Bogus trend story of the week: booming evangelical attendance.

Media criticism.
Dec. 22 2008 5:03 PM

Bogus Trend of the Week: Booming Evangelical Attendance

A Gallup editor punctures a religion bubble at the New York Times.

Is evangelical church attendance really up?
Is evangelical church attendance really up?

It stands to reason that the recent crash might have driven impoverished souls to their nearest church in search of salvation. Churches—like yesterday's housing bankers—don't demand much in the way of collateral from their clientele, making for a handsome risk-to-reward ratio.

A run on churches sounds so plausible that it was a cinch that the New York Times would to look into it, and look into it did on Dec. 14 with a Page One story. In that piece, the paper combined self-reports from evangelical churches, a "spot check of large Roman Catholic parishes and mainline Protestant churches around the nation," and a paper by an economist, drawing on historical data, to declare in a headline: "An Evangelical Article of Faith: Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds." (The headline on the Web version of the story is broader: "Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds to Churches." It's also dated Dec. 13.)

The Times storyreports:

[S]ince September, pastors 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.

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."

******

Many thanks to Frank Newport of Gallup for writing his letter, which ultimately led to my discovery of this bogus trend story. Send bogus trend sighting to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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