The U.S. Census story and its hooks for religion news (plus a personal note about Rachel Zoll)

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The first round of 2020 U.S. Census data (with much more to come) is big news as states gain and lose seats in the U.S. House and politicos enter the wild decennial joust to gerrymander federal and state district lines to their advantage.

But here’s another journalistic thought: What does the Census mean for religion?

Tony Carnes of the “A Journey Through NYC Religions” website provides an early example, analyzing possible implications for New York City that other writers could emulate for their own cities, towns or regions. 

Whatever it is, the way you tell your story online can make all the difference.

Whatever it is, the way you tell your story online can make all the difference.

Editor Carnes (disclosure: a personal friend) is a professional sociologist leading a team that has spent years tracking religion developments in Gotham, notably at the neighborhood level. Despite the town’s secular image, Carnes and company have documented that, starting in the late 1970s, thousands of new churches, synagogues, mosques and temples have been built. Such activity was continuing until the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Carnes counts the populations moving in and moving out from the American Community Survey between 2010 and 2014 as updated by Census numbers for 2018. This shows a city gradually becoming less African-American (population down 96,000) and Hispanic (down 50,000). The gainers are non-Hispanic Whites (up 200,000) and Asians (up 97,000). We’ll soon know if these trends continued in 2020. 

Carnes calls that “a startling change in the racial/ethnic profile of the city, and it is also found in other cities in the United States.” Younger Blacks are moving out of town to suburbia, “leaving an aging population of parents and grandparents.” A study of Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Brooklyn found that 71% were white, mainly age 34 and below. Since this borough is the city’s Black population center, “what happened to all the African-American protesters?”

As for the Asians, he thinks chaos in places like Hong Kong “may release a new wave of immigrants to New York City religious groups if they are active in recruitment and welcoming of them.”

The Census is a snapshot of population as of last April 1, just when COVID was beginning to slam the Big Apple big time. So far it has lost 32,375 dead, a big part of New York State ‘s 51,511 deaths, second only to California’s toll.

Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have left the city, at least temporarily. The population loss is especially evident in Manhattan and the areas closest to that borough. The Marketproof realty data firm says residential closings are down 75% from 2017. Credit reports suggest a 1% to 2% drop in city population. Some churches say numbers for members moving out are 10% higher than usual. 

What now? Carnes can only speculate on what the town will look like religiously when COVID fades, but offers some possibilities to consider.

It’ could be these cautious times will produce less disruption of social customs and ideas and aid traditional faith. The year’s shock might provoke “religious and irreligious questioning.” More people may “reflect on the meaning of their lives.” Useful religious innovations may slow down. The movement of immigrants in and out of the city “will remain brisk.” Online worship and new thinking may fuel a “religious resurgence.” Or the opposite, as most energy is poured into merely maintaining the status quo.

Some fear “a net deterioration of current religious organizations.” And religious dynamism may simply flow out to the suburbs, as occurred in the 1950s and 1960s.

These are all  scenarios to run past your best experts and then editors and producers.

* * * * *

Personal note: The religion beat lost a glittering star when Rachel Zoll died on May 7 at age 55. She was at the height of her powers when diagnosed with brain cancer on Martin Luther King Birthday in 2018. Her ensuing 40-month struggle was valiant, and the home care she received from sister Cheryl and brother-in-law Eric was inspiring to friends and colleagues alike.

The Religion Guy was privileged to be Rachel’s Associated Press beat teammate during her first five years covering religion full-time, starting in May of 2001. The Guy had enjoyed many gratifying moments during decades at Time magazine but, as he told Rachel during her illness, on a day-to-day basis our work together was the highlight of his career.

Colleagues’ tributes now pouring in attest to her journalistic excellence and buoyant personality, to which The Guy can only add a warm Amen.

For GetReligion purposes, however, late in life Rachel expressed deep concern about the excessive opinionizing and partisanship of the American news media, religion coverage included.

Of course, preaching is inherent in religious discourse, but she insisted that unbiased fact-finding and reporting at the highest standard of old-fashioned fairness must be central. Thus, she would have been very pleased that the like-minded and well-respected Peter Smith of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will join her AP May 24 to cover “religion and politics.” 

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