The Coming Rise of Religious Progressives?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 18, 2013 — 6 Comments

The Public Religion Research Institute today released the findings from its 2013 Economic Values Survey. While there’s a lot to digest about how Americans feel about economic values, the survey also has a lot to say about religious values, specifically the seemingly inevitable rise of “religious progressives.”


One-in-five Americans (19 percent) are religious progressives, while 38 percent are religious moderates, 28 percent are religious conservatives, and 15 percent are nonreligious, a new survey finds. The new Economic Values Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Brookings Institution, was used to develop a new religious orientation scale that combines theological, economic and social outlooks in order to paint a new portrait of the American religious landscape. “Our new research shows a complex religious landscape, with religious conservatives holding an advantage over religious progressives in terms of size and homogeneity,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones,CEO of Public Religion Research Institute. “However, the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation.”

In other words, the days of the “Religious Right” are numbered, at least in terms of demographic and social power. In addition, religious progressives are far more diverse in religious identity than religious conservatives.

Religious progressives are considerably more diverse than religious conservatives. Catholics (29 percent) constitute the largest single group among religious progressives, followed by white mainline Protestants (19 percent), those who are not formally affiliated with a religious tradition but who nevertheless say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives (18 percent), and non-Christian religious Americans such as Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims (13 percent).”

Non-Christian religions, which would include modern Pagans, make up a significant proportion of this coming post-Christian religious progressive reality. Meanwhile, religious conservatives are overwhelmingly dominated by white evangelical Protestants and Catholics. As PRRI pointed out last year, relying almost solely on white conservative Christians is increasingly going to be a losing national strategy for politicians.

“Nearly 8-in-10 (79%) voters in Romney’s coalition are white Christians. By contrast, just over one-third (35%) of voters in Obama’s coalition are white Christians. The foundation of Romney’s base consists primarily of white evangelical Protestants, who constitute 40% of his coalition. Obama’s coalition rests on two very different groups: minority Christians—a group that includes black, Asian, Hispanic, and mixed-race Christians—(31%) and the religiously unaffiliated (25%). Notably, Obama’s religious coalition resembles the religious composition of younger voters, while Romney’s religious coalition resembles the religious composition of senior voters. For example, 26% of Millennial voters are white Christians, compared to 72% of senior voters.”

In CNN exit polling of the 2012 presidential elections, 74% of non-Christians, and 70% of “nones” voted for Barack Obama. Those are horrible numbers for any candidate tied to conservative Christianity and their political agenda in a society that will eventually see religious progressives in the driver’s seat. As I’ve said before, the demographic playing field is going to keep on shifting in terms of social and political power.

“That doesn’t mean that Democrats automatically win all the time, or that Republicans are always doomed to lose, just that the playing field will never again be like it was in the 1980s or 1990s. The slowly shifting demographics have started to turn a corner, and savvy politicians, no matter what their political orientation, will adapt to these emerging realities. Yes, that means reaching out to racial minorities, and women, and younger voters, but it also means reaching out to the “nones” and the religious “others” instead of banking everything on the evangelical Christian vote (or the Catholic vote for that matter).”

Through the lens of this new data, it looks increasingly like recent social conservative overreach on access to voting, on reproductive health, on immigration policy, are a rear-guard action designed to slow down the demographic clock for a long as possible. For modern Pagans, this data means that we are presented with a future where we could experience ongoing growth and social capital. Our collective challenge is to make sure we are engaging with Millennials, empowering them in our organizations, and making them feel welcome. This is not a time to be idle, we can’t afford to take this generational tide for granted. A more Pagan future starts with the decisions we make right now.

Send to Kindle

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • cernowain greenman

    We can hope that the Evangelicals will take a back seat in our country, much like about a century ago when Fundamentalists in the 1920’s were generally disdained by public opinion after the Scopes trial.

    Where Pagans will end up, I’m not altogether sure. There are Pagans who are socially conservative, but I hope that most of us can join in with the multifaith coalition.

  • don108

    One of the things I like to do is look at the actual questions in a survey and look for the principles underlying the questions. Although ostensibly objective, to my mind the questions came from a background that accepted the conceptualizations of political conservatives and religious extremists as the frames for the questions. It’s not that they aimed to be unfair in the questions, it’s that they have been so indoctrinated in the concepts that have been popularized in the media that they cannot even conceive of other questions to ask.

    For example their question (#21) asked: “Which statement comes closest to your view of God: God is as person with whom people can have a relationship, God is an impersonal force, or I do not believe in God?” This question only gives you an option of monotheistic belief or no belief. I don’t think this was done because they hated Pagans, but because their thinking has been so inculcated in monotheistic belief they were unable to ask other potential questions.

    Therefore, the truly remarkable thing about this survey was not the prediction of the rise of more progressive spirituality, but that this message comes through in spite of the inherent (albeit unintended) political right-wing extremist/conservative/Christian biases. That means the actual number of political/religious progressives is far higher than they are capable of revealing.

    Indeed, extremist leaders tend to use words and terms that are so general and non-specific they will appeal to centrists and traditional conservatives. Take individuals who are not part of that tiny elite and actually talk with them, using specifics and facts, and you’ll discover that many who believe they are conservatives are actually centrist or even progressive.

    Right now, the extremists desperately want to hold onto their control of the media (which is actually corporatist, not liberal or conservative, but the conservative leaders tend to give unquestioning support to the corporatists) in order to keep pushing out their message. When the truth comes out, they will have difficulty finding places to hide from their former followers.

    The progress of the world is not a straight line, but it does continue. I would urge people to seek full information and not to simply adopt the catch phrases of those who do have interests that are not of the people, by the people, or for the people. Therefore, be of good heart! Freedom, fairness, and justice may not be here today or tomorrow, but if we continue to work for them, they will come.

    • Hecate_Demetersdatter

      And, of course, by asking the question about “God” they cut off a number of us before even starting.

  • John W. Morehead

    Related to this is my past interview with Gordon Lynch on “The New Progressive Spirituality of the Religious Left”:

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Jason, thanks, as always, for a thought-provoking article. I’m going to spend time considering whether what I want is a “more Pagan future.” I know that I’d like a “more Pagan-friendly future,” but I’m inclined to think that I don’t want a future that is colored by any one religious group.

    • harmonyfb

      I dunno, Hecate – depends on what you mean by ‘Pagan future’. If a ‘more Pagan future’ means a society that is generally more in tune with the natural world, more respectful of the environment, and more open to diversity, then I’m all for it.