Since the rise of the Moral Majority movement in the 1980s, there has been considerably more ink spilt on examining religious conservatives than religious progressives. In 2008, I wrote a book based on qualitative interviews with nearly 100 self-identified progressive religious leaders (Progressive & Religious, Rowman and Littlefield) that provided one of the few contemporary systematic treatments of this group.
Five years later, there continues to be significantly more academic, media, and popular interest in the religious right than in the religious left. For example, an analysis of global monthly keyword searches on Google reveals over 27,000 searches for “Christian Right,” the most popular related keyword term on the right, compared to just over 8,000 searches for “Christian left,” the most popular related keyword term on the left.
Despite the lack of attention given the religious left, a new religious orientation scale developed by PRRI and Brookings finds that a significant number of Americans — approximately one-in-five (19 percent) — are religious progressives. The findings also show the difference in size between religious progressives and conservatives is smaller than conventional wisdom might suggest: religious conservatives comprise 28 percent of the population, outweighing religious progressives by just nine points.
The new PRRI/Brookings survey also reveals both challenges and potential opportunities for religious progressives as compared to religious conservatives. The biggest challenge religious progressives face is the considerable racial and religious pluralism among their ranks.
While more than seven-in-ten religious conservatives are white Christians (including a block of 43 percent who are white evangelical Protestants), religious progressives are strikingly diverse and no religious group makes up more than 20 percent of the whole. Only about 4-in-10 are white Christians (including only four percent who are white evangelical Protestants, 19 percent who are white mainline Protestants, and 18 percent who are white Catholics); 13 percent are non-Christian religious Americans such as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus; and about 1-in-10 are black Protestants (9 percent), other Christians (10 percent) who are mostly comprised of non-black ethnic minorities, or Hispanic Catholics (8 percent).
Notably, nearly 1-in-5 (18 percent) religious progressives are “unattached believers,” those who are not formally affiliated with a religious tradition but who nevertheless say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. Compared to religious conservatives, this internal diversity presents a formidable organizing handicap for religious progressives, who generally have a more fractured infrastructure, and also raises the bar for advocacy efforts that need to put forward a coherent message.
Despite these serious challenges, there are some signs that religious progressives may have stronger future growth potential than religious conservatives. For example, the average age of religious progressives is 44 — just under the average age in the general population of 47 — while the average age of religious conservatives is 53. And there is a nearly linear decline in the appeal of religious conservatism with age.
Religious conservatives make up smaller proportions of each successive generation, from 47 percent of the Silent Generation (ages 66-88) to 34 percent of Baby Boomers (ages 49-67), 23 percent of Generation X (ages 34-48), and 17 percent of Millennials (ages 18-33). Millennials are nearly twice as likely as the Silent Generation to be religious progressives (23 percent vs. 12 percent). Among Millennials, religious progressives significantly outnumber religious conservatives; additionally, 22 percent of Millennials are nonreligious.
For decades, the dominant religious narrative has focused on the decline of liberal Protestant Christianity. The new PRRI/Brookings analysis suggests a distinctly different future pattern, at least as far as one can be read the future from the tea leaves of the present: the declining appeal of religious conservatism, coupled with the increasing appeal of both a diverse religious progressivism and religious disaffiliation. If the current patterns continue, these shifts promise to reshape significantly the public face of religion and the calculations of political campaigns.