Catholics Love Their Celebrity Pope and Most — Not All — His Priorities

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Overall, 67 percent of Americans and 90 percent of U.S. Catholics hold a favorable view of the pope.

“Americans embrace Pope Francis as a celebrity — even when they don’t know what he thinks or does,” said Robert Jones, president and CEO of PRRI.

Many attached glowing traits to Francis. Asked to describe him in their own words, most just identified him by his role as pope or other neutral terms, but 27 percent chose positive terms, calling him “humble,” “compassionate” and “caring.”

The majority share his top priorities — on concern for the poor, the environment, and the economy. But the flock veers from the shepherd on doctrine, particularly on sexuality and marriage.

Why Routine Divorce is Now Inevitable, Even Among Christians

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A LifeWay Research survey released last week on the morality of divorce found that for most Americans, the reason an individual initiates divorce doesn’t matter in terms of how they morally evaluate the rightness or wrongness of that divorce. Pastors, though, still tend to draw moral distinctions between reasons for divorce.

Based on years of research on Christian tradition as it pertains to marriage and divorce, I can tell you what this finding means. The answer is not especially pretty: Routine divorce is now inevitable in American culture, including among religious people — with one possible exception.

Let’s take this problem apart.

Can You Guess the Top Two Religious Groups in U.S. Urban Centers?

T photography /

Central Park aerial view in Manhattan, New York. Photo via T photography /

In March 2015, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) conducted a general survey on American religious affiliation, irrespective of geographic setting. According to that survey, the three largest religious groups in the United States are Catholics (22 percent), the religiously unaffiliated (22 percent), and white evangelical Protestants (18 percent).

But what religious groups dominate in urban centers? And in which cities do certain religious groups dominate?

Christians Lose Ground, ‘Nones’ Soar in New Portrait of U.S. Religion

St Roch Church in the Staten Island borough of New York. Photo via Gregory A. Shemitz / RNS

The United States is a significantly less Christian country than it was seven years ago.

That’s the top finding – one that will ricochet through American faith, culture, and politics – in the Pew Research Center’s newest report, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” released May 12.

This trend “is big, it’s broad, and it’s everywhere,” said Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religion research.

Weekly Wrap 2.27.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. PHOTOS: Painter Immortalized Last Meals of 600 Prisoners Put to Death

Artist Julie Green collects information published in death-row inmates’ death notices about their last moments. She then puts cobalt blue paint to porcelain plates to illustrate their final meals — from pizza and birthday cake to Jolly Ranchers. Her goal: “to continue paining fifty plates a year until capital punishment is abolished.”

2. Net Neutrality Victory Is Civil Rights History in the Making

“Today’s civil rights activists have a much more powerful tool at our disposal – the open Internet. Our ability to be heard, counted, and visible in this democracy now depends on an open Internet, because it allows voices and ideas to spread based on their quality – not the amount of money behind them.”

3. WATCH: It Turns Out Lighting Affects Color

And lots of other things, actually. If you’re still hashing it out with your roommates or spouse about the color of #TheDress, here’s science (and music!) to the rescue. (Team #whiteandgold!) Also, if you need more science, you can always ask Science Mike, who offers this great video explainer.

4. Activists Warn of End of Christian Presence in Middle East

Following ISIS’ kidnapping of at least 90 Assyrian Christians in an attack on about 35 mostly Assyrian settlements, groups in the region warn that we may be witnessing the end of Christian presence in the region: “After the Iraq war of 2003, and since the Syrian crisis began, the persecution unleashed on them – including extortion, kidnappings, murder, the ethnic cleansing of entire swaths of Baghdad, the Nineveh plains, and now much of north-east Syria, has been so vast that their very existence in their ancestral homelands is in grave peril.”

5. In 23 States, the Largest Religious Group Is Now ‘Unaffiliated’

This, according to Public Religion Research Institute’s just-released American Values Atlas, which breaks down various religious and political demographics. Find out the largest religious group in your state at the link!

6. WATCH: Jim Inhofe’s Snowball Has Disproven Climate Change Once and For All

That one time a United States senator — the one who also happens to be the chairman of the environment committee — threw a snowball while on the floor to dispute climate change. Because snow. 

7. An Anti-ISIS Summit in Mecca

“Whether ISIS’s deeds are labeled ‘violent extremism’ or ‘Islamized terrorism,’ the conversations in Washington and Mecca had at least one thing in common: They deepened the debate over whether ISIS and its fellow travelers are ‘Islamic,’ and whether the answer matters in the first place. That debate is not just academic. It has real consequences for how the Islamic State’s opponents mount their counteroffensive.”

8. VIDEO: Banksy Goes Undercover in Gaza, Releases MIni-Documentary

The unidentified street artist Banksy has re-emerged in Gaza to create a political mini-documentary about life inside the war-torn region.

9. Why We Must Change How We Change the World

World Relief President and CEO Stephan Bauman’s new book Possible: A Blueprint for Changing How We Change the World is now out. In this piece, he lays out why he is hopeful about the future of efforts to address injustice: “We are caught in a vicious cycle, a dangerous dynamic that shapes our views about the people who experience suffering. As a result, those trapped in poverty are dehumanized and poverty is dumbed down while good, well-intended people really believe they are caring, world-conscious, and ethical. But change is coming.” 

10. 10 Things Catholics Are Tired of Hearing

Why do you worship statues? Why do you pray to Mary instead of God? And more confusion in the Protestant understanding of Catholicism. Handy to bookmark for the next inevitable conversation about the purpose of confession or the Apocrypha. 

So What's the Deal With Ash Wednesday?

Photo by Adelle Banks/RNS

Nicole Been of Chicago receives ashes during “Ashes to Go” in Washington, D.C. Photo by Adelle Banks/RNS

Chances are you’ll see a bunch of folks walking around with shmutz on their foreheads this Wednesday. The ‘Splainer asks what having a dirty forehead has to do with being a Christian and why this ritual is gaining in popularity.

Q: Excuse me, but why do you have dirt on your forehead?

A: Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the day many Christians mark as the first day of Lent, the time of reflection and penitence leading up to Easter Sunday. Clergy all over the world dispense ashes, usually made by burning the palm fronds distributed on last year’s Palm Sunday, making the sign of the cross on the bowed foreheads before them. As they “impose” or “dispense” the ashes, the pastor or priest reminds each Christian of Genesis 3:19: “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

Q: Well, that’s cheerful. Why would anyone want to start a workday on such a downer?

A: It isn’t intended to be a downer. It’s supposed to be a reminder that our lives are short and we must live them to the fullest. OK, maybe it’s a little bit of a downer — that verse from Genesis is what God said to Adam and Eve when he expelled them from the Garden of Eden for their sins. But there’s a big party the night before Ash Wednesday. That’s Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” a secular observance that evolved out of “Shrove Tuesday,” the last hurrah – usually marked by eating of pancakes or other sinfully sweet foods – before the solemnity and penance of Lent set in.

Barbie as the Virgin Mary? Ken as Jesus? Italian Catholics Are Not Amused

“Barbie” and “Ken” figurines on display in Berlin. Photo courtesy of 360b via Shutterstock/RNS.

Barbie has had a number of careers in her 55 years — flight attendant, veterinarian, astronaut, even president. Her latest role, however, is raising eyebrows.

Italy’s Catholic bishops are furious about controversial artistic depictions of the popular Barbie and Ken dolls as the Virgin Mary and a crucified Jesus Christ and other saints.

Two Argentinian artists, Marianela Perelli and Pool Paolini, produced 33 dolls of various religious figures for a show named “Barbie, The Plastic Religion,” which opens in Buenos Aires on Oct. 11.

SIR, an Italian website backed by the Italian bishops conference, denounced the controversial toys in an editorial, which asks: ” What is the difference between provocation and bad taste?”

Americans View Jews, Christians Warmly; Atheists, Muslims Get Cold Shoulder

New Pew Research Center study had Americans rate religious groups. Image courtesy Bill Webster, via Pew Research Center.

A new Pew Research survey finds U.S. adults feel most warmly about people who share their religion or those they know as family, friends or co-workers.

Americans give their highest scores to Jews, Catholics, and Evangelicals on a zero-to-100 “thermometer” featured in the survey, “How Americans Feel about Religious Groups,” released Wednesday. They’re nestled within a few degrees of each other: Jews, 63; Catholics, 62; evangelicals, 61.

In the middle of the chart: Buddhists, 53; Hindus, 50; Mormons, 48. Trending to the chilly negative zone: atheists at 41 and Muslims at 40.

Pew took the thermal reading because “understanding the question of how religious groups view each other is valuable in a country where religion plays an important role in public life,” said Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director of religion research.

Meet the 'Evangelical' Catholics Who Are Remaking the GOP

Senator Marco Rubio at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference. Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore.

How many voters know that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is a Roman Catholic? Or that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is a Southern Baptist, not a Latino Catholic? Or that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio worships at both a Catholic parish and an evangelical church?

More importantly, does it matter?

Actually, it does in today’s Republican Party, where a number of factors have forged a new religious identity that supersedes familiar old categories.

These prominent Republicans are emblematic of the new religious amalgam that, in many instances, has helped refashion denominational differences that were once almost insurmountable. Look no further than the stunning Virginia primary victory of Dave Brat, a Catholic with degrees from a Reformed Protestant college in Michigan and Princeton Theological Seminary, who took down House Majority Leader Eric Cantor last week.

Evangelicals and Catholics Together Marks 20 Years

A Swiss Guard salutes Pope Francis and cardinals. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy Catholic News Service. Via RNS.

When evangelicals and Catholics set aside centuries of mutual suspicion 20 years ago, the idea was fairly simple: Even if we can’t always work together, at least let’s not work against each other.

Now, two decades after the launch of the group Evangelicals and Catholics Together , relations between the two groups appear stronger than ever, forged by shared battles over abortion, same-sex marriage, religious freedom, and immigration.

A new pope is finding crossover appeal among evangelicals who share Pope Francis’ emphasis on evangelism and his distaste for the fancier trappings and authoritarianism of the papacy.