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Survey: 1 in 5 Americans are religious progressives

A new survey categorizes about 1 in 5 Americans as “religious progressives.” Catholics make up the largest proportion of that group in terms of religious affiliation, at 29 percent. (Mainline Protestants are next at 19 percent.) Religious progressive on average are younger (44) than the general population (47) and religious conservatives (53).

These numbers, and many more, are contained in the 2013 Economic Values Survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute with the Brookings Institute. In the big picture, the survey identifies 19 percent of Americans as religious progressives, 38 percent as religious moderates, 28 percent as religious conservatives and 15 percent as nonreligious. 

PRRI notes in its study that theologically conservative Americans have been studied far more than those who are theologically progressive.  So it decided to look more closely at religious progressives, with the caveat that it is a difficult category to define across denominational lines. One of the findings was that religious people themselves differ greatly about what it means to be religious:

Nearly 8-in-10 (79%) religious progressives say being a religious person is mostly about doing the right thing, compared to 16% who say it is about holding the right beliefs. By contrast, a majority (54%) of religious conservatives say being a religious person is primarily about having the right beliefs, compared to less than 4-in-10 (38%) who say it is mostly about doing the right thing.

The poll seems to confirm analysis during the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns that religious progressives are gradually becoming more of a political force, even as they remain outnumbered by religious conservatives. Both sides face a difficult challenge in trying to attract supporters from outside their ranks, the survey says.

“The conservative coalition could fly apart if its emphasis moves too far from social issues and religion to economics,” it says, based on evidence that concern about social issues such as abortion is what draws many religious conservatives to support conservative Republicans, rather than the GOP’s approach to the economy.

That leaves religious progressives an opening to appeal to conservatives with religiously based economic arguments. But, the survey says, “The liberal coalition could fracture if liberals either ignore religion altogether or make strong appeals to religious voters that begin to offend the nonreligious in their ranks.” It adds: “Yet to build majorities, each side needs to reach out to voters whose views might make parts of their coalition uncomfortable.”

Chart: PRRI

About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).



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"Nearly 8-in-10 (79%) religious progressives say being a religious person is mostly about doing the right thing, compared to 16% who say it is about holding the right beliefs. By contrast, a majority (54%) of religious conservatives say being a religious person is primarily about having the right beliefs, compared to less than 4-in-10 (38%) who say it is mostly about doing the right thing."

I think that scriptures have something to say about this:  James 2: 14-26 ...


Faith and Works.*

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?i

15 If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day,

16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?

17 So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.

19 You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble.

20 Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless?

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?

22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works.

23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called “the friend of God.”

24 See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

25 And in the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by a different route?

26 For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.



The authors offer this in explanation of their "Theological Orientation Scale":

In order to measure theological orientation, we created a composite theological orientation scale based on three measures: holding a personal vs. impersonal view of God, holding a literal vs. non-literal view of the Bible or sacred texts, and holding a preservationist vs. adaptive view of religious tradition. These three measures were highly correlated and produced a reliable scale that worked well across religious traditions. Those who scored low on this scale were defined as theological liberals, those who scored high were defined as theological conservatives, and those in the middle were defined as theological moderates.

Using this scale, approximately 4-in-10 (38%) Americans are theological conservatives, 28% are theological moderates, and 19% are theological liberals. An additional 15% of Americansare nonreligious, defined as those who identify as atheist or agnostic, or who say religion is not important in their lives.

I'm not sure I understand the three measures. Is it that a personal view of God, a literal view of the Bible, and having a preservationist view of religious tradition correlate highly?  If so, isn't this rather odd?  For myself I would like very much to preserve the Catholic religious tradition of a personal God, but I don't believe the Bible should be interpreted literalistically. Does this leave me the odd-man-out? I shouldn't think so. Why does believing in a personal God appear as a marker for theological conservatism?  Or am I missing something? 

If you look at the actual questions they asked people it becomes clear why their results seem so odd. For example, they try to classify people's degree of conservatism or progressiveness by asking whether they think the Bible is the Word of God or whether it was written by men. There's a stopper for you right there. Reminds me of those carelessly constructed and therefore impossible to answer true-false quizzes one of my philosophy teachers in college was fond of.handing out. No margins could have been wide enough to explain to him what was wrong with any of those questions.  

1 in 5 Americans is 20%.  29% of those are Catholic.  So 29% of 20% means (I think!) that about 6% of Catholics are progressives.  Someone please check my math, but assuming the math is correct, the overwhelming majority of American Catholics are not progressives.  Looks like the progressives don't have any leverege, to which I say, Thank God, but with no ill will toward our leftward brothers and sisters.  Could be why commonweal has low readership levels.

Bob, if 20% of Americans are religious progressives, and 29% of that universe are Catholics, that means 6% of Americans (not Catholics) are Catholic progressives.  I honestly don't know what percentage of Americans overall are Catholic, but if it were (say) 20%, then approximately 30% of them would be progressive politically according to this survey.  

I try and stay away from those surveys. I took one on b\ Beliefnet years ago (Belief-O-Matic)  and the results told me the only religion I might have less affinity with than my own was Hasidism. It suggested I might be most comfortable as a liberal Quaker (not just any  Quaker, but a liberal one).

I was a little bummed out, because up until then I never consider my religion a "conservative" one, and I always thought I was a mainstream, garden-variety Catholic.


I think drilling down to the questions and the construction of the categories is really important here, because to some degree, the views determine the categories, and so when people are asked "right belief vs. right action," it's unsurprising that one gets a pretty stark difference. Having acknowledged that, Fr. Komochak's comment is right on. Catholicism, I think it is safe to say, requires a personal god, requires a non-literalist hermeneutic of scripture (Dei Verbum is clear on this), and requires a hermeneutic of both preservation and adaptation (reform with both continuity and discontinuity, as BXVI famously said). I find the dichotomies themselves problematic in most of the cases - for example, Catholicism clearly thinks people can be good without beliving in God in a certain (i.e. explicit) sense, but not in another (i.e. implicit) sense. Catholicism thinks right belief and right action ought to go together, and certainly should not be set against one another. So the survey itself is informative about how people construct religion in our society - and how much the construction is basically indebted to a long-standing conflict between liberal and fundamentalist Protestantism. 

I am pretty sure that the percentages are being taken independently.  Of the entire survey group 20% are Progressive (by their measures).   When the subset identifying themselves as Catholics is measured, 29% are Progressive.  Of the subset Protestants, the Progressives are 19%.

If one wants to understand any such survey-based work, it is essential to read and understand (if not necessarily agree with) the methodology, and to evaluate the specific form and wording of the questions.  Study after study shows that the details of the questions are significant controls on responses.   It’s very hard work, designing good polls.  But really, if one thinks it worthwhile to have statistical views , it is the only approach possible.


Yesterday I was in Washington at the Brookings Institution as a panelist discussing this study.  The event was chaired by regular Commonweal (and syndicagted) columnist E.J.Dionne and frequent Commonweal contributor William Galston, who both offered their own analyses of it. 

I hope to post an independent comment on the study at some point over the weekend.   

David and Mark are quite right.  If you want to take such surveys seriously, there's no way to avoid "getting into the weeds."  I find this kind of study very helpful because it is the kind of essential check on the personal and anecdotal evidence that most of us otherwise must rely on.  

I have sympathy with Susan's complaint.  I am never entirely satisfied with the wording of questions.  But constructing questions for a poll conducted over the phone with people possessing different degrees of sophistication and different vocabularies is very difficult, and good pollsters consider and often test out alternatives.  

This study has some problems -- I spelled some out yesterday -- but also a lot of interesting findings, many in the sections that have nothing to do with constructing a category of "religious progressives" out of blended scales of theological, social, and economic liberalism and conservatism.  There's a lot, for example, just using the standard categories of white evangelicals, white mainline Christians, African-American Protestants, Catholics, non-Christians, and unaffilliated/nonreligious.  Catholics are interestingly divided into white and Hispanic.  (The poll was also conducted in Spanish.)

More later.  

But meantime I don't think Joe Komonchak really has a problem.  The theological orientation scale simply meant that the more one held to a non-literal reading of Scripture, an impersonal concept of God, and an adaptive view of teaching and practice, the greater was one's liberal orientation.  I'm not sure about the exact math or method used in weighing the responses, but there's nothing too strange about it.  Those of us who have a non-literal approach to Scripture, understand God in personal terms, and have a somewhat adaptive but still perservationist view of teaching and practice simply turn out to fall someplace among the category of theological moderates.  Yes, as David Cloutier suggests, these are finally statements about sociological patterns or trends, which in turn have some very real historical basis, not about intellectual or theological coherence.  (Theological moderates should be understood as a group no more and no less coherent than theological conservatives or liberals.)   

Does one's view of salvation put one in a particula camp?  I personally believe that every human being, even the most truly awful among us, will go to heaven because God loves us all.  Would that belief categorize one as a theological liberal? Or is it not really part of the calculus?

Peter:   You wrote: "The theological orientation scale simply meant that the more one held to a non-literal reading of Scripture, an impersonal concept of God, and an adaptive view of teaching and practice, the greater was one's liberal orientation."

I suppose one can make "liberal" mean anything one wants and then say that this is what one means by the word. I would myself like to know why believing in an impersonal God would place one in that camp. 

 I was more struck by the claim that these three measures correlated highly, which, I take it, is an empirical claim. But was the linking of the three measures built into the design of the poll or something required in light of the empirical data?


- See more at:

I always wonder the extent to which people answering these surveys are self-consciously "voting". If I were asked that question about whether the Bible is of divine or human origin by a fundamentalist friend or an atheist friend, my answers would be very different. If I were asked as part of a national survey, my answer would be a straightforward proxy for "do you want to be considered a progressive or a conservative for the purposes of this survey"?


Also, about progressives and an impersonal God -- I wonder if the correlation of answers the survey identifies as "progressive" might include a healthy dose of "spiritual but not religious."

 I am never entirely satisfied with the wording of questions. - See more at:

 I am never entirely satisfied with the wording of questions. - See more at:

 I am never entirely satisfied with the wording of questions. - See more at:

PS. I have no idea why there are three links on the bottom of my previous comment. I think it's the first time I've posted in the new-look Commonweal. I tried to copy and paste from a previous comment, and my browser displayed a dialogue box I've never seen before saying my browser's security settings wouldn't allow access to my clipboard. Those links aren't what I tried to copy, though. Very strange!

three measures: holding a personal vs. impersonal view of God, holding a literal vs. non-literal view of the Bible or sacred texts, and holding a preservationist vs. adaptive view of religious tradition. These three measures were highly correlated  

The questionnaire asks: "Thinking about your religion, which of the following statements comes closest to your view? My church or denomination should Preserve its traditional beliefs and practices - Adjust traditional beliefs and practices in light of new circumstances - Adopt modern beliefs and practices - Other "- The question is not just about tradition but also about beliefs. The wording throws me off, yet I think I know what they have in mind, so I can answer, not according to what's written (there is no good answer), but according to my guess of what they meant.

The questionaire also asks: "Which statement comes closest to your view of God: God is a person with whom people can have a relationship, God is an impersonal force, or I do not believe in God? " - it seems to me that any Catholic, and pretty much any Christian, who has ever paid attention to Scripture or to the words of liturgy, must answer that God is a person with whom people can have a relationship. Yet if I also try to guess what they meant, two images come to my mind: one, a person raising their hands to God, as if entranced,  to feel filled by the power of the Holy Spirit. I think that's what they mean by "impersonal". Two, a person touching the foot of the statue of a saint, for good luck. Or telling you that if you do this bad thing then God will get angry and let that bad thing happen to you (Katrina in retaliation for New Orleans prostitution, say), making God into someone who acts and reacts just like a human, only, a human with superpowers. I think that's what they mean by "personal". 

Maybe another question for Christians could have been: who do you pray to, the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit? My guess is that Father = conservatives, Holy Spirit = progressives, Son = the rest of us.


What's the take away? Do our religious frames shape our political leanings? Or do our political frames shape our religious beliefs? Or is that also different among conservative/liberals or different types of beleivers?

What the authors call "religious orientation" is obtained by adding the scores for "theological orientation" (personal God? literal bible? beliefs adapt?), for "social orientation" (gay marriage? abortion?), and for "economic orientation". I am not sure what it means. The survey asks questions and collects answers, but I don't see any conclusion. 


I have not visited the website of the Public Religion Research Institute to see whether it has any blog or Q and A options where some of the technical questions can be put directly to the researchers.  But here are two responses to Claire's question about the "take away" and Joe Komonchak's question about correlating an impersonal concept of God with "liberal." 

Claire, Tom Reese argues that the findings challenge a lot of existing caricatures about religion and politics and, in particular about Catholics and politics.  Here is his "take away":

Some of what he says is debatable but certainly not implausible.

Joe, I think the use of the word "liberal" here and its association  with concieving of God in impersonal terms is a dialectical construct but one based on a historical reality.  "Liberal" is defined over against "conservative" almost as non-traditional is obviously defined against traditional.  

Traditional views of God were not only personal but highly anthropomorphic: Michelangelo's Creator in the Sistine Chapel and of course all sorts of images from the Bible.  "High" theology and spirituality always addressed this, but I don't think it is unfair to say that on the level of widespread belief, even among the literate, the rejection of this anthropomorphism is relatively modern and often took the form of imagining God in more impersonal terms, whether as a distant Creator (and perhaps Judge) with whom one no longer had daily dealings, or then again as a natural force like "energy" or "life."

Was this a logically necessary turn?  I don't think so.  Are there a lot of challenges in trying to retain the personal while questioning the anthropomorphic?  Yes.  Are there a lot of ways of responding to those challenges?  Absolutely, although I think the problem posed for everyday spirituality is underdiscussed.  

Still, I think the movement from personal/anthropomorphic to impersonal/natural force metaphor is clear enough historically to justify naming it a trajectory from conservative (traditional) to liberal (non-traditional).  And I don't think the correlation of that development with reading Scripture non-literally or openness to adaptation in religion belief and practice is at all surprising.  

But were these correlations, built into the study and the questions from the start or empirically based?  To some extent I imagine that the researchers had a construct from the start based on a familiar (and in my opinion plausible) narrative about  our religious history.  But I also think the correlations had to be empirically verified.  

Let me give a curious counter-example, which seems to have escaped the attention of the researchers.  When I was poring over the detailed findings about Hispanic Catholics, I was surprised to see findings that they are (a) much more likely than white Catholics to take the Bible literally but (b) also more likely to see God as an impersonal force!  When I read that, I immediately entertained a couple of possibilities.  Perhaps it was simply a mistake in coding or recording the data.  Or perhaps it was accurate for reasons that I don't know enough about Hispanic Catholicism to understand.  (In our parish RCIA gatherings, I have been struck by the frequent instances in which participants with a traditional Hispanic Catholic upbringing use the language of impersonal or natural forces to describe their understanding of God, although I am not sure whether this is truly "impersonal" -- for example, the individual seeking Confirmation who very movingly described her image of God as simply "light.")

But, and here is my point regarding the poll, I believe that if the researchers had found a far greater number of the people polled responding the way that this large percentage of one subgroup did, then they would have had to rethink this personal/impersonal criterion as a part of the theological orientation scale.  It wouldn't correlate.   

Could this poll help show us where our points of intersection are?   Where religious liberals and religious conservatives could come together?  Or if we don't have anything in common, how we could be mutually supportive of each others' priorties?

It seems to me that "liberal" is a family resemblance term, or close to it.  Yes, its various meanings do have at least a few notes in common -- all liberals are human beings with political views. But beyond that there doesn't seem to be any one characteristic or combination of characteristics to specify one clear meaning or one set of things.  Alisdair MacIntyre in After Virtue shows that the people we call "conservatives" these days were originally called "liberals"!  The term added and dropped meanings so that now it sometimes means the opposite of what it originally meant,

The same might be true of the word "personal".  HIstorically it has many important meanings and, because all Westerners are Platonists whether we want to admit it or not, we assume that there must be one meaning that signifies what persons *really* are.  But words don't generally work like that.

I think that is why the questions ask: which of the alternatives "most nearly" signify how you classify yourself.  There is no way to answer those questions accurately because the terms are not defined.

All surveys have limitations and there are legitimate reasons to be skeptical of the questions and measures. However, the trends are most telling and seem to be representative of other surveys.

1. Younger Americans (genX and Milenian speliing?) tend to be "dramatically" less conservative than older Americans.

2. Younger Americans tend to be more "moderate" than older Americans.

3. Younger Americans tend to be more "progressive" than older Americans.

4. Younger Americans tend to be much more "non-religious" than older Americans.




I appreciate especially Peter's extensive comments - I too think that a move away from "extremely anthropomorphic" images is part of this. I often lead my students into discussing their images of God by starting with a cartoon "old-guy-in-the-sky" image. But I still worry that these trajectories are largely determined by the post-Reformation differences of various forms of Protestantism. Charles Taylor, for example, makes the "providential Deism" of the 17th and 18th century a stepping stone to "exclusive humanism" - but surely no Catholic theologian of those centuries was advocating anything like providential Deism. Brad Gregory argues that the sola scriptura problem - that is, once you had sola scriptura, what could you do if people couldn't agree on the text - is a product of the Reformation, and thus degenerates into the "literal-or-not" question. In other words, the choices themselves are shaped by debates within Protestantism. Now, I don't deny that (perhaps especially in the US) Catholics end up being deeply shaped by the dominant Protestant context - and start considering their faith in these terms. The survey is telling us something. But part of what it's telling us, I think, is that the categories "religious progressive" and "religious conservative" are not very fruitful categories in which to sort Catholics?

Thank you for the link to Fr. Reese's analysis as well. I think his claim that this study debunks a set of stereotypes is right on. The reliance on the categories, however, to talk about white Catholics vs. white evangelicals, white vs, hispanic Catholics, older vs. younger Catholics just seems very problematic. One, it seems to be exactly the problem that Matt Malone is trying to combat at America - separating Catholics into these labels just seems to perpetuate ongoing conflict about who has how many, etc. Two, more importantly, I've just taught too many millenial students who would not fit these categories at all. I've had students with what I view as painfully conservative and rigid pious practices wo nevertheless do tons of service work as an expression of their faith. I've had students who reject women priests, campaigned to end the death penalty, say tons of rosaries, and think differently from the church on same-sex couples. I've had students who think God is OK with everything and everybody, and is whoever we want God to be, and who are strongly pro-market economic conservatives (and pro-life). The list could go on. Maybe these students are just incoherent, because everyone is supposed to line up on one team or the other - but I think trying to sort them into these pre-ordained categories does their beliefs a disservice. If we think there are three kinds of Catholics, we will tend to go around trying to figure out into which category to sort a person. I just can't see how that's very helpful.  

Then there's the Martha kind and the Mary kind. Which one fits which category?

Yes indeed! Progressive Christianity is on the rise! See:
That said, it's important for us not to confuse progressive Christianity (a theological approach) with progressive politics. See:

Rev. Wolsey --

Thanks for referring us to your articles.  Your analyses of the meanings of  "liberal", "progressive" and "emergent" Christianity are particularly interesting.  Please tell us more about your distinction between "progressive" and "emergent" Christiantiy.  We need some new terms in these discussions.

Do come back :-)

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