesan officials by surprise — and left them at something of a loss for explanations.”
Archbishop Edwin O’Brien pointed to the new activity in parishes. “I think the more active that parish is,” he is quoted saying, “the more people are going to want to look inside the door and say, ‘What are they offering here that gives so much life and energy?’”
And the new religious revival isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon — it’s global. Just look at a major new book. In today’s media climate, the book’s authors are as surprising as its title.
The book is called God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World. The authors: the editor in chief and a bureau chief of the secular U.K. magazine The Economist. Might we suggest that the editors of Newsweek begin reading The Economist?
April 19-25, 2009 Issue