The Coming Rise of Religious Progressives?

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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.