A Challenge to Religious Stereotypes

In his latest column, E.J. Dionne draws attention to a new PRRI/Brookings study of religious, political and economic policy views and their intersection, which includes a new survey typology of religious affiliation (dividing Americans into religious progressives, religious moderates, religious conservatives, and non-religious).

E.J.’s column mostly focuses on the religious composition of the two major parties and the implications:

Overall, we found that 28 percent of Americans could be classified as religious conservatives, 38 percent as religious moderates, and 19 percent as religious progressives. An additional 15 percent were non-religious.

But among supporters of the two parties, Republicans were far more cohesive. The analysis found that 56 percent of Republicans were religious conservatives and 33 percent were religious moderates. Only 5 percent were religious progressives and just 6 percent were non-religious.

Democrats, by contrast, were all over our analytical map: 28 percent were religious progressives, 13 percent were religious conservatives, 42 percent were religious moderates, and 17 percent were non-religious.

Among self-identified political liberals, the proportion of the non-religious — essentially, the folks sending me those messages — was even larger: 31 percent of liberals were non-religious, 33 percent were religious progressives, 30 percent were religious moderates and 6 percent were religious conservatives.

Political conservatives, therefore, have the advantage of a more unified “audience” when it comes to church-state issues and the political use of religion-based themes, while Democrats are more in line with a population that is increasingly leaning away from religious conservatism and contains a rapidly growing number of non-religious folk.

Now the growing number of “non-religious” among young people in this country is a familiar topic. But this survey reinforces the little-understood reality that among the majority of “Millennials” who do have a positive religious identity, religious progressives outnumber religious conservatives significantly (23% to 17%), while religious moderates weigh in at 38%, exactly their percentage among the population as a whole (the other 22% are non-religious). Interestingly, the median age of religious progressives is 44, while that of religious conservatives is 53.

This could be shocking news to those who assume that the religious “left” and “center” (mostly liberal Catholics and mainline Protestants, though obviously supplemented by non-Christians) are being ground into dust by the rising power of both religious conservatives and the non-religious. This meme isn’t just conservative agitprop; it’s widely shared in secular media and academia, as nicely summarized by Gary Dorrien at Religion Dispatches in a piece on the renewed scholarly interest in mainline Protestantism:

After the shrinking began, journalists lost interest in liberal Protestantism, except to retell the story of mainline decline, and the academy lost interest in it, except to sneer that “liberal religion” is oxymoronic and no match for the fundamentalist Right.

If, as the PRRI/Brookings study suggests, non-conservative religion is exhibiting a generational comeback as strong and as striking as unbelief, then perhaps the regular sneering at liberal Catholics and mainline Protestants as irrelevant to the future of American Christianity could lose a bit of its confident tone.

There’s much more in this study worth discussing, and I’ll return to it later. But from a personal point of view, it’s nice to know Liberal Protestants aren’t quite the endangered species we are so often assumed to be.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.