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. 






Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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