New Pew study: Are Americans feeling warm and fuzzy when they think about religious believers?

When you stop and think about religion, politics and the tone of American public life over the past year or two, are the words "warm" and "fuzzy" the first things that come to mind?

Probably not.

Let's make that question more specific, which is what host Todd Wilken and I did in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in). When you think about the tone of American debates about issues linked to religious faith -- think LGBTQ rights and religious liberty clashes, or the refugee crisis and terrorism threats linked to the Islamic State -- do you have warm, fuzzy, cheerful feelings about what has been going on and the future?

Probably not. 

Well, in that context you can understand why a blast of new numbers from the Pew Research Center made a few headlines this past week. Click here to see the previous GetReligion post on this topic, including links to the study and some of the coverage.

Once again, the content of that study was summarized in this rather warm and fuzzy double-decker headline at the Pew website:

Americans Express Increasingly Warm Feelings Toward Religious Groups

Jews, Catholics continue to receive warmest ratings, atheists and Muslims move from cool to neutral

The lede at The New York Times took that basic idea and, of course, framed it -- logically enough -- in the context of the bitter 2016 race for the White House.

After an election year that stirred up animosity across racial and religious lines, a new survey has found that Americans are actually feeling warmer toward people in nearly every religious group -- including Muslims -- than they did three years ago.

Now think about this one more time. Go back to the questions at the top of this post. Isn't it logical to ask WHY Americans are feeling warmer and fuzzier feelings about various religious groups right now, when most of the evidence in public discourse -- certainly at the level of headlines and social media -- is suggesting the opposite?

To its credit, the Times team raised that issue in its straightforward and newsy report. Thus: 

... Jen’nan Ghazal Read, an associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University, questioned the value of measuring “warmth” toward religious groups and the study’s conclusions.

“To me, this makes it seem like all’s well in America, and I think that’s not accurately depicting the reality,” said Ms. Read, who has studied American attitudes toward Muslims. “What does ‘warm’ mean?”

The responses varied depending on who was asked. Younger Americans, aged 18 to 29, rated Muslims and atheists more warmly, and Jews far more coolly, than Americans 50 and older. Black Americans felt more warmly than white or Hispanic Americans toward Muslims. But in every case, people felt more warmly toward religious groups when they personally knew someone in that group.

So what is the source of the bitter divide that keeps showing up in American public discourse whenever a topic is attached to truth claims linked to religion?

As I stressed in my earlier piece, and in the podcast, it really helps to read the Christianity Today piece about this Pew study. As you would expect, CT focused right in on the somewhat muted findings linked to the status of evangelical Protestantism. (This "location, location, location" focus is totally logical, as you can see in this other Pew study coverage from The National Catholic Register and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.)

The CT online team jumped one layer deeper and noticed that evangelical Protestants where the key American religious group that was left out of this warming trend. Thus:

Overall, 44 percent of Americans feel positively about evangelicals, while 38 percent feel neutral and 18 percent feel negatively. The ratings fall when responses from fellow evangelicals, who made up more than 1 in 4 of respondents, are removed: Just under a third of non-evangelicals (32%) have warm feelings towards the group.

As I noted, if you flip that final number around you get this interesting fact: More than two-thirds of non-evangelical Americans have cool or cold feelings about America's largest non-Catholic Christian flock. 

Please consider digging even deeper. There is evidence that African Americans -- at least in studies at the end of the 20th Century -- tend to be less prejudiced against evangelicals and fundamentalists than white Americans. So what would happen to that cool or colder number it you looked at white non-evangelicals, alone?

More questions? What would happen if you could look at the feelings of white non-evangelicals in, let's say, the all-important Acela zone that connects Washington, D.C., to New York City and then Boston? How about the feelings -- toward evangelicals -- in non-white evangelicals in major newsrooms? How about those same feelings among leaders in the Democratic Party and the country-club or Libertarian wing of the Republican Party? How about those feelings among the leaders of oldline Protestant flocks? Would the cool to colder factor top two-thirds?

Clearly, there is some kind of divide out there and, as always, the deeper implications of the new Pew numbers caused me to think about the book that has influenced my thinking more than any other over the past quarter century or more. That would be the bestseller by sociologist James Davison Hunter called, "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America."

Long, long ago -- when I was marking the 10th anniversary of my syndicated "On Religion" column -- I summed up Hunter's key point this way, in the context of the tensions at the heart of American public discourse about religion:

The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic -- the nature of truth and moral authority.

Two years later [1988], Hunter began writing "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America," in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

Now, there are plenty of small-o orthodox Roman Catholics in American life, as well as orthodox Orthodox Jews, orthodox Anglicans, orthodox Eastern Orthodox Christians and other religious traditionalists in postmodern America. However, it's safe to say that in terms of press coverage and American entertainment, the truly dangerous conservatives in American public life -- think Religious Right -- are evangelical Protestants. Correct?

There is another irony here, one that is even harder to discuss in news reports. That is, the faith of many born-again, evangelical Christians is built primarily on feelings linked to personal experience, as opposed to ancient doctrines.

Ah, but that is a topic for another day. Right Rod "Benedict Option" Dreher and Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr.?

Enjoy the podcast.

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