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A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution found that 20 percent of Americans are “religious progressives,” 28 percent are “religious conservatives,” and the majority (38 percent) describe themselves as “religious moderates” (15 percent are non-religious). The Huffington Post reported the story with the headline “Religious Progressives Predicted to Outnumber Conservatives, Survey Finds,” implying a dramatic shift in the religious/political landscape. But do these findings truly mean the dawning of a new era for American religion and politics is around the corner?
Although the percentage of religious progressives has increased, comparing the two groups is a bit of an ‘apples and oranges’ comparison, as ‘religious progressives’ as a group face significant hurdles to becoming a major political force. The slow but steady decline of religious conservatism indicates certain change, but probably not a complete role reversal with religious progressives.
Significantly, religious conservatives are a much more homogeneous group than religious progressives, as the vast majority are Christians. Over 40 percent identify as “white evangelical protestants,” 17 percent as Catholic, 15 percent white mainline protestants, and 8 percent Black protestants.
In contrast, Catholics make up 29 percent of religious progressives, white mainline protestants 19 percent, those who don’t affiliate with a religious tradition, but say faith is at least somewhat important constitute 18 percent, and explicitly non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, etc.) make up 13 percent. White protestant evangelicals are only four percent of this group, and black protestants make up nine percent.
Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI stated “the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation.” But this does not necessarily translate into stronger political efficacy from the religious left, as Jones noted the nature of religious progressives as a heterogeneous, “complicated” group that is difficult to organize.
Further, in a panel discussion on the survey’s findings, journalist Peter Steinfels pointed out that although he would consider himself a religious progressive, he doubts “whether its specifically religious character can play anything like the motivating, energizing, and organizing force of religion among religious conservatives.” The first reason for this is the relatively few religious progressives for whom religion is “the most important” part of their lives.
“Unlike the wishy-washy options of ‘religion is among the most important’ … the ‘most important’ response has always seemed to me a good measure of the strength and intensity of religious identity,” Steinfels said. Indeed, according to the study “only about 1-in-10 (11%) religious progressives say religion is the most important thing in their lives, nearly 6-in-10 (59%) say it is one among many important things in their lives. Among religious conservatives, a majority (54%) say that religion is the most important thing in their lives, and 43% say it is one among many important things.”
Second, “87 percent of religious progressives view religion as a quote ‘private matter that should be kept out of public debate on political and social issues,” Steinfels said. In contrast, only about half of religious conservatives believe the same.
Sheer numbers are not the only, or even major factor for becoming a significant force in American politics. Although religious progressives may soon outnumber conservatives and interact in the public square, they are perhaps less likely to do so from distinctly faith-based motives, and less likely to be unified in religious conviction.
More important than demographic breakdown for Christians though is how the shifting cultural and political landscape presents opportunities to focus less on the political realm, and more on the presence the Church is called to have in this world. Regardless of our political persuasion and that of the broader population, our primary call is to be salt and light, living and sharing the Gospel in our communities.
[Author’s note: The first version of this article incorrectly stated the PRRI was affiliated with the Pew Forum. The article has been corrected and updated.]