Six challenges for organizing a progressive religious movement

FIGURING FAITH : The recent release of the PRRI/Brookings Economic Values Survey has triggered a lively discussion about a potential … Continued

: The recent release of the PRRI/Brookings Economic Values Survey has triggered a lively discussion about a potential shift of power between religious conservatives and progressives in the American religious landscape. Most of the debate has centered around the future significance of current patterns—most prominently, the nearly linear correlation between religious conservatism and age, with religious progressives (and the nonreligious) holding an advantage over religious conservatives among the Millennial generation.

But there has been little attention paid to another set of factors crucial for evaluating the future impact of any progressive religious movement. Compared to their conservative counterparts, religious progressives face considerably higher obstacles to successful organizing. The PRRI/Brookings survey reveals six significant challenges facing any leader who may attempt to transform the one-in-five (19%) Americans who are religious progressives from a scattered constituency into an organized movement:

1. Identity. Perhaps the most fundamental challenge is that religious progressives are much less likely than religious conservatives to see themselves as part of a larger movement. Among Americans who share a religious conservative profile, nearly half (49 percent) say they consider themselves “part of the religious right or conservative Christian movement.” By contrast, among Americans who share a religious progressive profile, less than one-in-five (19 percent) say they consider themselves “part of the religious left or progressive religious movement.”

2. Diversity. Seven-in-ten religious conservatives are white Christians, compared to just four-in-ten religious progressives who are white Christians. In addition to white Christians, the progressive religious coalition consists of ethnic minority Christians (27 percent), non-Christian religious Americans such as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus (13 percent); and unattached believers (18 percent) who are not formally affiliated with a religious tradition but who nevertheless say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives.

3. Dispersion. Two-thirds of religious conservatives are in the American heartland of the South and Midwest, two geographic areas that share a conservative cultural tilt, while religious progressives are more evenly dispersed throughout the country.

4. Diffusion. Religious conservatives are five times more likely than religious progressives to say religion is the most important thing in their lives. Nearly all religious conservatives say religion is the most important thing (54 percent) or one among many important things in their lives (43 percent). While seven-in-ten religious progressives concur, only 11 percent say religion is the most important thing (11 percent) in their lives, while 59 percent say religion is one among many important things in their lives. As an organizing principle, then, religion is a much more straightforward singular avenue for organizing among religious conservatives than among religious progressives.

5. Institutional connection. Religious conservatives are also twice as likely as religious progressives to attend religious services regularly. Three-quarters (76 percent) of religious conservatives attend religious services a few times a month or more, while only about 1-in-10 (9 percent) say they seldom or never attend. Among religious progressives approximately four-in-ten (38 percent) attend religious services a few times per month or more, and virtually the same number (37 percent) say they seldom or never attend. These attributes suggest that religious conservatives are more likely than religious progressives to hear messages from their clergy, and their higher attendance rates makes them easier to locate on the ground.

6. Separation of church and state concerns. Notably, religious progressives and religious conservatives also hold strikingly different views about the role that religion should play in debates over public policy. Nearly 9-in-10 (87 percent) of religious progressives agree that religion is a private matter that should be kept out of public debates over political and social issues. Religious conservatives, on the other hand, hold far fewer qualms about marshaling religious arguments in public debates (49 percent agree, 49 percent disagree). While this reticence to bring religion into public debate is consistent with progressive commitments to the separation of church and state, it may dampen the ability of religious progressives to speak in a language that other religious progressives would recognize or respond to.

Organizing across such varied theological, cultural, ethnic, and geographic terrain presents significant practical challenges for progressive religious leaders. And religious progressives’ more diffuse religiosity means both that religion alone is a less reliable animating principle and that traditional religious institutions are a less predictable locator of potential activists.

One thing is clear. If religious progressives are going to organize their significant numbers into a movement to be reckoned with, they are going to have to do more than borrow a page from the 1980s moral majority playbook.


Robert P. Jones Dr. Robert P. Jones is the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, values, and public life.
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