Can a Religious Left Rival the Christian Right?

A new report from the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institution showed that young adults are much more likely to identify as religious progressives than older Americans. The results have prompted some writers to suggest America may see the emergence of a strong Religious Left movement in the near future. At last Thursday's panel discussion introducing the report, though, the report's authors and discussants noted significant challenges to a Religious Left social movement.

The report is based upon a May 30 to June 16 survey of 2,002 American adults (margin of error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points). Using composites of several different survey questions, the report divides the sample into religious conservatives, religious moderates, religious progressives and the nonreligious. They found that a plurality of Americans are religious moderates (38 percent), followed by religious conservatives (28 percent), religious progressives (19 percent) and the nonreligious (15 percent).

One of the most significant findings in the report was the dramatic decrease in popularity of religious conservatism in favor of religious progressivism and non-religiousness among Millennials, or those aged 18 to 33.

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Only 17 percent of Millennials are categorized as religious conservatives compared to 23 percent of Generation X (ages 34 to 48), 34 percent of Baby Boomers (ages 49 to 67), and 47 percent of the Silent Generation (ages 68 and older). At the same time, 23 percent of Millennials are identified as religious progressives, compared to 16 percent of Generation X, 19 percent of Baby Boomers and 12 percent of the Silent Generation.

Given this data, some might conclude that religious progressives could become more politically influential than religious conservatives at some point in the future. Several of the panelists, though, who themselves could be described as religious progressives, expressed caution about such a prediction.

Peter Steinfels, professor emeritus at Fordham University, said there were two reasons to doubt that religious progressives could build a significant political movement, such as the one built by religious conservatives. Steinfels, who said he would probably be categorized as a religious progressive by the report, did not contribute to the report but was on the panel as a discussant.

First, Steinfels doubted that religion could be a motivating force for religious progressives because religious progressives are less likely to say that religion is the most important thing in their life.

Among religious conservatives, 54 percent answered that religion is the most important thing in their life, but among religious progressives, only 11 percent answered that religion is the most important thing in their life.

"Unlike the wishy-washy options of 'religion is among the important things' in my life, or 'religion is somewhat important,' the 'most important' response has always seemed to me a good measure of the strength and intensity of religious identity," Steinfels explained.

William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who formerly worked in the Bill Clinton White House, agreed. The fact that religious conservatives are five times more likely than religious progressives to say religion is the most important thing in their life is "one of the most important findings of the report," he said.

There is a big difference, Galston explained, between someone who says religion is "the most important thing" in their life and someone who says their religion is "one among many important things" in their life, because those who say it is most important are more likely to vote based upon their religious beliefs.

"If you say that something is the most important thing in your life and you mean it, that is, so to speak, a trumping value," he said. "And what that translates into is a willingness to vote on the basis of that whenever it comes into conflict with anything else. To say it is one among many important things is to offer a very different proposition about what drives you. ... [Religious conservatives] will vote on this basis. Whether or not religious progressives will vote and act on this basis, I think, is a more difficult question."

The second reason Steinfels is skeptical about the potential for a Religious Left movement is that most religious progressives, 87 percent, believe that religion is a private matter that should not influence political and social issues.

"Their view may provide a sort of negative counter to aggressive religious interventions on behalf of traditional sexual and personal norms," Steinfels argued, "but it does not provide much ground for religious engagement on the sorts of issues the study puts before us – helping the poor, maintaining the safety net, and opposing inequality."

Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of PRRI, noted a third reason to doubt that religious progressives could become a significant political force: religious progressives are more dispersed and do not attend religious services as often as religious conservatives. Therefore, it is harder to find religious progressives in order to mobilize them.

Religious conservatives are mostly found in evangelical and Catholic churches, Jones explained, and they go to church often. Religious progressives, on the other hand, are scattered across Christian denominations as well as other religions – such as Judaism, Islam and Hinduism – and do not attend religious services as often.

"The challenge of finding religious progressives is a real challenge," Jones said. "You can't just walk into churches and find a bunch of them there. They're much more dispersed."

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