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Religious Progressives?

Are religious progressives the wave of the future? 

That is the conclusion that a number of people have drawn from Do Americans Believe Capitalism & Government Are Working?, the study that has already been discussed here following posts by Paul Moses and myself.  Besides surveying Americans on economic conditions, inequality, capitalism, government economic policy, and religious values, the study paid special attention to what it considered the understudied counter to the religious right, namely “religious progressives.”

By combining scales measuring Americans’ views on theological, social, and economic issues, the study concludes that 28% of the population are religious conservatives, 38% are religious moderates, and 19% are religious progressives. 

The latter, however, may have prospects that those numbers belie.  First of all, that 19% of religious progressives are close in outlook on political, social, and economic questions to the 15% of Americans detached from any particular faith, the "nones.".  So a broader view of the nation’s religious landscape shows it roughly divided in thirds: 28% conservative, 38% moderate, and 34% progressive. 

More importantly, the authors of the study, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in collaboration with the Brookings Institute, emphasize that religious progressives are significantly younger than religious conservatives.  Religious conservatives' share of the population shrinks with every generation.  That’s what has been celebrated in blogs from the Washington Post to the Huffington Post by way of Salon.  The day of the religious right is passing, the era of the religious left is upon us. 

Sorry, it's not likely. 

As a panelist at the Brookings Institution unveiling of the new study on July 18, I expressed doubts about the future potential of religious progressives.  I don’t doubt that the group exists, however arguable some of the study’s methodology used to define religious progressives and measure their numbers.  Indeed, I may  fall within the definition myself.  What I doubt is whether the specifically religious character of religious progressives can play anything like the motivating, energizing, and organizing force of religion among religious conservatives – and I do think that the study and the way it has been greeted implicitly assume something of a parallel between these two sectors.  

 Two findings of the study itself feed my doubts.  One is the low percentage of religious progressives (11%) who say that their religion is “the most important thing in my life” compared to the high proportion (54%) of religious conservatives saying the same thing.

What do people really mean when they say that religion is the most important thing in their lives?  I’m not quite sure.  But I find that unlike the survey’s standard wishy-washy options stating that religion is “among the important things in my life” or “somewhat important in my life,” the “most important” response is a good measure of the strength and intensity of religious identity. As William Galston pointed out in seconding my observation at the Brookings event, the “most important” response is a strong indicator that religion will really influence the way someone votes while the other responses point to indefinite exercises in balancing. 

A second finding feeds my doubts about the potential impact of religious progressives.  It turns out that 87% of religious progressives view religion as a “private matter” that should be kept out of public debate on political and social issues.  That view may provide a negative counter to aggressive religious intervention on behalf of traditional sexual and personal norms, but it does not provide much ground for religious engagement on the kinds of issues that the study puts before us – helping the poor, maintaining the safety net, and opposing inequality. 

I have yet another question about the impact of religious progressives that arises from an extraordinary finding by Robert Putnam and David Campbell in the book American Grace. It will take us further afield, however, and deserves its own post. 

 

 

 

 

 

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People of faith, particularly in the Catholic tradition, should be able to articulate and translate their views formed by faith in a secular or natural context. For example, while the preferential option for the poor is a specific, faith stance that is necessary for Catholics, the articulation of what that looks like in terms of public policy will differ. What will not differ, however, is that the fundamental stance, and first question, will always be the impact of this or that policy or decision on the poor. If Catholics actually put this fundamental stance in practice, then I suspect that we would have a very, very different social structure than we have today.

In a very real Catholic sense, religion is a private matter as the natural order has its own laws that are accessbile by virtue of natural reason. We should be able to argue those natural virtues and rights in a natural way (e.g. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN)

 

Why is it that Scandanavian countries, overwhelmingly Lutheran, are able to live more simply and more equitably than Catholic countries or regions with high proportions of Catholics?

that 19% of religious progressives are close in outlook on political, social, and economic questions to the 15% of Americans detached from any particular faith, the "nones.". 

What, if any, are the stances on key issues that distinguish religious progressives from "nones"?  I expect that not a few religious conservatives harbor the suspicion that religious progressives really are "nones" who happen to come from a religious family heritage.  I don't think that's accurate or fair, but it does seem fair to ask, if the two groups are different, in what ways do those differences manifest themselves in political, social or economic questions?

the preferential option for the poor is a specific, faith stance that is necessary for Catholics

 

George, while I agree 100% with your statement above, I suspect its general meaning is usually taken in an economic sense.  Personally, I think the Catholic sense is much larger eg poor in spirit, poor in conscience, poor in virtue, poor in health.  So for example, I think abortion falls under the larger Catholic sense of preferential option for the poor, perhaps described as 'poor in voice'.  And I do not think the Catholic religion would ever describe these as private matters even if they are knowable by reason alone.

By religious progressives, do we mean religious people with progressive political beliefs? Or are we somehow referring to progressive religious beliefs?  (Do we even label religious beliefs progressive?) For example, would a Jehovah's Witness be considered a religous progressive if she embraced an ultra-liberal political platform?  Who are we talking about in these categories?

 

"Why is it that Scandanavian countries, overwhelmingly Lutheran, are able to live more simply and more equitably than Catholic countries or regions with high proportions of Catholics?Why is it that Scandanavian countries, overwhelmingly Lutheran, are able to live more simply and more equitably than Catholic countries or regions with high proportions of Catholics?'

George D. -

I supect that one reason is because in the Scandinavian countries the people are still close to nature  -- nature that is still mostly unspoiled by urban ugliness and suburban sprawl.  Nature there is generally very beautiful, so the people aren't so concerned with making a lot of money so they can buy beautiful things -- nature provides them.  

I'm firmly convinced that human beings have a deep-seated longing for beauty, especially for visual beauty, and when nature doesn't provide it people try to substitute other beauties, too often with no success.  It's hard to compete with a rose or a waterfall or a sunset.

Jim P. ==

I think that the biggest religious differences concern the ethical issues of contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage, while the theological issues are mainly concerned with married priests, women priests and, most basic, infallibility though infallibility is rarely discussed these days.  I don't think that the preferential option for the poor is a big issue.  The only issue with that concerns what "poor" means. 

Anne Oliver: >I suspect that one reason is because in the Scandinavian countries the people are still close to nature  -- nature that is still mostly unspoiled by urban ugliness and suburban sprawl.  Nature there is generally very beautiful, so the people aren't so concerned with making a lot of money so they can buy beautiful things -- nature provides them

Dear Ms. Oliver:

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer in Haute Guinée, near the border with Mali.  We were guests in the homes of the most open and generous people I ever expect to meet.  Garden plots along the few perennial streams, some chickens in the family compound; perhaps a few goats or a milk cow in the most successful families.   Malinke people, living on the edge of the Sahara Desert.  To homo economicus, these are dollar-a-day people, who have little experience with anything we would recognize as a cash economy.  There was nothing poor in the spirit of the people of Lero.

Our Western eye does not often see country like this, or the people who live in it.  It can be very beautiful indeed, especially (to my eye) at dawn and sunset.  To them, of course, it is the whole world that most of them ever will know, its springs and seeps, its thin, depleted soils, and the energy of the sun providing what they and their crops and animals needed for life, which they lead according to the traditions of their culture and the teachings of the Koran.

Peter, 

It gets back to Posing (or begging) the question.  And you know how precarious that is. Further, statistics is a strange discipline and unless the questions and parameters are crystal clear, the conclusions are suspect. 

Pace Ann. The well being of the Scandanavian countries may have something to do with the fact that  their monarchs are symbolic. England which falls into that category realizes that guns are killers when generally available. Maybe Francis is quietly beginning to get rid of the Empire when he acknowledges that he is merely the Bishop of Rome. Certainly the RCC in its embrace of Empire has created lunatics and grandiose popes even into our own times. 

Getting back on point, the labels of conservative or liberal  are fraught with potential for error. For example, despite what many may think, I do not consider myself liberal. The reason is that I am for a radical reading of the anointing of Jesus. Another way to get this is to ask my children. They will agree with my assessment. I.E. that I am not liberal.

When I say religion is a private matter I want to protect us from nuts who say everyone is going to hell. Yet I will insist that all walks of life favor the Leper over Dives. Which means that the goods of the earth belong to everyone. While I favor fair capitalism, I assert that a severe reckoning will come upon those who ignore the downtrodden. Francis is telling the "Smart Phone" clergy that their priorities are mixed up while so many are starving, in need of shelter and medicine. ETC.

The reason I object to studies and conferences like this is that they have no plan of action. Everyone pontificates and remains on the sidelines. In good management there is always a detailed map so that company objectives can be met. They know that generalities will not suffice. Religion is odious when it details rules which stifle the spirit of people. But religion can be useful if it measures how we treat the poor and downtrodden. Yet that measurement is always ignored as poison and detrimental. Amazing. Leaders have described the Magnificat as "poison." Which it is to those who prefer domination over others. 

People of rhetoric have too often dominated Christianity. Like Augustine, Bonaventure and Thomas. This is why this pope has inserted Francis of Assissi into the mix. Because he is closer to the heart of Jesus. 

I am politically progressive, but religiously regressive in that I basically just go around setting up pillars and dumping oil on them.

Abe -  there's is something intriguingly Freudian about your obvious hate of pillars.  Of course, I have no idea whatever what that may be but, by golly, I'm certain it is there.

As for this post by Peter, I believe the issue it raises is more than worthy of discussion.  However, so long as we do not point out obvious misuses of the word "conservative" I do not believe a useful discussion can occur.  A significant number of those individuals so loudly and so often publicly proclaiming their words and deeds to be borne of religious conservatism are in it for money, power and self-adulation.  It is beyond ludicrous to allow oneself to believe one can live in a multimillion dollar home on the Florida coast and expect anyone with the common sense God gave a brick to believe Christ led them there.  If Jim and Tammy had sold real estate rather than Christ there is adequate reason to believe they would have found the adulation they so obviously needed.

Did I mention I am available if that person currently housed on the Florida coast is wishing to be a godfather?  Just kidding.....

I always have to google Abe's allusions. It looks like Jacob is the winner.

Mightbe, I don't even.

On the relation between progressivism in religion and progressivism in economic and political matters, an interesting phenomenon can be noted in the emergence of modern Catholic social teaching in the nineteenth century. In almost every instance the impulse to engage in a critique of liberal capitalism and the social order it was producing came from people who were conservative and even intransigent on religious matters. One illustration: Cardinals Manning and Newman were, in the fine description of Sheridan Gilley, "the Martha and Mary of the Victorian era." Manning's defence of workers anticipated Rerum novarun, and he intervened actively to settle a dock strike in 1889; but he was, of course, an utter Ultramontane in ecclesiastical politics.  Newman, on the other hand, a great defender of intellectual integrity and of necessary "elbow-room" for Catholic theologians, showed very little interest in socio-economic matters, so that it is not possible to find among his very many works a single essay similar to Manning's "The Dignity and Rights of Labour" (1874).

The intransigent pioneers of Catholic social teaching were consistent in this respect: they opposed modern liberal individualism in all its aspects; they opposed it when it took the form of abandoning tradition and dogma as also in its revolutionary consequences for economic and social orders.

 

You can't detect trends in a cross-sectional study.  The fact that the young are more progressive than the old at one point in time doesn't mean that they will remain progressive as they age.  Today's paper describes people once enamored of social change in their youth now concerned about social security in their old age.

 

The only way to detect change is to replicate studies in different time periods. But given the idiosyncratic definition of religious progressivism in this study I doubt that any other researchers will want to repeat this study.  Why didn't Brookings conduct a true comparison based upon past studies.  I suspect a "not invented here" attitude to earlier studies.

 

BTW, if anyone wants to spot alleged trends the NYT provides at least three on the front page of every issue.  There we are told that prospects are dire if the enlightened ones do not recognize new tendencies, shake others out of their complacency and join together to promote effective policies to alleviate future suffering - and then prepare for the arrival of  tomorrow'st trends.  Several conferences to follow.

It is the configuration described by Fr. K which is obscured by the categories of the survey. Too often, we get "doctrinal rightists" who do everything possible to evade the the stern implications of Catholic social teaching, and we get "activist leftists" who are often highly critical of basic Catholic beliefs about ecclesiology and christology. Wasn't it Dorothy Day who said, "In matters of society, I move as far to the left as possible, while in matters of the church, I move as far to the right as possible"? While this is an extreme statement (i.e. I hope Ultramontanism is not what she means!!), I do think that this approach is often lost. I would suggest that the last three popes, however much they definitely differed in style, actually in their writings and teachings did exactly this. Laborem Exercens and Caritas in Veritate, for example, are far to the "left" of virtually any available American political program in their support of cooperatives, worker ownership, the priority of labor over capital, and (in general) genuine relationships of love and mutuality in the work world.

Catholicism has had a too long  love affair with aristocracy. And conservatives almost always are aristocrat wannabes. Scandinavian monarchs can be seen in grocery stores.

I've always interpreted the term "Progressive" in light of Vatican II's call for ecclesial renewal, i.e., making the church "new again", the primary theme of this council.  A "reactionary"/"fundamentalist"/"traditionalist"/"orthodox"/"regressive", by contrast, is opposed to renewal.

The Scandinavian ability to live more equitably has much, much more to do with cultural homogeneity rather than religion.  The applicable idiom in the US is "the squeaky wheel gets the grease", following our individualistic roots.  Cultural conformity is the greater impetus in much of the rest of the world, especially northern Europe, and the applicable phrase is"the nail that sticks out gets hammered down".  For good or ill, the pressure to conform does create a greater sense that everyone's in it together and an ability to recognize that the better off everyone is, the better off I am. 

It seems to me that there is little dispute among the conservatives and liberals about the general principles of the Church's social justice teachings.  All would probably agree to "as little government as possible, as much government as necessary".  The fight is about how much is enough.

There are also in certain sub-sets disagreement about how our capitalist system works AND doesn't work. If you can believe Paul Krugman (and I do), conservatiives generally believe that capitalism is self-correcting, while liberals think is isn't necessarily.  Hence the intense fights over government regulation of corporations and banks.  This idea is from Keynes, and the conservatives typicaly hate him to the point of irrationality, calling him a Communist, etc, when the man was definitely pro capitalism..  That is really sort of strange beacuse Keynes and Hayek (the conservatives' own icon) knew each others' work and respected each others' work.  

Note:  Keynes was a member of the socially highly-influential Bloomsbury group who led in overturning  the social mores in England in the early 20th century.  You can see their influence finally emerging with a bang in the U. S, in the 60's.  I sometimes wonder whether what the early 20th century conservatives most objected to in Keynes was not primarily his economics but his de facto personal sexual morality ("free love", bisexual).  In other words, he was a threat to both their economic and familial principles.  (He also loudly criticized the Versaille Treaty as immoral,which was also an anti-England/anti-clan position.

My point is that somehow there might be a connection between the sexual and economic values of conservatives.  Maybe what they have in common is strict protectionism of the clan and corporations, whether of the group/clan or of families as constituting the group?  (Yes, I think that conservative sexual morality is intended to protect the family, and in that respect I'm mostly a conservative too.)

Cultural conformity is the greater impetus in much of the rest of the world, especially northern Europe, and the applicable phrase is"the nail that sticks out gets hammered down".  For good or ill, the pressure to conform does create a greater sense that everyone's in it together and an ability to recognize that the better off everyone is, the better off I am. 

 

This could be solidarity, if it is embraced freely.

I wonder if one possible difference between religious progressives and "nones" is that religious progressives would place great stock in the virtue of solidarity.  I don't know to what extent "nones" have libertarian tendencies on social issues, but if they are like most Americans, they're probably pretty libertarian on anything having to do with sex.

 

 

Ann,

I''d add this corallary to your comment:  Liberals generally believe government is self-correcting, while conservatives think it isnt necessarily.  

 

Personally, I doubt either is self-correcting, but government wields the greater power.

"First of all, that 19% of religious progressives are close in outlook on political, social, and economic questions to the 15% of Americans detached from any particular faith, the "nones.". "

 

Mmhhhh... isn't that a bit of a problem? The people with whom religious progressives shares the most similar outlook on social matters are ... atheists?

The dynamic in the church has been with the regressives rather than the progressives lately. But let's not forget that a dynamic plays itself out according to its own inner logic. Regressives are oriented to self-deconstruction that may be fun to watch. Whether a progressive Christianity in the spirit of Vatican II then stages a grand return is hard to predict...

Carlo: Where do you see the problem lying?  Pope Francis said we could have common ground with nonbelievers who do good.  The  challenge is more for the religous progressives and the religious right to come together. What's your thinking on how we make that happen?

"Pope Francis said we could have common ground with nonbelievers who do good."
Same thoughts here Irene Baldwin.

I have mostly thought of myself as a religious progressive, and I would probably fall within that 19%. In many ways I do see things similarly to the "nones", even if i have different reasons for my beliefs. However, when it comes to the abortion question, we usually do not see eye to eye.

Thank you for addressing this issue. I have been working on it for about 40 years. Hope to get back to you soon.

Carlo --

The nones include not only atheists but agnostics and the very large group who are "spiritual but not religious".  As I remember the latter group is now about 1/4 of the whole population and growing.  

Further, one should not scorn the honorable atheists.  They often have a lot to teach the holier-than-thou religious people.

Mmhhhh... isn't that a bit of a problem? The people with whom religious progressives shares the most similar outlook on social matters are ... atheists? - 

 

Carlo, It sure is a problem when the Samaritan is the only one who helped the poor traveler. While the self righteous officials passed by with their noses in the air. 

I always like this: 

ReligR    Religion that loses its soul to the ambitions of either the Right of the Left finally has little of interest to contribute. 

Such       Such religion becomes no more than a chaplaincy to one political camp or the other.  Such religion is almost inevitably conformed to the camp to which it sells its do       its doubtful blessing. 

Richar     Richard John Neuhaus, Two Civil Religions (article), "The R eligion & Science  Report", February 1989

 

 

 

Ann:  maybe this is true:

 

RELIGION is for those afraid of going to hell.  Spirituality is for those who know they have been there-perhaps through religion.  Patrick W. Collins

Jim McCrea:  Forgive me, but those two comments strike me as bumper-sticker theology. 

 

7-28-13

“I expressed doubts about the future potential of religious progressives.”   Peter Steinfels

 

As I mentioned in my 7-27-13 post I have been working on it for about 40 years (religious progressives). Mr. Steinfels is a world-class journalist.

I am a virtual unknown writer. However, I am a retired RN, with a BS in nursing and MS in nursing education from a well-known college and university with a wide variety of practical experience. Nursing by definition qualifies me for this pursuit. And my lengthy study has become what I call meta-nursing.

But I do not use a journalist mode such as Steinfels uses nor the tools that he uses such as statistics (unless needed).  My tools are books, journals etc from my area of work as well as academic cutting edge material recommended by my husband. He is a philosopher of science and a specialist in other philosophical areas.

I am convinced without a doubt that if we had study and discussion periods on-line, religious progressives of all varieties would prevail. There is a wealth of answers out there in our world: academic interdisciplinary knowledge and skill building, and non-academic expertise as well. When we integrate our intellectual achievements we form a new faith and moral agency phenomenon.

But speaking at the moment of just Roman Catholicism, we have an indoctrinated, autocratic system with so much dysfunction and unwillingness to evolve as we should that it leaves us with a very uncertain future.  Yet with long hard work there is an evolved future of grand proportion i.e. this evolutionary journey that we have been on for so long a time.

Superb observation!  

It seems that this would also be applicable to most of the popes from Leo XIII to Francis, especially John Paul II and and Benedict XVI: "In almost every instance the impulse to engage in a critique of liberal capitalism and the social order it was producing came from people who were conservative and even intransigent on religious matters."

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About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.