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.
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

Read More Articles

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.40.54
Atheists Bad, Christians Good: A Review of “God’s Not Dead”

A smug Christian movie about smug atheists leads to an inevitable happy ending.

Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

Why I Want to Be Culturally Evangelical

I’ve lost my faith. Do I have to lose my heritage, too?

What Is a Saint?

How the diversity of saintly lives reveals multiple paths toward God.

An Ayatollah’s Gift to Baha’is, Iran’s Largest Religious Minority

An ayatollah offers a beautiful symbolic gesture against a backdrop of violent persecution.

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.