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Junk food, church attendance and political puffery

With its typically warm weather making the flowers, plants and grass grow and finally bloom in full, Memorial Day is often a time where one begins to see the fruits of his labor earlier in the season begin to pay off.  At the risk of exercising a bad metaphor, that’s sort of what happened with a trio of national placements involving UNL faculty over the long holiday weekend.

First, the Providence Journal tapped political scientist Michael Wagner to discuss why political discourse has seemed to have gotten so coarse in recent years. Wagner, who is very good with communicating with the media and who is someone we often offer up as a potential source to national reporters seeking analysis and commentary on current political events, posits that conservatives and liberals tend to differ in native temperament. “Conservatives seem to prefer a black and white, right-versus-wrong way of looking at the world,” Wagner told the Journal, “whereas liberals seem to prefer seeking out the shades of gray. It’s hard to be vituperative about the shades of gray and it is hard to place ‘right and wrong’ into a softer rhetorical context.”

The recession, Wagner continued, influences political ideology: “When the economy was strong in the late 1990s,” he says, “70 percent of Democrats wanted to maintain government spending — but so did nearly 50 percent of Republicans. Now, about 70 percent of Democrats still want to maintain government spending — but only 30 percent of Republicans want to do the same. In other words, a lot of this has to do with which party is in the majority in Congress and which party holds the White House.”

Next, we continue to see echoes of national coverage from April’s work on promoting sociologist Philip Schwadel’s study on U.S. church attendance rates. You may remember that Schwadel used a new multi-level analysis on more than 41,000 survey responses over 35 years to determine whether or not Americans have begun to empty out of churches. His finding: Not really. Aside from a slight dip in the 1990s, church attendance rates have remained steady. But (and there’s always a but) the traditionally influential groups that typically affect the rate — Catholics, women and Southerners — are seeing their influence begin to steadily wane. It saw a wave of coverage when we released his findings in April, including The Associated Press, MSNBC, and CNN, and his work continues to be cited in stories examining American religiosity. This weekend, his work appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

Finally: We mentioned last week we were pushing new UNL research about school lunch policies, and findings that showed schools who banned a la carte junk food items at lunch time had an 18 percent lighter student body than those that didn’t. We targeted a number of national reporters, including Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post, with pitches highlighting our professors’ USDA-sponsored research. Valerie featured the research on Sunday.

All in all, a pretty good holiday weekend and a nice way to start the week — and summer.

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