Religion Challenges Left & Right

Trends That May Trouble Both Sides

Whenever I write sympathetically about religion, I get bombarded by tweets and notes from readers who normally agree with me but cannot abide the idea that religious belief should be seen as intellectually serious.

And because I have written favorably about Pope Francis, I get more than my share of angry comments about the Catholic pedophilia scandal, which continues to haunt the church and troubles even its most loyal members.

Getting lambasted doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, citizens talking back to the purveyors of opinion is a glorious aspect of free speech. But my correspondents underscore the existence of a strong anti-religious current within a segment of the liberal community that is both an important political fact and a potential problem for progressives.

Here’s the challenge: Americans who are left-of-center are far more religiously diverse than their opponents on the conservative side. When it comes to matters of faith, liberals and Democrats have a far more complicated task of coalition management -- although religion also raises some serious difficulties for the right.

Consider the findings of a survey (in which I was involved) released last month by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution. Using the answers to a wide variety of questions, we created a scale that broke our respondents into four groups: Religious conservatives, moderates, progressives and the non-religious.

Overall, we found that 28 percent of Americans could be classified as religious conservatives, 38 percent as religious moderates, and 19 percent as religious progressives. An additional 15 percent were non-religious.

But among supporters of the two parties, Republicans were far more cohesive. The analysis found that 56 percent of Republicans were religious conservatives and 33 percent were religious moderates. Only 5 percent were religious progressives and just 6 percent were non-religious.

Democrats, by contrast, were all over our analytical map: 28 percent were religious progressives, 13 percent were religious conservatives, 42 percent were religious moderates, and 17 percent were non-religious.

Among self-identified political liberals, the proportion of the non-religious -- essentially, the folks sending me those messages -- was even larger: 31 percent of liberals were non-religious, 33 percent were religious progressives, 30 percent were religious moderates and 6 percent were religious conservatives.

Two things are thus true simultaneously: Non-religious Americans are a very important part of the liberal constituency; yet the majority of liberals have ties to religion. The survey found that African-Americans, who are deeply loyal to most liberal causes (and to the Democratic Party), are among the most religious people in the country. For liberalism to thrive, there needs to be acceptance and, even better, some respect across the boundaries of belief and non-belief.

Yet if liberals face obstacles when it comes to faith, conservatives have problems of their own. The most serious? The religious conservatism that is such an important component of the right and the Republican Party is deeply unattractive to the rising generation of voters. In addition, many across age groups who are quite conservative in their theological views are rather progressive when it comes to economics, especially on issues such as raising the minimum wage.

The generation gap on religious commitment is stark. In the Silent Generation (Americans sixty-eight and older), 47 percent are religious conservatives, while only 12 percent are religious progressives and 10 percent are non-believers. These figures are reversed for Millennials (Americans thirty-three and under), only 17 percent of whom are religious conservatives, while 23 percent are religious progressives, and nearly as many, 22 percent, are non-religious. (The remainder in both groups were moderates.)

These trends should disturb conservatives looking to the future, but they should also give pause to religious leaders. The association of religion, and particularly Christianity, with conservatism appears to be turning off substantial numbers of young Americans to faith.

On the other hand, a concern for social justice not only unites large numbers of believers across conservative/progressive lines but also appeals deeply to the more skeptical young. This is one reason why Pope Francis’ eloquent emphasis on lifting up the poor, so visible during his recent trip to Brazil, could make him a transformational leader.

Conservatives need to pay attention to the power of justice and compassion. Otherwise, they will find their cause undercut, even within their religious base, by a refusal to grapple with the economic system’s unfairness. As for progressives, they would be foolish to push away religious allies who are instructed by scripture of the Almighty’s ambition to “loose the bonds of injustice” and “let the oppressed go free.”

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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Let me second the observation that religious progressives working at making partnership with non-religious liberals can find some very uphill climbing. I have very recently encountered the same degree of unshakeable certainty about the evils of religion - directed broadside at very mindful people of faith - that one finds in the most sect-like positions taken on the conservative side of issues.

It may be an artifact of the current stalemate in our political affairs that everyone feels a need to withdraw into one or another citadel lest they be caught in any middle ground and accused of apostacy (the form of which appears not to make much difference as regards the vehemence of protest).

Writing this I'm reminded of poor fearful Peter distancing himself from acquaintance with Christ; some challenges are always with us it seems.

Mr. Dionne nothing you write is of much surpirse, including your attacks of "pedophile priests."  Did you ever wonder what these people used as a defense before the scandal?  To the anti-catholic bigots, it's the gift that keeps on giving.

Pope Francis isn't any more liberal or conservative than Jesus was.  We only use those terms to appease our own agendas.  Truth is truth.  If we believe in Christ, we live by His teachings, it's that simple.  Social justice starts in the womb, and ends at the natural last breath of of the dying.  Anything missing in between , is dangerous selective Christianity.

Also no surprise that the youth are not buying into "conservative" Christianity.  That's our fault, as we have given them a culture full of sinful laws:  abortion, same sex marriage, contraception, pornography, divorce, all once socially shunned or illegal, now the "new (and legal) normal." 

I would argue that it isn't religion that challanges us, only Truth, Jesus Christ.  Our culture simply finds His ways too hard to live. 

 

 

 

 

I think it should be mentioned that the "strong anti-religion current within a segment of the liberal community" as well as the more cautious approach of many liberals when it comes to religion and politics, is the result understand the dangers of religion mixing in politics: that it often participates with an insensitive, heavy and dictatorial hand. 

I couldn't find anything in Mr. Dionne's article that would meet the definition of "attacks on pedophile priests." He was reporting responses he had received after one of his previous articles.

Ironic, considering these polls, how so many of today's religious conservatives, led by the likes of Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum, have embraced  the most extreme rightwing (and formerly liberal) philosophy of economics, laissez-faire capitalism.

He was reporting responses he had received after one of his previous articles.

Yes Catherine, that's what I was responding to:   the fact that  every uninformed Catholic hater who wants to debate the Catholic Faith uses it.  Two thousands years of theology, hundreds of years of great works by the faithful and saints, or the fact that the Catholic Church for the most part build western civilization,  never comes up in debate, only the 20th century sex abuse scandal. 

Beverly I don't know who is embracing Paul Ryan the Rino or Ayn Rand, but it's not conservatives.  Santorium on the otherhand, is viewed as "too Catholic" to be taken seriously.

Thank you for an excellent article, E. J. Dionne Jr.! 

This comment particularly caught my eye: 

"The association of religion, and particularly Christianity, with conservatism appears to be turning off substantial numbers of young Americans to faith."

The highly politicized version of conservative Christianity that gained traction (in part as a reaction to the sixties and Roe v. Wade) in recent decades is floundering. Taking sides in "the Culture War" has proven to be a false dichotomy. The neat little package that had Rush Limbaugh, the "whacky right-wing blonds" on Fox News, gun rights, anti-environmentalism, and laissez--faire capitalism all mysteriously fused with Christianity has unraveled. The many deeply anti-social threads that were woven into this politcal/cultural/religious alliance have become exposed over the past two decades. The task of conservative Christians is to reframe their beliefs in a light that is less judgmental and more pro-social. 

Patricia, I think actually many young people are very sensitive to abortion and the problems children have when their parents divorce, etc. I think young people are attracted to the idea of living good lives themselves while not judging others -- at least this is what I see in my own children. "Conservative Christianity" has given us a hoarde of angry harridans who too often turn out to be living less than perfect lives themselves. Look at Ted Haggard and his obsession, before his affair with a male prostitute was made public, with condemning homosexuality. Young people seeing that example are more likely to want to lead lives of compassion and mercy toward gays. Sadly, the virulent strain of fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity, that has become so very politicized, has caused many young people to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Those of use who want to keep Christianity as a viable moral option have some work to do. We have to do very much better than our predecessors. 

 I've noticed on some of the more right-wing Christian web sites that some bloggers and posters are very zealous in their support of right-wing causes that have nothing at all to do with Christianity. For example, "global warming" or "climate change" are obscenities to some of these people. They usually implode in cognitive dissonace when someone points out the Church is actually very concerned about climate change, particularly its effects on the world's poor. For these conservative Cathollics, "being a good Catholic" means embracing a host of very conservative views that are NOT Catholic. I hope this group can become more nuanced in their outlook. They are representing Catholicism to the young as something very choleric and unscientific. No wonder they do so much harm! By contrast, Pope Francis has the milk of human kindness. He manages to state opinions that might be unpopular to many (e.g., that the "door has closed" on women in the priesthood, for example,) without being nasty about it. 

Patricia, I think actually many young people are very sensitive to abortion and the problems children have when their parents divorce, etc. I think young people are attracted to the idea of living good lives themselves while not judging others -- at least this is what I see in my own children. "Conservative Christianity" has given us a hoarde of angry harridans who too often turn out to be living less than perfect lives themselves. Look at Ted Haggard and his obsession, before his affair with a male prostitute was made public, with condemning homosexuality. Young people seeing that example are more likely to want to lead lives of compassion and mercy toward gays. Sadly, the virulent strain of fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity, that has become so very politicized, has caused many young people to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Those of use who want to keep Christianity as a viable moral option have some work to do. We have to do very much better than our predecessors. 

 I've noticed on some of the more right-wing Christian web sites that some bloggers and posters are very zealous in their support of right-wing causes that have nothing at all to do with Christianity. For example, "global warming" or "climate change" are obscenities to some of these people. They usually implode in cognitive dissonace when someone points out the Church is actually very concerned about climate change, particularly its effects on the world's poor. For these conservative Cathollics, "being a good Catholic" means embracing a host of very conservative views that are NOT Catholic. I hope this group can become more nuanced in their outlook. They are representing Catholicism to the young as something very choleric and unscientific. No wonder they do so much harm! By contrast, Pope Francis has the milk of human kindness. He manages to state opinions that might be unpopular to many (e.g., that the "door has closed" on women in the priesthood, for example,) without being nasty about it. 

As I read Pope Francis, he reminds us that: if we work with the sheep, we might smell as they do.

If we work with other for social justice,  their full agenda might not match ours.  If we collaborate with them, it does not mean we affirm their full agenda.   It does not mean we are compromising our values for the time being. 

As I read Dionne's article, I am reminded of the truth we slowly learned in the early days of ecumenical dialogue.  We are not compromising.   We are trying to understand.   Likewise in our collaboration in social justice, we affirm the good we can accomplish with those technically outside our Church. 

As I read Pope Francis, he encourages us to go ourside our usual zone of comfort and bring the gosple with us. Call it what you will - either progressive or liberal - we are called to move foreward.  Not stand our position.

Rev.Richard L. Allen

Retired:  Green Bay Diocese

Back in the day... there were clergy who were active in our diocese in jail ministry intitiatives, work with the homeless, labor issues, shelters for battered women, and dynamic youth social justice leadership programs... these are gone as the largely insipid "movements" that animate some of the younger clergy are all related to the JPII vision of priesthood - social "charity outreach," but nothing involving real social justice and addressing structural issues of the most disadvantaged.

IN this current atmosphere of attacks on the CATHOLIC RELIGION by the news media we must question the Media's purpose of these attacks. AS we all know,there are numerous religions that have a far worse record for protecting the children from an unwanted attack.YET, it is the CATHOLIC RELIGION/CHURCH that is forced to pay millions by juries. WHY have we NOT heard how much other religions pay out for such abuses? THE ANSWER is simple: DESTROY the CATHOLIC RELIGION and then you can start laying the groundwork to take on the other religions and destroy them.

ALSO,the CHURCHES in the U.S. HAVE OTHER WORRIES. LEADERS who are also drunks or are into the worshiping of the almighty dollar. MILLIONS are raised in capitol campaigns and are spent but not accounted for. SCHOOLS AND CHURCHES are CLOSED to save money. BUT, BUT what happened to the MILLIONS raised? we need accounting.

 E.J.  picks a subject to report on and writes an article. THEN people like us either agree or dis-agree with him.SOME will vehemtly attack him, and others agree with him. HIS articles are there to make us think.  AND I THINK we ought to decide if we want our government run by religious people who's ideas will either put us back into danger,ie:2 wars in the mid-east,OR GUIDE US THE WAY THE HOLY FATHER  WANTS US TO LOOK AT OUR FELLOW MAN.

 FEED the POOR, help the sick, and clothe the naked.

So older people tend to be religious conservatives, younger ones progressive?   Does that necessarily mean that  future generations will be more progressive?  Don''t people tend to get more conservative as tthey age? Or is that a myth?  

What might be more important is the age breakout of voters;  a voting base dominated by the young (progressives) would work for Dems, and one where the old (conservatives) are the majority would work for Republicans. No?

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).