The American religious right has been a force to be reckoned with for more than three decades. While there is something of a religious left in America, their smaller number and inability to effectively mobilize has made them something of a political non-factor. Like a yappy dog that can often be heard, but isn’t big enough to break its leash and do any damage.
But that may be about change.
The Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Brookings Institute has just released a new survey showing that in each successive generation the religious conservatives are shrinking and religious progressives are growing. Twenty-three percent of 18- to 33-year-olds are religious progressives, 17 percent are religious conservatives, and 22 percent are nonreligious. By contrast, only 12 percent of 66- to 88-year-olds are religious progressives, while about half are religious conservatives.
With some natural attrition and current patterns persisting, religious progressives will soon outnumber religious conservatives in America. Given the political nature of the religious right, this could have a significant effect on the public square. The influence of the religious left has already been felt in immigration and marriage equality debates, and that influence can only be expected to grow.
And yet, there are still many questions about how this shift in the balance of power will play out. As I explained in an article for The Atlantic:
A constituency in itself does not a “movement” make. The latter depends on infrastructure, organization, and leadership, elements that American religious progressives have not been able to produce – despite various attempts – on the scale that the religious right has.
Religious progressives face three hurdles to morphing into a true movement, [Robert Jones of PRRI] says. They are more ethnically diverse than conservatives, so they have fewer natural affinities than their counterparts on the right. They are also more geographically dispersed across America. Conservatives, on the other hand, are heavily concentrated in the South and Midwest, which makes for easier mobilizing. And finally, progressives are more religiously diffuse, which is to say that religion is only one of many influences shaping the way progressives think and behave.
So while there is no doubt things are changing, it remains to be seen how these shifts will affect American religious and political life. We can only wait and see. Or if you’re a religious progressive, hope and pray.