Fact Checking?

by digby

The other day I wrote a post about Karl Rove's long term "plans" and mentioned this New Yorker article by Jeffrey Goldberg in which Rove babbled about how the future of the party rests with ebay entrepreneurs and the the Christian Right, both of which are allegedly growing in huge numbers. I didn't excerpt the passage in that post, but rather characterized it as "he mumbles some crap about ebay and Jesus to back up his claim."

Unlike Goldberg (writing for the New Yorker, fergawdsake), Jonathan at A Tiny Revolution actually checked out the crap Rove mumbled about ebay, and lo and behold Rove is wrong:

At one point Goldberg goes to the White House to interview Karl Rove, who appears surprisingly optimistic:

“There are two or three societal trends that are driving us in an increasingly deep center-right posture,” [Rove] said. “One of them is the power of the computer chip. Do you know how many people’s principal source of income is eBay? Seven hundred thousand.” He went on, “So the power of the computer has made it possible for people to gain greater control over their lives. It’s given people a greater chance to run their own business, become a sole proprietor or an entrepreneur. As a result, it has made us more market-oriented, and that equals making you more center-right in your politics.”

Ebay is the primary source of income for seven hundred thousand people? That sounds implausible. And it is:

Entrepreneurs in record numbers are setting up shop on eBay, according to a new survey conducted for eBay by ACNielsen International Research, a leading research firm. More than 724,000 Americans report that eBay is their primary or secondary source of income.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess far more of these 724,000 Americans use eBay as a secondary source of income rather than a primary one. If the ratio's 75/25, that makes 175,000 people whose primary source of income is eBay. Hard to spin that into a tale of impending Republican ascendancy.

But it's Rove's specialty. He knows nobody will check it out. It sounds so gooood. The alleged atheist Rove also said that "spirituality" and "anti-materialism" (the new codeword) is growing in leaps and bounds which is another reason why the Republican party is actually in great shape:

As for spirituality, Rove said, “As baby boomers age and as they’re succeeded by the post-baby-boom generation, within both of those generations there’s something going on spiritually—people saying it’s not all about materialism, it’s not all about the pursuit of material things. If you look at the traditional mainstream denominations, they’re flat, but what’s growing inside those denominations, and what’s growing outside those denominations, is churches that are filling this spiritual need, that are replacing sterility with something vibrant, something that speaks to the heart of the individual, that gives a sense of purpose.”

Goldberg could have looked into this claim as well. Rove is much more circumspect than usual about the strength of the Mighty Christian Right, but he's basically making the same claim that he's always made: the country is getting more religious and the religious vote Republican in greater numbers. Therefore, Republicans will always win.

The problem is that the Barna Group, which tracks religious beliefs and attitudes, says that Rove's thesis is crap. From their latest report of May 21, 2007:

It is not unusual to spot minor ebbs and flows in what adults believe. However, the 2007 study of the nation’s core beliefs found that five out of six theological perspectives have shifted in recent years away from traditional biblical views. This includes perspectives about three spiritual figures: God, Jesus, and Satan.

Most Americans still embrace a traditional view of God, but they are less likely than ever to do so. Currently two-thirds of Americans believe that God is best described as the all-powerful, all-knowing perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today (66%). However, this proportion is lower than it was a year ago (71%) and represents the lowest percentage in more than twenty years of similar surveys.

Few adults possess orthodox views about Jesus and the Devil. Currently, just one-third of Americans strongly disagree that Jesus sinned (37%) and just one-quarter strongly reject the idea that Satan is not a real spiritual being (24%). Each of these beliefs is lower than last year and among the lowest points in nearly two decades of tracking these views.

The other changes in beliefs include greater reluctance to explain their faith to other people (just 29% strongly endorse this view, compared with 39% in 2006) and the willingness to reject good works as a means to personal salvation (down to 27% from 31%).

Given these shifts, it is ironic that the only religious belief that was unchanged from previous years was the belief that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches. Not quite half of Americans (45%) strongly assert this perspective.

American Spiritual Activity - More of the Same

The Barna study also examined 10 areas of religious engagement. Involvement levels for eight of those activities were statistically no different than 2006. The two activities that had changed included the following: Americans were less likely to volunteer at church and less likely to read the Bible. Although these had declined from the participation norms measured in 2006, they were not statistically distinct from the engagement levels of a decade ago. In other words, even in those areas where there has been recent fluctuation in religious behavior, the net effect of those changes has done very little to alter the overall religious engagement of Americans.

The 2007 study showed that among the ten activities studied, Americans are most likely to pray. More than four out of every five Americans (83%) said they had prayed in the last week. This was followed by attending a church service (43%) and reading the Bible outside of church worship services (41%). Notably, just one-quarter of adults possess an active faith, meaning they engage in all three of these activities (pray, attend church, and read the Bible in a typical week).

Slightly less than one-quarter of adults had volunteered free time to help a church (22%) or some other type of non-profit (23%) in the last week. About one-fifth of all adults had attended Sunday school (20%), while a similar proportion had participated in a small group for Bible study, prayer and Christian fellowship (19%). The survey showed that half of all adults (50%) said they had donated money to a congregation in the past year.

Another element of spiritual engagement is evangelism. While most Americans are more skittish than usual about explaining their faith to others who hold different religious views, among born again Christians a majority (61%) said they had personally explained their faith to someone else in the past year with the hope that the person would accept Jesus Christ as their savior. This was on par with previous tracking data from the California-based firm.

Identity and Commitment

The study also examined people’s spiritual identity. For instance, 83% of Americans identified as Christians, yet only 49% of these individuals described themselves as absolutely committed to Christianity. The remaining portion of the adult population (about 17% of Americans) was split almost equally between those who aligned with another faith and those who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. These indicators of faith identity are also on par with earlier Barna research.

In terms of denominational affiliation, one-quarter of adults identify as attenders of Catholic churches (23%), which is about half the size of the Protestant-attending segment (49%).

The Barna survey categorizes people based upon their convictions about life after death and creates two additional faith segments: born again and evangelical Christians. These are not based upon self-identification or denominational attendance, but based upon their personal commitment to Christ as well as their theological perspectives. The percent of Americans whose beliefs are categorized as "born again" has tapered off somewhat: currently, 40% are born again Christians compared with 45% in last year’s study and 43% in 1997. Despite the slight decline in numbers, this still represents 90 million born again believers nationwide.

Within the born again group, there are an estimated 16 million evangelical Christians, who also embrace an additional set of beliefs in addition to their profession of faith in Christ and confession of personal sinfulness. The 2007 study found that 7% of adults qualify as evangelical Christians, which is statistically consistent with prior levels.

And here's a startling trend you don't hear about:


The following is how we define an unchurched adult for our research: an adult (18 or older) who has not attended a Christian church service within the past six months, not including a holiday service (such as Easter or Christmas) or a special event at a church (such as a wedding or funeral).

How Many?

* There has been a 92% increase in the number of unchurched Americans in the last thirteen years. In 1991 there were 39 million unchurched Americans compared with 75 million currently. (2004)

So Rove is spinning like crazy. The Christian Right is not growing and the "spiritual" non-evangelical or non-born again Christians tend to be Democrats:


* We categorize Notional Christian as those who describe themselves as Christians, but do not believe that they will have eternal life because of their reliance upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the grace extended to people through a relationship with Christ. (A large majority of these individuals believe they will have eternal life, but not because of a grace-based relationship with Jesus Christ.)

Voting Trends

* They have a below-average likelihood of being registered to vote (77%) when compared with evangelicals (84%) and born agains (86%) (2004)
* 42% are aligned with the Democratic party and 27% with the Republican party. (2004)
* Only one out of every five describes themselves as "mostly conservative." (2004)

How Many?

* Notional Christians represent 39% of the population.

It would be very nice if reporters like Goldberg challenged assertions like this so that such nonsense doesn't find its way into the conventional wisdom as so much of GOP marketing and PR does. This is exactly the kind of thing that distorts our politics if it goes unrefuted. It's just not true that the Democrats were rejected because of their perceived hostility to religion, but it's become so entrenched in the CW that it might as well be. (And once again the Democrats look like they have no principles --- a nice side effect of the whole culture war madness.)

As Jonathan at ATR wrote in his ebay post:

This is what drives me nigh unto madness about this country's media. Journalists theoretically should be skeptical of what anyone says. They certainly should be skeptical of things that sound implausible. They certainly absolutely should be skeptical of implausible things political operatives say. They certainly absolutely definitely should be skeptical of implausible things political operatives use as a basis for an entire narrative that's flattering to the operative. They certainly absolutely definitely always always always should be skeptical of implausible things political operatives say when those political operatives have a history of STARTING GIGANTIC WARS BASED ON LIES.

Exactly. But good luck. You see, they know Karl. He's a good Dad who hands out ice cream bars to everybody in his office and invites reporters to his cabin in Texas. He's also a genius. There's no need to double check him. Waste of time.