New Book Delves into Minds of Religious Progressives

WASHINGTON – After nearly 100 interviews and a three-year journey across America, a religious scholar offers four key characteristics shared by the tremendously diverse religious segment loosely defined as progressives.

Dr. Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research and author of Progressive and Religious: How Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist Leaders are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming American Public Life, sought to show in his book a different side of religious America than that portrayed in mainstream media.

Most of the time, he contends, media coverage shows a monolithic religious America - the values voters - when in fact the country is probably the most religiously pluralistic and diverse spot on the planet.

"What I hope [to show] in this book is the first kind of glimpse into what the new religious landscape looks like," Jones said Tuesday at a book briefing event. "That it is more diverse, that it links authentic religion on the one hand and progressive politics on the other."

The inspiration for the book began back in 2004 during the presidential election, Jones shared. During that election, religion had often taken center stage. But to Jones' "distress," the media portrayed religious America as "Christian right America," and religion seemed to be only about two issues – abortion and gay "marriage."

Then after the election, there was seemingly an onslaught of anti-religion books by neo-atheist authors that topped Amazon's top 10 bestsellers list in the religion category.

In response to the rise of what he considers the two extreme sides of religion, he set off to investigate the vacuum in the middle or "the other religious America."

The book features the conventional theological and social progressives, but also religious people with "odd-bedfellow" characteristics – theologically orthodox but politically progressive.

"So there is an emerging progressive religious movement in America," said Jones, who was raised Southern Baptist and attended a Southern Baptist seminary. "And it looks and sounds – and I think this is the thing – very different from what the public face of religion that we have become so accustomed to hearing."

Very few people he interviewed used partisan language, the author emphasized. For the most part, they talked a lot about holding both parties accountable.

Through the extensive interviews with faith leaders, Jones found that there are four characteristics shared across the religious progressive spectrum. They include: an emphasis on social justice; a sense of "humility" to what is true, or a "relational approach to truth" rather than "dogmatic;" a "rigorous wrestling with tradition;" and a belief in the unity of humanity, or for many the belief that all humans are created in the image of God.

He also highlighted that studies show that the size of the religious right and left are similar.

The book and its findings matter as the election approaches, Jones asserts, because they are a "solid reminder" to both candidates that people of faith are not just the religious right. And it also shows that there is a "clear spirit" among America's religious to move beyond the cultural divide.