Why Republican governors are choosing to keep their refugee resettlement programs

Elise on the playground with a refugee girl from the Congo.
These little ladies were inseparable.

Tucker Carlson – whose views I increasingly cannot stand – had a segment last night trying to “explain” why it was that most Republican governors have decided to continue and even expand refugee resettlement in their states. Of course, he didn’t know the answer, but he was perfectly fine leaving his audience with an outright lie.

Carlson found it counter-intuitive that Republican governors would choose to continue accepting refugees after President Trump signed an executive order last September that refugees could only be resettled in a jurisdiction if both state and local officials were on board. After all, some current and former Republican governors, including 2024 hopeful Nikki Haley, had lobbied aggressively for this measure. This was their opportunity finally to be free of the social and financial burdens refugees pose to local governments, and they rejected it.

Carlson concluded that Republican governors eventually decided to accept refugee resettlement programs for the financial assistance that accompanied them. Their motive was money, pure and simple, he suggested. As if getting $20,000 in aggregate to help deal with the costs of these programs were some serious consideration. Anyone who has worked in state government can tell you that’s not even a rounding error in the budget of a small agency, let alone something that would drive major policy decisions. It was a ludicrous and offensive claim, and honestly, I have no idea why conservatives continue to put up with Carlson’s bullshit anymore.

The reality of the refugee debate is that resettlement groups in the US primarily receive assistance from churches and religious groups. I know this because I have a lot of personal experience with these programs. My daughter and I volunteered with an ESL program for refugees coming over from the Democratic Republic of the Congo through the Catholic Church for a while. It was one of the most enlightening and fulfilling things I have ever done, and I highly recommend contributing to these causes.

The media loves to portray the refugee issue as a left-versus-right fight, and it’s not. It’s pretty much entirely a right-versus-right issue, with people who like and support Trump generally agreeing to disagree with him on this particular issue.

I guarantee you that very few of those lefty keyboard warriors on Twitter talking about Trump’s “Muslim ban” (most refugees coming into the US are not from Muslim countries – the US is nothing like Europe) have never lifted a finger to help refugees in their lives. It’s the gun-toting, Jesus-loving, Republican voters who are contributing their time and personal wealth to help with resettlement programs and they perceive these to be serious, life-altering causes.

Last year, 2,600 evangelicals participated in a drive to pressure Republican governors into continuing to accept refugees. These folks had established organizations devoted to helping refugees come over to the United States, and had worked aggressively through the bureaucratic maze across years to reunite families. They were not happy at all with the idea that their efforts would be destroyed:

The evangelical refugee resettlement agency World Relief and the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical organizations seeking comprehensive immigration reform, led an effort this past week to send joint letters to 15 state governors.

The letters call for the officials to permit the continued resettlement of refugees through the U.S. refugee admissions program in accordance with Trump’s Sept. 26 executive order giving states and localities the ability to block refugee resettlement. 

So far, 17 of the nation’s 50 governors have indicated that they will continue to allow refugee resettlement in the U.S., according to World Relief.  

One of the letters, which was signed by 294 evangelicals in the state, was sent to Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey before he gave consent last Friday to refugee resettlement in Arizona’s borders. 

Another letter, signed by 136 evangelicals in North Carolina, was sent to Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper, who gave his consent for resettlement in the Tar Heel State to the U.S. State Department on Tuesday. 

Other letters were sent to governors in California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. 

The letter warned state leaders that disruptions to the resettling process in their states could impact the “reunification of many families who have been waiting years to be reunited.”

The letters stress that if states block resettlement in their borders, families looking to be reunited will likely exercise their right to move to those states once they are resettled in the U.S. 

But in doing so, the letters stated, refugees will be forced to “move away from vital employment assistance, language acquisition and cultural adjustment resources offered by their resettlement organization.”

“Refugees can best integrate into the U.S. and quickly become financially self-sufficient when supported both by their family and by a local resettlement office,” the form letters state.

“As our state’s governor, we urge you to keep the option open for local communities within [the state] to continue to receive newly arrived refugees. As always, we are committed to praying for you as you lead our state.”

The letters received a combined total of 2,669 signatories, including 659 on the letter to Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee, 340 on the letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and 231 on the letter to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. 

“After being forced to leave their countries to escape war, persecution or natural disaster and being legally allowed entry to the U.S., the last thing refugees should have to experience is being denied access to communities in which they wish to dwell,” World Relief President Scott Arbeiter said in a statement. “Halting the resettlement of refugees to states will disrupt families and could lead to the end of vital ministries by local churches.”

The Congolese refugees we worked with were all very good and very kind people. Their lives had been displaced by violent conflicts over natural resources that are primarily used by people in rich western countries. (Those smartphones we love so much are ruining a lot of lives.)

They had taken enormous personal risks to come here with their children. Most of those children had not known any life beyond a refugee camp, though one family I met had been previously settled in Russia before coming to the United States. Their kids spoke a few African languages, French, some Russian, and were learning English through our program and public schools. It used to kill me when I’d hear adults talking down to them like they were stupid.

In many cases, the fathers had remained behind so their wives and children could have the opportunity at a new life. This is a horrible fact of refugee life in the United States. In many cases, these refugees are getting resettled in public housing projects, where they see gangs and drugs and often do not have a father figure to anchor them. But stuff like this gets completely lost in the idiotic propaganda wars coming out of Washington. That makes the roles of Christian groups even more important. (It’s also important to the lives of the US-born kids in the same projects.)

The amount of help these churches provide refugees is incredible. They offer English classes. They help them get their kids registered for school and work as liaisons with government agencies and social workers. They provide transportation to doctor’s appointments and to the grocery store. Heck, they even teach the refugees how to shop at a big-box grocery store, which is a phenomenon they have never seen. They provide them with food because benefits do not go very far. They help them obtain clothes for all of their kids, winter coats, and toys at holidays. And beyond all that, they are just there for them through whatever comes up. Volunteers went to refugee weddings and baptisms.

With all of the political division in this country, a lot of “aggressively online” people live in a world of caricatures. This is also true for people who only get their news from one news source. It’s not unique to the left, either. The fact that Tucker Carlson does not understand who is helping refugees in this country means he probably interacts with more liberals in the DC area than conservatives personally. He likes them, in theory, but he’s not visiting their churches.

You don’t have to be some open borders, “we are a nation of immigrants, so let everyone in” nut to support refugees. You can believe that the country should do a better job of vetting refugees and still believe refugees are worth helping. You can believe that locals should have a voice in accepting refugees and simultaneously hope they choose to help. There is room in this country for a continuum of beliefs on any subject, but especially on immigration.

The United Methodist Church files for divorce over LGBTQ rights

Well, it’s pretty much a done deal: the United Methodist Church is splitting up and the two remaining factions will have nothing to do with each other. As with most divorces, this was less about the nature of the disagreement that led to the split and all about who gets to keep money and property:

Leaders of the United Methodist Church have agreed in principle on a deal that will divide the denomination, potentially ending years of discord over the status of gay and transgender people in the church.

The agreement, which was signed by 16 leaders of the church on both sides of the debate, would allow same-sex marriage in the Methodist church and for gay clergy members to serve openly.

Conservative churches that oppose same-sex marriage could leave the denomination and take their property with them, a sticking point that in other denominations facing similar conflicts has led to long legal battles over who owns church buildings.

Since the Episcopal Church began consecrating openly gay clergy in 2003, dozens of churches have split off and sued the denomination in an effort to keep hold of church property.

The agreement would give the conservative churches that leave $25 million to start their own denomination. Clergy members who leave would keep their United Methodist Church pensions.

For the deal to take effect, it will have to be approved at the denomination’s next general conference in May. Several church leaders involved in the deal said that because advocates on both sides of the debate were involved in negotiating it, they are optimistic it will pass.

“We’ve essentially put this conflict behind us,” said Keith Boyette, a signatory to the deal who is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a collection of more than 1,000 conservative congregations that oppose same-sex marriage. “For traditionalists, we can now focus on the next steps. That would not be achievable if there were not this kind of plan in place.”

Mr. Boyette said that he was holding conference calls with members of the association on Friday, and that the group had already put out a draft book of bylaws that a new, traditionalist denomination could use.

He said he hoped to hold a convening conference for a new denomination this year and estimated that as much as 30 to 40% of the denomination in the U.S. would leave the United Methodist Church.

The agreement follows years of rancor over LGBT people’s place in the Methodist church, the third-largest religious denomination in the U.S., with 13 million members world-wide.

Last year, the church convened a special general conference specifically to address the question. But the meeting ended without a clear resolution. While 53% of delegates voted to strengthen the ban on same-sex marriage, more progressive churches across the U.S. continued to conduct same-sex weddings and gay clergy continued to serve. Some prominent conservatives advocated for dissolving the denomination altogether.

Ken Carter, president of the United Methodist Church’s council of bishops and a signatory of the deal, said he had hoped to keep the denomination from splitting, but was convinced to give churches a path to leave after witnessing the damage that the continuing fight was causing at the conference.

“There are simply some convictions and matters of conscience that do not allow people to be in unity with each other,” he said.

Sad to watch things like this happen, but it is probably a sign of things to come for the Roman Catholic Church too. Even the pope has resigned himself to the idea of a schism.

Netflix’s The Two Popes gets Catholicism humorously wrong

I have been waiting for Netflix’s The Two Popes to be released for a while. It is a visually gorgeous, well-acted movie. It is also a disturbing piece of revisionist history.

It’s clear from the outset that the movie aspires to rebuild the corporate media mythology of Pope Francis. Pope Francis’s reputation has been thoroughly tarnished in recent years by a number of events – well, more like trends – in the church.

Pope Francis has failed to address the existence of predatory priests and has been credibly accused of engaging in a cover-up of abuse scandals involving those at the highest ranks of the church.

Francis failed to reform the Vatican bank and the corruption during his tenure is shocking. It has been revealed that money raised from the faithful for charitable works instead was used to fund the Vatican’s budget deficit and to speculate in luxury real estate in London in hedge fund-like investments. Only about 10% of the funds ever made it to charity. Dozens of Catholic dioceses in the United States have filed for bankruptcy over settlements with abuse victims while the Vatican under Francis spends money like it is going out of style. The reality of the Vatican stands in sharp contrast to the Hollywood mythology of Francis as a humble man who devotes all his attention to the poor.

Francis has distracted from these issues by making radical changes to the church’s core practices. He has made changes to the catechism on a whim. He is considering allowing married clergy. He’s held ceremonies deifying plants as a tribute to his environmentalism. He shrugs at the idea of a schism, whereby conservative Catholics would leave a church that is already suffering catastrophic losses in participation. It’s not a great time for the church, and Francis has been a willing participant in the church’s myriad problems.

All this is to say that there is an incentive to try and whitewash some of Francis’s leadership failures. And it’s clear that is what this movie tries to do.

I often joke that Francis is primarily loved by people who are not Catholic. Hollywood liberals love the idea of Francis because they feel a political kinship with his socialist background and believe (incorrectly) that he will eventually change the catechism to endorse LGBT folks. But they hate Catholicism; you will never find any of these folks in a pew. What they want to see is the political conversion of a group of people they otherwise believe subscribe to a litany of dumb superstitions. Although loved by non-Catholics, Francis drives many traditional Catholics away. And there are a lot of traditional Catholics.

What you see in The Two Popes is Hollywood fan fiction. It is not even a remotely accurate portrayal of Benedict’s scandalous retirement from the papacy or the internal dramas and intrigues that drove him away. In fact, the movie outright dismisses a conflict with the Curia as contributing to Benedict’s renouncing the papacy, which is absolutely false. The movie suggests that the conservative Benedict came around to thinking ultra-liberal Francis would make a better pope than he would, and that is why he left. It’s incredible.

While the movie lavishes praise on Francis, it is an absolute hatchet job on Benedict – which is stunning, as Benedict is a thoroughly decent person. Benedict is a deeply intellectual hermit, who established himself as a renowned theologian before becoming pope. He was a prolific writer. In the movie, Benedict is portrayed as a machine-politics wheeler and dealer who connived his way into becoming pope and then decided he didn’t want it after all. More Rahm Emanuel than Thomas Aquinas. It’s like the screenwriter has no idea whatsoever whom he is talking about. About the only accurate thing the movie shows about Benedict is that he really loves music.

At many points in the movie, the conversation becomes comically heretical. For example, in one exchange between Francis and Benedict, Francis explains that the church is a plastic, ever-changing organization. He says that there was no discussion of angels whatsoever in the church until the 5th century, “and then they were everywhere.” (This argument is used to justify Francis allowing people who are in a state of mortal sin to participate in the Eucharist contrary to church dogma.) But anyone who has ever bothered to read the New Testament knows there are dozens of references to angels in the text. An angel informs Mary that she will give birth to Jesus for crying out loud. No serious biblical scholar, let alone a cardinal in the Catholic Church, would make such a preposterous claim.

Then the conversation really goes off the rails. Francis informs Benedict that not only does the Holy Catholic Church “change,” but God also “changes.” This is directly antithetical to the beliefs of the church, and well, pretty much every Protestant denomination too, while we’re at it. I cannot imagine Francis would find that line particularly flattering. But when Hollywood does religion, they know so little about the topic that they are bound to include some stupid stuff.

The climax of the movie is when Benedict confesses to Francis that he covered up crimes committed by the founder of the Legion of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel. This is vile slander and I almost did not finish the movie at that point. Truly, the church should vocally condemn the movie on this disgusting plot device alone.

We are also treated to numerous instances of Benedict being called a Nazi for no reason other than the fact that he’s German, which has to be the most 2019 thing ever. Hey, I don’t know anything about this guy, but he’s old and white and he has traditional beliefs, so he’s “literally Hitler,” as the kids say.

One of the biggest issues with this movie is that the performances of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, being excellent actors, will be quite convincing to non-Catholic audiences. It’s like they are exploiting the ignorance of those who are not capable of discerning the fact that this movie is a fabulist trainwreck written by someone who clearly needs to brush up on their theology and cultural literacy. It’s revisionist history and the most dangerous sort of revisionist history at that.

The more I think about this strange movie, the more I think it is a brilliant example of why the absurdist political agenda of corporate media is becoming a major problem in our public discourse. This is fundamentally dishonest content, but not quite propaganda. (The church surely does not want people to believe the pope is an illiterate heretic. But in the era of Francis, perhaps I should prepare myself to be surprised.) I am reminded of a tweet by New York Times author Maggie Haberman, who suggested that Edelweiss was a Nazi anthem for no other reason than the song is used in the opening to The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s bastardization of Philip K. Dick’s story. It’s a stunningly stupid claim made for a stunningly stupid reason, but now her legions of followers believe it too. This entire movie is like that but on a larger scale. We live in an era where the tech industry has made information very easy to come by, but disinformation even easier.

I think, in general, there is now a lot of garbage content about religion in the digital space. Evangelicals have been similarly plagued by people who left the church (and in some cases, have fully transitioned to atheism) speaking viciously and falsely about their former communities. I’m sure this has always been the case, however. It’s just now the unreliable narrators have grander platforms financed with junk bond offerings and their ignorance is unrelentingly amplified.

If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad

A couple weeks ago, I read philosopher Jonathan Lear’s book, Aristotle: The Desire to Understand. If you are looking for a book that explains Aristotle’s philosophy in fairly straightforward terms, this would be an outstanding choice. Though I would obviously recommend reading Aristotle himself first.

Perhaps it is my Roman Catholic background, but I have considered Aristotle to be the authority on a life well-lived for as long as I can remember. (In the Catholic Church, Aristotle is regarded as The Philosopher, and was the subject of much scholastic criticism.) All this is to say, there are not many people who can make me view Aristotle through a different lens because Aristotle is the language my brain is programmed in. But Lear accomplished that, or at least made my code more efficient.

In his discussion of Aristotle’s Ethics, Lear says something that has stuck with me for a while: Ethics is not about adhering to an arbitrary set of rules. Ethics is about the proper organization of desires.

This is antithetical to the way we talk about ethics in modern society, mostly because we don’t care about establishing a metaphysical foundation for any beliefs nowadays. What is ethical is mostly a function of who is in power rather than what is good from an eternal perspective.

All of Aristotle’s philosophy comes down to his concept of the life well-lived as a sort of flourishing (the Greek εὐδαιμονία, sometimes poorly translated as the passive term “happiness,” rather than flourishing).

If you are living an ethical life, your desires are properly organized and that supports flourishing in a personal and social context. The logical corollary is that having desires that are in disarray makes you miserable.

A dear friend of mine who is gifted at needlepoint sent me some photographs recently of her latest (gorgeous) project, which involves stitching out the Ten Commandments. She told me that she thinks every family (within the Judeo-Christian wisdom traditions, I assume) should have the Ten Commandments on display in their house.

That remark had me thinking about how many people nowadays would perceive posting the Ten Commandments anywhere, even in one’s personal space, as inhospitable or archaic. Certainly most liberal Christians prefer some gooey caricature of Jesus in the New Testament to the legalistic notion of religion the Ten Commandments present. Lost is any concern that this was the actual cultural landscape that the real persona of Jesus was born into. They would like to think he obliterated the Commandments both literally and figuratively. Or, from a metaphysical perspective, they would like to believe that it doesn’t matter how you live – if you have the “right” emotions about God, you will ultimately be happy.

But imagine if you looked at the Ten Commandments through the lens of Aristotle’s Ethics. Instead of being arbitrary rules to follow chucked from the sky by a terse deity, the Commandments exist to help you organize your desires properly. They are divine wisdom regarding how to flourish in the world. In other words, they exist to save you from yourself. They are not a cage, but a gift.

Keep a day for meditation and to be surrounded by loved ones. Be loyal to your spouse, because it is impossible for you or your children to flourish if you do not keep your family intact. Respect your parents, otherwise you will regret being unkind when they are not around and you can see past events with mature eyes. Do not covet what other people have, because the rat race leads to a dead end. Instead, appreciate the real life that you and your family have built. Don’t be an unreliable narrator because unreliable narrators are not welcome in decent communities. These aren’t tedious rules. They are solid advice on how to live well, and that starts with having your desires aligned. To have a good life, you have to want good things. You have to care.

I think our culture probably did regard the Decalogue this way, but it’s now a core assumption of postmodern society that there is no one path to flourishing. Based on that assumption, folks like to deny the validity of ancient wisdom on the topic. “Wisdom” has become synonymous with “rules,” and rules are oppressive. And we have an increasingly strung-out world to show for it.

Part of the All Souls Deuteronomy, the oldest existing copy of the Decalogue.

Remember who you are

We spent yesterday driving up to Lake Hartwell, Georgia, to spend Thanksgiving with family. Along the way, we decided to stop in and see good friends who relocated to Georgia from Kentucky, whom we had not seen in years. They have found a truly beautiful spot to live here. The Georgia forests are alive with fall colors. We found ourselves gasping at the woods and creeks with each curve of the road or descent into a valley. It was a spectacular drive.

While we were visiting, one of their teenage daughters asked permission to go out with some of her friends from school to look at a display of Christmas lights. Her parents asked who she was going with, who else might be there, who was driving, and so on, before telling her she could go.

As she was walking out the door, her mother stopped her and said, “Remember who you are. Make good decisions.”

Remember who you are. Make good decisions.

That succinct delivery of wisdom stunned me. Her daughter received the words thoughtfully too, even though you knew she was accustomed to hearing it. I told our friends that I was going to make a note of those words for when Elise is old enough to venture into the world independently. That will become my mantra too.

As a young adult (heck, even as a mature adult), you get so caught up in being popular or trying to attract the attention of certain people that you tend to forget existential decisions often seem like small matters. That pushing through what seems like a porous boundary on one occasion – what might seem like a small or even reasonable gamble – can end up having life-altering consequences.

And beyond that, we now live in a society that is actively encouraging children to forsake the wisdom of millennia for cheap pleasures or a fleeting sense of belonging. How do you tell a child to be wise when every other social influence – even perceived authorities and institutions – are telling them to be stupid and make mistakes? How do you help your child navigate cultural influences that now have quite the track record for producing lost and miserable generations?

Our friends are Mormon. Although I am Roman Catholic, I have always respected the practical wisdom of Mormon parenting and felt a kinship to their virtue ethics.

After our conversation last night, I Googled the phrase “remember who you are” and learned that this is a common refrain in Mormon communities. The reason the words are so effective is they cut to the core of what it means to be a person of faith and live with dignity.

When someone tells you to remember who you are, you do not only think “I am a person from a good family, who was raised correctly, who genuinely wants to live a good and virtuous life and bring honor to my family name.” It goes well beyond filial piety (not that filial piety is a bad thing). Rather you think, “I am a child of God and everything I do is a demonstration of my relationship with God. What will doing this say about who I am as a person and what I value? Do the people around me care about what they are doing in the same way?”

To that end, I enjoyed reading this article on Mormon parenting:

We have been up in Logan this past week caring for Richard’s wonderful 91-year-old mother who sleeps about 20 hours a day and retains her wonderful, sweet personality, though for the last two or three years, she can’t remember who we are or who she is. Seasons revolve, roles reverse. She took care of me in that same house on Fifth North when I was a small boy, and now we take care of her in the same rooms.

I don’t want the forgetting part to happen to me, but I do want what she has had — another really good 20-plus years beyond 65. During that autumn of her life, she created lesson plans for a national chain of preschools, wrote a remarkable history of her Swedish ancestors, managed her investments, real estate and rental properties, dabbled in poetry and art, traveled around the country and around the world, and maintained great relationships with every one of her children and grandchildren. She’s in her deep winter now, and in her lucid moments wishing to go to a better place to be with my dad, who has been gone for 50 years.

There is a certain irony in the fact that she can’t remember anything, because I used to think I was the only boy with a mother who, every time I left the house, and I do mean every time, would yell at me, “Remember who you are!” I have since learned that it is quite a common parting shot among moms, including Teddy Roosevelt’s mother.

You guys know I love Teddy Roosevelt, so the idea that Roosevelt’s mother used to say this too is just fantastic. But anyway, back to the article:

“Remember who you are” means a lot of good things, like uphold the family name, make me proud, don’t do anything stupid, be careful, think, etc. But have you thought what it means in the eternal context? Remember who you really are — a child of God, a spiritual being having a mortal experience, a person who has taken upon himself the name of Christ, a priesthood holder, etc.

We want our children to remember those things not just so they will behave better, but so they will feel more self-worth, treat their body with respect, make good choices, be kind to others, protect themselves and their standards. We could give them continual lectures on all these points, but maybe the best way to say it really is “Remember who you are.”

It strikes me, however, that this approach only works on children if their lives up to that point have had some sort of spiritual information.

If you told a child who was raised by moral relativists to remember who they are, they would not respond with “I am a person who genuinely wants to lead a good life.” They would say, “I don’t know. Who am I?” This is one of the many reasons social institutions now fail to produce kids who are capable of flourishing at all, let alone flourishing through periods of adversity.

You can’t ground someone who has come to view their personhood as some plastic cultural context. Similarly, a person who does have a life with spiritual content cannot remember who they are without placing the small stuff within an eternal context.

Is Christianity collapsing in the United States?

The Pew Research Center just released their latest survey of religion in America: In the US, Decline of Christianity Continues at a Rapid Pace. If you take the survey at face value, it paints a picture of the United States experiencing the first majority godless generation in the nation’s history, with large urban areas becoming mostly secular within the course of a mere decade.

As a person with a quantitative background, I have been trained to look for what I call “sanity tests” in reported data. If your data suggest something that is powerfully contradicted by your experience on a large scale, then … don’t publish your data. Run more tests. Try asking your questions differently and see if you get different results.

I often offer the popularity of Trump as an example of this principle. In fact, Trump regularly uses sanity tests to undermine his critics with great success. Fox News publishes a survey suggesting that a majority of people in the US support his impeachment. (It’s the first time liberals have loved a survey from a conservative organization.) Trump then holds two rallies in the course of a week, one in a historically blue state and one in a historically red state, both packing to capacity professional basketball arenas with sometimes tens of thousands of viewers outside the arena watching him speak on big-screen televisions. He books over half a million new small donors in a matter of weeks. If you weren’t an innumerate idiot, you’d have some questions about your polling methodology and predictive prowess.

Let’s ask some “sanity test” questions about Pew’s data, shall we?

From Pew:

Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009. Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population.

Our first problem here is that their question is phrased this way: “What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?”

Those are your options in the survey. Now, take the example of a person who was raised Roman Catholic but has become deeply disillusioned by the Church because of the clergy abuse scandal and a pope that blesses plants. (Church finances, a good proxy or sanity test for this scenario, suggest millions of Americans fit into this category.) You try going to an Eastern Orthodox church, but everyone’s talking in Russian. You try to go to other high-church denominations, but you discover Episcopalians and some Lutherans are shouting their abortions, which disgusts you existentially. You go to Evangelical services, but don’t quite grok the praise music with lyrics an overhead projector. Not your style. Suddenly you are keeping your kids at home on Sundays, hoping for a better pope in your lifetime.

Does that mean you have renounced Christ? Absolutely not. Does that make you perhaps describe yourself as “something else” or “nothing in particular”? Um, yeah, probably it does. By Pew’s methodology, this person who is perhaps too faithful a Christ follower for their denomination is lumped in with atheists. That’s not a commentary on American society, it’s a commentary on how surveys reflect bias or ignorance about the topic they are purportedly studying.

Let’s try a different scenario. I have a lot of younger relatives (Millennials and Generation Z) who passionately resent organized religion for many (sometimes very persuasive) reasons. They don’t understand why they need to listen to a boring, hour-long sermon delivered by a stranger when they can get down on their knees at any place and at any time and talk to God directly. Would they consider themselves “nothing in particular”? Um, yeah. Might they also call themselves followers of Christ? Of course. I would submit to you that these folks are almost 100% likely to find themselves in a pew on a regular basis within their lifetime, like when they go through some personal crisis and find they need the support of a community or when they get married or want to have their kids baptized like they were.

Pew also highlights the general godlessness of the Democratic Party versus the Republican Party:

Religious “nones” now make up fully one-third of Democrats. And about six-in-ten people who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party say they attend religious services no more than a few times a year. The ranks of religious “nones” and infrequent churchgoers also are growing within the Republican Party, though they make up smaller shares of Republicans than Democrats.

On the one hand, all you need to do is look at the policy ideas of the Democratic Party front-runners now to see there’s some truth in this: suddenly there’s much higher and much more vocal support for abortion, and in particular, late-term abortion; the suggestion that churches and religious non-profits should face progressive ideology litmus tests to be able to keep their tax-exempt status; support for public persecution of commercial interests that buck the party on gay marriage or transgender rights, and so on. There is no doubt empirically that an antipathy toward Christianity is driving people out of the Democratic Party.

(As a digression, Democrats eliminating the tax-exemption for churches and hospitals only frees them up to become powerful political bundlers. Right now, the only thing stopping megachurches from becoming Republican community organizers is the tax-exemption. Talk about not understanding the implications of tax policy, geez.)

The situation is a lot murkier among Republicans and Independents. There are certainly more non-believers among Republicans than there used to be, but they are likely wildly different than the non-believers among other groups. George Will makes a case for atheists who are sympathetic with religious folks and demand a society tolerant of religious belief in his new book The Conservative Sensibility. (In fact, he devotes a crazy-long chapter entirely to this topic.) But once again, Pew is likely mis-characterizing people who do not like their options as far as organized religion is concerned in with atheists. This is another area where political fundraising is probably a better proxy for true belief profiles than a poorly-worded survey.

One of the things I have always found somewhat ironic among progressives, particularly atheist progressives, is this notion that history is moving in their favor. To the extent that Millennials hate going to church, they are a blip in the trajectory of the church. The Catholic Church has been around for two thousand years. Many Protestant denominations have been around for several hundred years. The opinions of a 25-year-old do not “cancel out” wisdom traditions that have survived far more tumultuous times and far more violent cultural purges than current higher education institutions being controlled by aging hippies. John Dewey was followed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and George W. Bush. Your cultural biases are not inevitable.