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.

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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.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you Jonathan for this and your many fine reports.
    Religious progressives advocate freedom of conscience. They recognize the limits of their humanity and don’t shout from rooftops that they have a corner on “truth” or ownership of God. Thus, they are not inclined to exclude anyone’s beliefs including ultra conservative or interreligious views and proclaim them sinful.

    With such an inclusive view, it is difficult to organize for political purposes. Albeit “freedom of conscience” may be one stand on which to take a united position.

  2. The data does not seem to support the conclusion. It assumes a number of things that may not be factual. 1) Religious preference as to “conservative or progressive” is stable as people age. It is not. Religious preference tends to move more conservative as people age, as the data shows. 2) Progressives are growing. Attendance at progressive churches has been in decline, and steeply so for 40 years. There is no “progressive” denomination that has seen a year of growth in 30 years. 3) Religious left may “soon” outnumber the religious right.” Your data shows this as unsupported. Unless millennials massively outnumber the older generations, which we know to be false (Boomers massively outnumber all other generations), religious progressives are a much smaller group than religious conservatives. Unless you define “soon” as 2-3 generations, they will not overtake them quickly.

    The only conclusion you can draw from this data now is that millennials have a stronger preference for progressive christianity or no faith than older generations. If any group is “growing toward majority” it is moderates.

    • Jonathan Merritt

      The “conservative as they age” trope is tired. First, some newer data seems to indicate that people don’t actually change their beliefs that much as they age, particularly beyond age 30. Second, the amount of shift we’re seeing wouldn’t be compensated by the aging effect. Third, the size of this generation over older ones is irrelevant when forecasting an outnumbering scenario. In that scenario, many in previous generations would be dead.

      Jm

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