An inmate in the Boyd County Detention Center in Catlettsburg, Ky., died of withdrawal symptoms. (Google Maps image)
Friday, April 16, 2021
Study: Readers' attitudes about news media driven by moral values; suggests ways to better connect with audiences
|Media Insight Project graph|
- Oversight: How strongly a person feels there is a need to monitor people in power and know what public officials are saying and doing. The flip side of this value is concern about intrusiveness or oversight becoming a hindrance or placing too much importance on insignificant events.
- Transparency: The idea that transparency is usually the best cure for what's wrong in the world, and that on balance it's usually better for things to be public than for things to be kept secret. The flip side is that sometimes the need to keep things secret is more important than the public's right to know, and the notion that most problems can be solved without embarrassing facts being aired publicly.
- Factualism: This value measures whether on balance more facts are always better and facts are the key to knowing what is true. The flip side is that the truth is more than just a matter of adding facts and that this emphasis on factualism can mask bias.
- Giving voice to the less powerful: This value measures whether people want to amplify the voices of people who aren’t ordinarily heard and if a society should be judged on how it treats the least fortunate. The inverse instinct is that inequalities will always exist and favoring the least fortunate does not always help them.
- Social criticism: This value measures how important people think it is to put a spotlight on a community’s problems in order to solve them. The flip side puts more emphasis on the value of celebrating things that are going right or working well in order to reinforce them and encourage more of them.
National farming publication wants to hear from its readers about coronavirus vaccinations, in which rural Americans lag
Rural folks, we’re independent. We choose when we go to the doctor. We’re not always up on preventive care. We don’t visit specialists very often until we absolutely need to. When the Covid-19 vaccine rollout came this spring to almost all of us, many of you chose to wait to be vaccinated.
The Covid-19 data dashboard, state by state, shows it. This opinion column isn't to shame or politicize. It's simply to address the elephant in the room on vaccinations: Rural Americans don't follow the urban trends.
You didn’t share the enthusiasm I did for the Covid-19 vaccine. And that’s OK. In early March, I wrote about my joy and excitement to receive my first Covid-19 vaccine at Nelson-Griggs Public Health District in McVille, N.D. Since then, both my husband, Nathan and I received our second Covid-19 Moderna vaccine. By next week, we’ll be two weeks past and considered fully vaccinated from Covid-19, and proud to be fully vaccinated.
Our decision to be vaccinated had absolutely nothing to do with politics. My husband has an undergraduate bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. He worked in pharmaceutical sales and management in the first part of his business career. Our belief and experience are to vaccinate in a pandemic for what we believe is best for the greater good, not only us but our communities, county, state and world. We seek advice from our medical doctors and trust vaccinations.
Not all rural and ag readers of Agweek or my personal friends agree. I've listened to their feedback. They feel no urgency to vaccinate against Covid-19. Some feel it’s not necessary. They’re not anti-vaccines. They’re not all vaccine-hesitant. They simply are independent-minded individuals and families who feel personal choice in their lives, including health care, drives their decisions.
In their rural county, in their job, on their farm or ranch or in their child’s school, they may not have been personally impacted by Covid-19. Maybe masking or social distancing worked for them, or they just did not know anyone who got seriously ill. They view other interventions as sufficient and are not ready for the Covid-19 vaccines.
I sought out this week to have conversations with a few trusted friends who do not think like me on the Covid-19 vaccine. They aren’t upset with me for being vaccinated. They understand why it’s important for our family to be vaccinated and explained why it’s not for theirs. They also do not like be painted like they're uneducated or naïve when they are choosing to wait to be vaccinated for Covid-19.
It leads me to this simple call to action: We want to hear from you in rural America, on farms and ranches, in sparsely populated areas. Your voice needs to be heard. It can vary from what seems like the majority. Rural people tend to not intervene. They prefer to not show up than to have a conflict. Rural people may choose to be a silent majority, rather than take a stand on an issue.
At Agweek, it’s our business to cover the news of agriculture. We give voice to stories otherwise not reported by mainstream media. If you have a story you will go on record to share, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be in touch with you.
Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can also be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter @katpinke. A longer version of this column appears here.
Rural Assembly Everywhere coming up April 20-21; White House Domestic Policy Council director is among speakers
Each day will feature a keynote speaker, roundtable discussion, remarks from a national leader, and videos from performers, artists, and cultural organizations. Each afternoon, participants can select a breakout discussion and happy hour to attend. Click here for more information.
Quick hits: Coal states try to rescue coal-fired power plants; rural hospitals often blocked from clinical trials
Thursday, April 15, 2021
Why rural broadband means more than any price tag: It's as important as electricity, writes rural co-ops' retired editor
In a rural Tennessee church in the 1940s a man whose farmstead had just been connected to Tennessee Valley Authority power lines rose to give witness, saying, “Brothers and sisters, I want to tell you this. The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.”
It’s a sentiment that resonates today with the ambitious White House infrastructure proposal to spend $2 trillion building things from bridges to railroads to rural broadband. That Tennessee farmer couldn’t have known anything about the internet, but he would have recognized the wonder and respectful awe that goes into thinking big and how realizing dreams can transform the core of daily existence.
The similarities with rural electrification during the 1940s are almost perfect. The basic reluctance to making either of those services happen was that there weren’t enough customers to make it profitable. In the case of electricity, the doubters asked, what will poor country folks do with it anyway?
The forces that finally broke through the objections were explained in that Tennessee church. The farmer didn’t see electricity as something that would light the bare bulb in his living room, but as a way to connect his life to the rest of the world.
I worked with another man who could articulate how objections to great ideas like rural electrification are overcome. Bob Bergland, President Carter’s secretary of agriculture, who I got to know when he headed the rural electric co-op association, would say that bringing electricity to rural America wasn’t a technical problem, but a social problem. New engineering techniques were certainly required to carry power over longer distances, but the more important issues to resolve were complacency and old habits.
Few people today would dispute the value of reliable electric service in every home. But that wasn’t always so. Profit-making utilities fought hard and dirty against the competition even into remote areas they would never be interested in serving. When investor-owned utilities declined to take advantage of federal electrification loans and farmers formed their own co-ops instead, the upstart utilities were smeared as communists. Across the road from co-op power poles, the utilities built “spite lines” to undermine any possible interference with their business — it was an overreach, and that is why today utilities are regulated monopolies.
What made rural electrification possible was the vision of people who believed. Not just its well-known champions like FDR and Lyndon Johnson, but volunteers who could see the future, riding on horseback from farmhouse to farmhouse, persuading neighbors that no, electricity would not make their hens stop laying eggs, and that yes, they should part with the precious $5 sign-up fee to start a user-owned utility.
The internet takes us into libraries, businesses, government agencies, and even churches like they’re just next door. But in non-metropolitan areas, even the best connections are often spotty and slow, and anyone who’s taken a long car trip knows there are places you can’t even make a phone call in 2021.
The need for rural broadband has been talked about until it’s practically a standard, and empty, campaign slogan. Even piecemeal improvements take forever. No wonder small-town America feels disconnected — it’s because it is, literally and figuratively.
Some call “The American Jobs Plan” too expensive. Others say it doesn’t spend enough to revitalize our infrastructure. The dollar figure is less important than the scope, which President Biden compares to the interstate highway system or the moon landing. Another comparison The White House makes in announcing the plan is that, correctly, “broadband internet is the new electricity,” and it aims for 100% coverage. That’s a goal as lofty, almost, as having the love of God in your heart.
Paul Wesslund is former editor of Kentucky Living magazine, published by the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives and author of the book Small Business, Big Heart — How One Family Redefined the Bottom Line. This was first published in the Louisville Courier Journal.
Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance leaves AppHarvest board after controversial political tweets; may run for Senate
Webinar at noon ET tomorrow offers tools and strategies for journalists to tackle misinformation, with lessons from 2020
A free webinar Friday, April 16, will discuss tools and strategies journalists can use to address the spread of false information, focusing on lessons learned from 2020. It will run from noon to 1 p.m. ET.
Andrew Rockway of the American Press Institute will moderate a discussion with Shana Black of Black Girl Media, Anjanette Delgado of the Detroit Free Press, Karen Mahabir of The Associated Press and Nicolás Rios of Documented. Register here; if you're unable to attend, register anyway and they'll send you a recording. The webinar is sponsored by API and the News Leaders Association.
Rockway recently wrote a related article with advice for newsrooms dealing with the spread of misinformation. One tip discussed in the article: look beyond the obvious platforms to track misinformation, because it's not just happening in public posts on Facebook.
When the Free Press began looking at other social-media sites such as Parler and MeWe and joined closed groups on Facebook and elsewhere, the paper found a wealth of news tips and sources of misinformation they knew they would need to address, Rockway reports. Read more here.
How church leaders in one Kentucky Appalachian county are fighting vaccine hesitancy and leading by example
|Pastor Buddy Simpson at the Wallins Church of God in|
Harlan County (Herald-Leader photo by Silas Walker)
Many pastors advocate for a subtle approach. Pastor Buddy Simpson of the Wallins Church of God, who is fully vaccinated, encouraged his congregation to pray about it and decide for themselves, but also told them he believes vaccines are the safest bet. And Carl Canterbury, an EMT and traveling minister, "doesn’t talk about the vaccine from the pulpit, but if asked, he’ll tell. And many in his church have asked," Acquisto reports. He told her, "So many people think it’s a conspiracy, and they want to know, are you getting it? The day I had my shot, I had four members in our church to stop by and ask, did I take the shot, and I told them, yes. Because I did, they did."
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
In trip to Burma, CNN was naive, found nothing new, posed a risk to locals, and was self-congratulatory; rely on locals!
|Myanmar (Wikipedia map)|
Longtime international-conflict reporter Philip C. Winslow, who once lived and reported in rural Kentucky, writes from Chiang Mai, Thailand, 80 miles from Myanmar, that CNN found nothing new, posed risks to locals and was naive but nevertheless self-congratulatory.
The trip was "tightly controlled by Myanmar’s junta," and security forces detained women who had talked to correspondent Clarissa Ward, reports Winslow, who has spent much time in the country. "Families spent anguished hours fearing the worst, which in Myanmar is never far away."
Ward acknowledged the issues in a talk with CNN anchors, one of whom bragged about her "getting that exclusive. That's the first time that we are seeing that and hearing that because she's there on the ground." Such is "standard preening for CNN," which "may have missed the weeks of graphic video and photos Myanmar journalists have been filing on their own news platforms and to international agencies," Winslow writes. "CNN has said they were assured they would be able to move around and report freely. It’s an assurance that no one familiar with Myanmar would have bought."
Winslow says "Less turbulent situations may remain suitable for the old news model" of parachute journalism, "but not stories where the presence of a foreign news crew endangers the people whose abuse they’ve come to report, and who know the story inside out. Technology has evolved too. Data and high-resolution video are transmitted any number of ways, which evolve as fast as autocrats try to squash them. Local women and men across Myanmar have been reporting the conflict for years" for The Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, Agence France-Presse, "and agencies from Europe, Japan and elsewhere in Asia," he notes. "They seldom get public recognition for their work, which is fine with them: getting the story out is all that matters."
New rural virus cases jumped 10% last week; bigger jump in deaths may be due to cause-of-death reclassifications
|Rates of new coronavirus infections, April 4-10|
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version
New coronavirus infections in rural counties April 4-10 totaled 49,690, a 10 percent increase from the week before and the third consecutive week that new infections have increased. New infections in metropolitan counties rose 6%, to about 425,000.
"A sharp increase in Covid-related deaths in rural America last week could be related to reclassification of cause of death" by states, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Covid-related deaths climbed from 835 two weeks ago to 1,502 last week, an increase of nearly 80%," In urban counties, new deaths climbed by 29% to 5,807."
Rural areas of Michigan and the Texas Panhandle had particularly high rates last week. Click here for more data and regional analysis from the Yonder, including charts and an interactive map with county-level data.
Covid roundup: Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause hurts rural areas; suicides have fallen sharply during pandemic
Here's a roundup of recent news about the pandemic and vaccination efforts:
The pause on the single-dose Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine is making it harder for many rural residents to get vaccinated, especially those who have transportation issues and can't reliably make it out for a second shot. Read more here.
Four things to know about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause. Read more here.
A native Cherokee speaker says she was wary of coronavirus vaccines, but now says it's important because to protect elders with irreplaceable knowledge of the language and culture. Read more here.
One in three Covid-19 survivors in a study of more than 230,000 mostly American patients were diagnosed with a brain or psychiatric disorder within six months. The researchers say that suggests the pandemic could lead to a wave of mental and neurological problems. Read more here.
Public-health directors want more resources to vaccinate rural communities. Read more here.
Suicides fell nearly 6 percent during the pandemic, the sharpest drop in four decades. Read more here.
Covid-19 has disproportionately hurt Black communities—especially rural ones—but many Black Americans mistrust the vaccine. This article explores why. Read more here.
Native health providers drive Alaska's vaccination success story. Read more here.
A study has found that the B.1.1.7. coronavirus variant, first identified in England and now the most common strain in the U.S., isn't linked to more severe Covid-19 cases or higher death rates than other strains. Read more here.
FERC decision to consider proposed pipelines' greenhouse-gas emissions could have major infrastructure implications
American farmers are sharing in a robust economic recovery from the pandemic, according to the most recent quarterly CoBank report. The GDP could grow by 7 percent in 2021, its fastest rate since 1984, the report projects.
"Many in the agricultural industry are experiencing the best market conditions since 2013," says the report. "Prices are hovering near multiyear highs as strong exports and dwindling supplies have solidified a healthy outlook for much of the farm economy."
The Agriculture Department has projected record exports of $157 billion in 2021, a 16% increase from last year, and overall farm income is predicted to be 20% higher than its 10-year average as farmers bring in more revenue and rely less on direct federal aid, the report says.
Fertilizer prices have almost doubled from a year ago, and "financially strong" farmers are planning to plant 3% more corn, soybean and wheat, which should bring more business to farm supply retailers. But drought remains a concern in a few parts of the Upper Midwest, according to the report.
President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure package could prove transformative to the long-term rural economy if approved, since it would bring hundreds of billions of dollars to expand and upgrade the electrical grid, water systems, broadband connection, and strengthen more traditional infrastructure such as roads, bridges and dams, wrote CoBank vice president Dan Kowalski.
Tuesday, April 13, 2021
New Mexico's coronavirus vaccination program stands out nationally for its effectiveness and simplicity
New Mexico is one of the poorest states, but its coronavirus vaccination program has been one of the nation's most effective because of thoughtful decisions that kept the program streamlined."New Mexico in recent days became the state first to provide at least one dose to half of its adult population, and a nation-leading 38 percent of adults are fully vaccinated," Dan Goldberg reports for Politico. "It’s also among the top-performing states on equity: Over 26 percent of Blacks, 32 percent of Hispanics and 41 percent of Asians received at least one shot, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation review of the 41 states publicly reporting ethnic and racial data.
Hunger in the U.S. has fallen to its lowest point since the pandemic began, though many Americans are still struggling.
"Government support appears to be behind the decline, as Americans who need relief the most finally got it," Stephanie Asymkos reports for Yahoo!Finance. "About 18.4 million — or 8.8 percent American households — reported there was either sometimes or often not enough to eat in the last seven days during the latest Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey period of March 17 - 29. That was down from 10.7% in the first half of March and marked roughly 4 million fewer hungry households."
A free webinar at 12 p.m. ET on April 22 will discuss how Wyoming and Appalachia are faring in transitioning from a coal-based economy to other industries. Register here.
- Mason Adams, journalist, Floyd County, Virginia
- Shannon Anderson, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Wyoming
- Heidi Binko, Just Transition Fund, Virginia
- Dustin Bleizeffer, journalist, Casper, Wyoming
President Biden's $100 billion proposal to expand rural broadband "would hinge largely on the government’s ability to dole out the funding accurately and efficiently — a monumental task that federal officials are beginning in earnest this year," Daniel Moore reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Officials at the Federal Communications Commission face challenges with data gaps in the country’s broadband coverage maps that underpin decisions on what places should receive money, which already has begun flowing."
Essentially, the FCC relies largely on self-reported data from telecommunications companies. Such companies have an incentive to overstate their rural reach to obtain more rural broadband funding, so it's unclear which rural areas truly have broadband access.
A conservative nonprofit called the American Culture Project is creating Facebook groups that don't disclose their bias in a bid to bypass the news media in informing and influencing swing-state voters.
It's "part of a novel strategy by a little-known, Republican-aligned group to make today’s GOP more palatable to moderate voters ahead of the 2022 midterms by reshaping the 'cultural narrative' on hot-button issues," Isaac Stanley-Becker reports for The Washington Post. "That goal, laid out in a private fundraising appeal sent last month to a Republican donor and reviewed by The Washington Post, relies on building new online communities that can be tapped at election time, with a focus on winning back Congress in 2022."
The appeal argues that liberals have more influence in cultural institutions, which gives them more access to swing voters, while conservatives are more isolated in social-media "echo chambers." The group aims to target swing voters by collecting data from petitions and other online tools, Stanley-Becker reports.
"While data collection and digital ad targeting have become commonplace in political campaigns, what’s unusual about the American Culture Project, experts said, is how it presents its aims as news dissemination and community building. It touts transparency and civic engagement using an online network whose donors remain private — part of a bid to shape public opinion as local news outlets crater and social networks replace traditional forums for political deliberation," Stanley-Becker reports. "The American Culture Project is set up as a social welfare organization exempt from disclosing its donors or paying federal income taxes but, in exchange, barred from making politics its primary focus. The project is led by an Illinois-based conservative activist, John Tillman, who also oversees a libertarian think tank and a news foundation that recently received grant money to highlight opposition to public health restrictions," Stanley-Becker reports. Tillman wrote in an email to the Post that the group's objectives are "issue education and advocacy (not electioneering)" and that he wants to reach Americans "who can no longer rely on traditional media to become fully informed on a diversity of views on the issues of the day."Noah Bookbinder, president of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Stanley-Becker that the American Culture Project's failure to disclose its donors "puts the lie to the public presentation of these nonprofits as public welfare organizations that might happen to do a little politics ... It shows the system is being abused in ways we knew were happening but you usually don’t see quite so blatantly."
Monday, April 12, 2021
High lumber prices, which stem mostly from the pandemic and a pest, aren't helping many timber cutters, landowners
Lumber prices have skyrocketed over the past year, due to scarcity caused by tariffs and a Canadian beetle infestation, but the higher prices aren't necessarily being passed on to timber producers. In the U.S., lumber costs 180 percent more right now than it did in April 2020, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The Federal Reserve Board says it's "the sharpest rise since 1946, when the post-World War II housing boom kicked in," David Brooks reports for the Concord Monitor.
The increase has in turn raised the cost of building the average single-family home by almost $24,000, and nearly 81,000 new homes across the U.S. are awaiting construction partly because of the cost of materials. Samanth Subramanian reports for Quartz.
The pandemic is largely to blame. "Early in 2020, sawmills first ground to a halt, anticipating a crash in demand. Then it turned out that people still wanted wood—to repair or renovate their homes during lockdown, or to build new homes outside cities," Subramanian reports. "Interest rates were, and continue to be, low; it was a good time to finance and construct new houses. So the sawmills started up again around July." But many mills had to shut down after employees were exposed to or sickened by the coronavirus, which in turn slowed lumber output and caused shortages.
The high prices have been "a boon for lumber mills, although the pandemic has complicated their ability to take advantage," Brooks reports. "But issues from the global supply chain to manpower limits to tree-species distribution means the benefit so far has been spotty at best, especially for landowners," at least in New England.
Part of the problem is that New Hampshire, and many parts of New England, are home to hardwood trees like cedar. The construction industry uses mostly fast-growing softwoods like pine, including pressure-treated softwoods that can resist rot. With pine in short supply, builders turned to cedar, but cedar mills are running at top capacity and it can take a year and a half to add significant processing capacity, according to industry consultant Eric Kinglsey. Many mill owners are hesitant to add such capacity, he told Brooks, because it may not pay off if the current boom fizzles out too quickly.
Canadian lumber once provided a pressure-relief valve, with the pine forests of British Columbia providing 15% to 17% of the lumber for U.S. markets. These days it's more like 10% or less, due to the mountain pine beetle. Cold winters once kept its population in check, but a warming climate allowed it to live longer and reproduce more quickly starting in the late 1990s, and the insect has destroyed hundreds of millions of acres of forest in British Columbia, Subramanian reports.
That capacity will take decades to rebuild, and the softwood tariff on Canada, which President Trump imposed in 2017, doesn't help matters, says the Wall Street Journal editorial board: "The Commerce Department cut the levy to 9% from 20% in December. But as long as the orders are in place, this lower rate—what importers are mandated to pay in 'duty'—is merely a cash deposit for what is due next year. Lumber buyers know Commerce can make a new finding of a higher duty, which would apply retroactively on Canadian lumber they have already imported. This backward-looking assignment of duties introduces enormous uncertainty, creating an incentive to rely on domestic supply."
In the meantime, the U.S. must find more wood somewhere. One option "is to import more lumber, particularly from Europe, which has stock in surplus," Subramanian reports. "Over the past five years, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic have had to harvest nearly 250 million cubic meters of spruce damaged by another bark beetle infestation, this too brought on by the warming climate. Ironically, if one beetle has depressed wood supplies to the US, another may yet elevate it."
|Deborah and James Fallows|
The documentary is "an optimistic, visually-arresting snapshot of life in small towns and cities," Adam Giorgi writes for The Daily Yonder. "t’s impressive how many important issues the film fits into the narrative, hitting upon homelessness, opioid addiction, immigration, global trade, the legacy of slavery, climate change, and even the decline of local news. But for all its sweep, when you get past the big-picture, high-minded concerns on the filmmakers’ minds, the heart of this story is found in the details, when its feet are on the ground. It’s the close-up look at each community, and the people who live there, that animates 'Our Towns' and makes it stick. The message here is ultimately one of optimism, resilience, and reinvention, and it resounds because of the individuals seen putting those principles into practice. The filmmaking team doesn’t paper over or push aside very real and formidable challenges, but they focus their lens first and foremost on those who are working to adapt and overcome them."
President Biden's proposed budget for 2022 would boost spending on agriculture and rural areas in general. Such proposals don't generally survive intact, but they're useful as a snapshot of the president's priorities. This one raises funding for every major part of the government, and would boost Agriculture Department spending by 16 percent to $27.8 billion for the year starting in October."Biden’s budget request mirrors many of the rural priorities included in his infrastructure blueprint, like broadband access, reclaiming abandoned mines and helping rural communities transition to cleaner energy sources. It also would expand funding for USDA research and education programs," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "Congress can now get started writing the annual spending bills for each agency. But the appropriations process will run parallel to Democrats’ work on a sprawling infrastructure package, which is likely to dominate the agenda for several months."
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted not only rural health and economic disparities, but racial disparities as well—especially for rural people of color.
Rural Covid-19 death rates have outstripped metropolitan rates since September, but rural people of color have had it even worse. "From March 2020 through February, rural residents experienced 175 Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 151 deaths per 100,000 for urban communities. And in highly diverse rural counties where people of color made up at least a third of the population, 258 people died per 100,000," according to a recent report from management consultant firm McKinsey & Company, Aallyah Wright reports for Stateline. "In rural counties where the largest racial group was American Indian or Alaska Native, the overall death rate was 2.1 times that of White rural counties. In rural counties where Black people predominated, the overall death rate was 1.6 times that in White rural counties. And in largely Hispanic rural counties, the death rate was 1.5 times higher than the White rate."
Sunday, April 11, 2021
For the first time since Gallup began tracking church membership in 1937, Americans’ membership in houses of worship has dropped to below 50 percent of the population, the polling organization announced recently.
In 2020, just 47 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. That’s a decline from 50 percent in 2018, and a precipitous fall from as recently as 1999, when 70 percent of us were members.
Membership has declined across all religious, demographic, political and geographic categories: men and women; young and old; Black, white and Hispanic; Republicans, Democrats and Independents; well-educated and less-educated; Protestant and Catholic; conservatives, moderates and liberals; people from the Midwest, South, East and West.
This ongoing decline in the role and influence of American houses of worship has become all but unstoppable.
What’s causing the waning of religious allegiance?
I’m no sociologist. But having been a minister for 40 years and a religion writer for roughly 30 years, I do have some theories.
It’s not just one thing, I believe. It’s the perfect storm of things. Here are multiple factors I see, and this isn’t an exhaustive list:
▪ The rise of the internet has made it easy to pick and choose beliefs from around the planet, and to chat informally, even anonymously, with those who see the cosmos—or faith, or God—as you do. The internet exposes us to an endless variety of traditionalists, skeptics and alternative faiths. Connecting live, in-person with the Baptist or Episcopal congregation down the street can, by comparison, feel frustrating and limiting and boring. It requires commitment. It’s messy. For many folks, the internet has become their house of worship. They create their own boutique faith.
▪ As one author pointed out to Bailey in the Post, we’re living in a period in which younger Americans, especially, are distrustful of all types of institutions, including police and pharmaceutical companies. That distrust carries over to religious institutions. Young adults are the least religious of all Americans.
▪ Skepticism and even atheism have become more acceptable, and in some circles de rigueur. The number of atheists is growing and well-documented, and a small subsection of atheists have turned evangelistic themselves in advancing their cause, publicly attacking religion at every opportunity. The unsayable has become sayable. This growing, organized pushback has created embarrassment and disillusionment among some who used to be churchgoers, but weren’t well-versed in their faith to begin with.
▪ Roman Catholic child-abuse scandals have shaken people’s trust in organized religion. Here’s a hint of that: since the late 1990s—roughly about the time the sex-abuse scandals became widely known—Catholic membership has declined at twice the rate of Protestant membership, 18 percent versus 9 percent, respectively.
▪ A seemingly endless succession of big-time Protestant leaders behaving badly has had a similar, if statistically less dramatic, effect on that branch of Christianity.
▪ The alliance of white evangelical Christianity with right-wing politics has appalled some people, who say the congregation or denomination they grew up is now merely a mouthpiece for the Republican Party. They are turned off by a church that they see as less concerned about the gospel of Jesus Christ than the pronouncements of Donald Trump or Sean Hannity.
▪ On the opposite pole of the ideological scale, some liberal churches have gotten so caught up in social do-goodism and wokeism they’ve become indistinguishable from secular charities and community action groups. They’re not distinctively Christian enough (or Jewish enough, or whatever enough) to engage people’s faith.
▪ Sundays are no longer sacred. We play golf. We take hikes. Youth sports leagues suck away parents and kids from church services. Once, youth teams didn’t practice or play on Sundays. Many formerly churchgoing parents find their kids’ soccer or baseball success more important than their spiritual development.
▪ A lot of churchgoers were never that serious about their faith to begin with. Even among active church members, probably no more than 10 to 20 percent really shape their lives around their religion, rather than the other way around. When all the other contributing factors listed above start tugging at these less-dedicated folks, it’s easy for them to simply drift away.
To me, the future doesn’t look promising for organized religion of any variety. We’re riding a downward trend, and it’s hard to see it reversing.
In addition, the pandemic has given everyone new paradigms for worship, and lots of practice staying home from services.
It’s not clear to what extent last year’s voluntary and state-mandated church shutdowns affected Gallup’s 2020 numbers. But I suspect the pandemic will, in the end, prove to have been detrimental long-term. Significant numbers of those who’ve had to sit out for the past year may never return.
In the future, Christianity—historically the country’s largest faith by far—will have to adjust to becoming an ever-smaller slice of the spiritual pie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The earliest Christians were barely more than an obscure splinter group, but they were serious, and they persevered, and they changed the world.
Paul Prather (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Pentecostal Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. This was first published in the Lexington Herald-Leader, for which he was the religion reporter.