The importance of doing your homework


As Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Twain might as well have been writing about Joe Carter, communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. After I published a column on the recent Pew religious landscape study, which reported that evangelicals have declined as a share of the total population, Carter responded breathlessly on the ERLC website. He claimed I had “gone to great pains to deceive” myself and lied about the study’s findings because “the results do not fit with Merritt’s predetermined narrative.”

It’s admittedly pointed, if uncharitable, but Carter skipped one of the most important rules of opinion writing: always do your homework.

This is a rule I keep in the front of my mind when I’m analyzing statistics. I’m not a “numbers person.” Heck, I’ve never even balanced a checkbook. That’s why when I published my column on the Pew study, I spoke to a Pew researcher and three reputable outside sociologists. Before publishing it, three editors within Religion News Service reviewed and fact-checked it. But while I did the hard work of tracking down reputable sources and speaking to the organization that actually released the study, Joe spoke to exactly no one.

This isn’t the first time a research failure has created an issue for Carter. In March of last year, he made comments stating that Jesus only welcomed people seeking forgiveness and only partied with “sinners…[that] were already followers.” It sounded so bizarre that I decided to do my homework and speak to a handful of leading New Testament scholars. Alas, I could find no one to support his assertions.

After reading Carter’s analysis of the Pew data, I had a similar feeling. Are evangelicals declining as I asserted or stable as Joe said? Was I moving "the goalpost in order to save [my] preconceptions" as he claimed? Was mainline Protestantism’s decline a result of their liberalism as Joe said or did birthrates play a significant role as my article claimed? Were there really “more evangelicals in America today than at any time in our nation’s history” as Carter stated?

Taking time to do my research proved so effective in the past, so I decided to follow the same path this time around. I did what Carter refused to do: I (again) spoke to an actual Pew research associate, Jessica Martinez.