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First up from the God Machine this week is the question of whether more Americans are attending worship services in light of the economic crisis.
The New York Times recently ran a front-page piece, and concluded that there's a definite trend -- as the recession has worsened, attendance at houses of worship has increased. The Times based this conclusion on a "spot check of large Roman Catholic parishes and mainline Protestant churches around the nation," and reported that since September, "[P]astors nationwide say they have seen such a burst of new interest that they find themselves contending with powerful conflicting emotions -- deep empathy and quiet excitement -- as they re-encounter an old piece of religious lore: Bad times are good for evangelical churches."
Is this true? Slate's Jack Shafer dug a little deeper and has his doubts.
Has today's freshly cratered economy already given bloom to increased church attendance? No, Gallup's editor-in-chief, Frank Newport, writes in a Dec. 17 Web posting in reaction to the Times story. He asserts that "a review of almost 300,000 interviews conducted by Gallup so far in 2008 shows no evidence that church attendance in America has been increasing late this year as a result of bad economic times."
About 42 percent of Americans polled by Gallup in September, October, November, and into December said that they had attended church weekly or almost every week, a number unchanged from earlier in the year. Newport also stated these findings in a letter to the Times that the paper published on Dec. 20. Newport allows in his Times letter that attendance may have increased at selected evangelical churches but that such an increase would be too limited to register nationally.
Ordinarily when the Times traffics in a trend story, it indemnifies itself by quoting a skeptic on the other side of the issue or it tosses off a "to be sure" paragraph noting the weakness of its anecdotal evidence. Not here. Given this leap of faith, let's hope the Times isn't looking into the existence of Santa Claus. Imagine the headline: "Despite Naysayers, Hundreds of Millions Believe in St. Nick."
Also from the God Machine this week:
* TV preacher Pat Robertson is "remarkably pleased" with President-elect Barack Obama, but seems to be suffering from some Bush Fatigue. Despite Robertson's role in helping promote and carry water for the president, the televangelist told CNN this week that Bush has not dealt with the nation's economic crisis in a "professional manner," and he feels compelled to acknowledge the "serious goofs" Bush has made in office: "The Katrina matter was terrible. The rebuilding of Iraq has been terrible. The [handling] of the economy right now has been terrible.... I believe I would look at about a C-minus right now if I were grading him." No word on what grade Robertson would give himself for having defended Bush for the last eight years.
* And radical Southern Baptist Pastor Wiley Drake lashed out at Pastor Rick Warren this week, insisting that "God will punish" Warren for appearing at the Obama inauguration. Drake called Obama an "evil illegal alien," and warned Warren, "God will not wink at this.... It's an abomination before God and God's going to deal with that."