Religion communicators can reframe debate

by Polly House, Nashville Chapter

Richard Parker

Richard Parker of Harvard University delivers the keynote address to the 2009 Religion Communicators Council National Convention in Cambridge, Mass.

Religion communicators must come up with words to reframe the debate about religious diversity in the public sphere.

Richard Parker, who teaches religion, politics and public policy at the Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, delivered that message March 26 in Cambridge, Mass. He was keynote speaker for the 2009 Religion Communicators Council National Convention. It met in Cambridge March 26-28, 2009.

“It is a challenge to recognize diversity and at the same time grow in community,” said Parker, senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

He cited data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and American Religious Identification Survey (PDF file) that identified the fastest growing religious group in the United States as those with no religion.

“If these new data are correct, the Religious Right, Christian Coalition, and others such as them will have to see that they have been active during the time of the greatest shrinking numbers of people in religion,” Parker said.

Christian churches are changing but not growing, he said. Evidence from the past 30 years has shown lots of “shape shifting” from small, white rural evangelical congregations to mega-churches. But the total number of attendees has not increased.

journalists panel

Three journalists discuss how their organizations approach religion news during the 2009 Religion Communicators Council national convention.

The journalists are (from left) Rachel Zoll, national religion writer for the Associated Press; John Yemma, senior editor of The Christian Science Monitor; and Michael Paulson, religion reporter for The Boston Globe.

“The Catholic Church is falling, too,” Parker said. “The only way that Catholics can still claim to engage one in four Americans is because of the influx of immigrants.”

Nevertheless, Parker noted, women developed leadership skills within churches. Those skills enabled them to them organize movements that led to, among other successes, the right to vote.

“Women have always been leaders in their churches,” he said. “Religion has always been about engagement. If the Rev. Martin Luther King hadn’t had ‘the Rev.’ in front of his name, he would never have been able to do what he did.”

Parker said that religion at its best was meaningful and measurable.

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