Writers write to make a difference, move the needle, maybe even to change the world. At least that’s our hope. Sometimes it’s only mother and her quilting circle that show any interest in your work. But sometimes the vice president of the United States takes notice, uses your words in a commencement address, and the self-appointed Washington Post fact checker notes the points he used from you in that talk and bestows upon him (and thus you) two Pinocchios for supposedly failing to grasp simple facts and peddling falsehood.
This happened to me this week. It was brought to my attention a few days ago by another fact checker, from PolitiFact, who wanted to take his own gander at the veracity of the vice president’s words. (He did an exceptionally more thoughtful job in his fact checking!)
The statement in question was that, in important ways, religious faith is doing quite well in America. That claim, the Washington Post ascertained, and the vice president’s office confirmed, came from a recent Federalist article. It highlighted new Harvard University research detailing how vibrant religious faith in America is not declining, and we are not following the mass secularization of Western Europe. So what’s the beef?
The Post accuses the vice president of “cherry-picking” and asserts that he selectively “latched onto one specific study to make the claim that the percentage of truly religious [citizens] in the United States have remained consistent in recent decades…” They claim that the “cherry-picked” study “actually undermines his point, as it demonstrated that except for a core group, religion is fading away for other Americans.”
As we quickly dig into this charge, remember this phrase, “except for a core group.”
As for the “cherry-picking” claim: Seriously? Some might use the word “petty” here. As if the vice president’s commencement address to these students—and their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandmas, and grandpas sitting through this long graduation exercise on hard chairs and uncomfortable shoes—should have provided a generous literature review of the sociological research on this point.
This suggests Pence would have been better addressing the changing trend lines over the last four to five decades, perhaps with colorful graphs and charts, examining and explaining what they meant and what social factors drove them. He could have compared the various and sometimes conflicting findings from the diversity of scholars laboring in this field.
But he didn’t. It was a commencement speech, after all. He merely gave them a few quick bits from one research-based article as one small point in his speech. The nerve.
What did the Harvard study really say? Pence, an unapologetic Christian, was speaking to an auditorium of unapologetic Christians. These are people who would not celebrate the mainline faiths continuing to make unacceptable compromises on non-negotiables of the Christian faith.
Rather, this kind of audience recognizes these are the churches that are hemorrhaging members, and there is no tourniquet large enough to staunch the exodus. They are losing little sleep over the fact. They would, however, celebrate the vibrant persistence of biblical Christianity, more-than-just-Sunday church attendance, and dynamic, fervent prayer in the lives of many people in America. That is clearly what the vice president was referencing.
Curiously, this is exactly the kind of faith the Harvard study said was strong. The Post fact checkers even admit this without admitting it. Remember the “except for a core group” phrase? That is where the truth lies, and the Post failed (or chose not) to tell this important part of the story. This core group comprises these serious Christians, and the Post knew this quite well if it read the study.
The Harvard scholars are unequivocal in explaining this. Let me give you just a few of their conclusions in their own words. (Their terms “strong affiliation” and “weak affiliation” refer to strong and weak belief and practice.)
‘Using data from the General Social Survey … we show that the United States has demonstrated sustained levels of intense religiosity across key measures over the last few decades that are unique when compared to other advanced industrial nations.’ (p. 687)
‘Because strong affiliation remains stable while weaker affiliations have declined, those with strong affiliation actually make up a larger share of the affiliated [ie. faith practicing] population over time.’ (p. 689)
[While there has been a rapid rise in the ‘unaffiliated’] … ‘we also find a patently persistent level of strong [faith] affiliation between 1989 to 2016.’ (p. 688)
‘…the intensity of American religion is high and persistent, which is making the United States even more exceptional [faith-wise] over time.’ (p. 696)
Finally, the last two lines of their article: “And although religion is simply becoming less salient in other societies, it remains important in the public sphere and central to cultural divides in the United States. Therefore, rather than following the pattern we would expect on the basis of the secularization thesis, American religion remains persistently and exceptionally intense” (emphases added).
Yes, some kinds of faith are tanking dramatically: lukewarm and liberal Christianity. Some kinds of faith are thriving: the practice of conservative, biblical faith. Some media and cultural elites see this as bad news. It’s very good news for the people who form the heart and backbone of this nation, and this is obviously what the vice president was celebrating with his audience.
Too bad the Washington Post doesn’t have a better handle on the basic nuances of sociology of religion in America today to inform their fact-checking.