One-in-five Americans are religious progressives, according to a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Using a religious orientation scale that “combines theological, economic, and social outlooks,” researchers argue that while the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans continues to rise, a growing coalition of young, diverse, and politically-active Americans are connecting their faith with progressive values.
“Our new research shows a complex religious landscape, with religious conservatives holding an advantage over religious progressives in terms of size and homogeneity,” Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, said in a press release. “However, the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation.”
According to the survey, 23 percent of people aged 18 to 33 are religious progressives, while 22 percent are nonreligious and 17 percent are religious conservatives. By contrast, only 12 percent of those aged 66 to 88 are religious progressives, whereas 47 percent are said to be religious conservatives.
Religion has long been co-opted by religious conservatives as a vehicle for political gain, but this study hints that the future of faith-based political advocacy could rest with the left-leaning faithful. Religious progressives already make up 28 percent of the Democratic party—this in addition to 42 percent that are religious moderates—a number that only stands to grow as Millennials age and begin to vote in greater numbers.
Religious progressives are also more ethnically diverse than religious conservatives, a fact that bodes well for the Democratic party as the country becomes more racially varied. And when it comes to economic issues, religious progressives are actually more passionate than other liberals about eradicating income inequality; the study found that 88 percent of religious progressives said that the government should do more to help the poor, more than any other group polled.
“This survey also shows that religious progressives are a more significant group than is usually assumed, and there is a strong social justice constituency among religious Americans that cuts across labels,” said E.J. Dionne, a Brookings Senior Fellow.
While it’s too soon to know whether the survey signals a groundswell of faith-based progressivism, the findings echo the recent rise of an increasingly vocal—and increasingly influential—”religious left.” For example, progressive religious leaders are heading up the ongoing “Moral Monday” protests in North Carolina, citing their faith as they decry the draconian policies of the state’s Republican-dominated legislature. In addition, religious progressives—as well as some religious conservatives—are spearheading efforts to produce an immigration reform bill that includes a pathway to citizenship, and prominent, left-leaning faith leaders were a driving force behind recent attempts to pass federal legislation to help prevent gun violence. Religious progressives are also playing a crucial role in campaigns to better the lives of fast food workers and Walmart staffers, with pastors and priests utilizing their congregational resources and organizational heft to push for better wages and improved working conditions for laborers.
The emergence of this new group might raise the hackles of some more secular-minded progressives, but the study found that although religious liberals are passionate about progressive causes, they aren’t interested in imposing their beliefs on others: only 29 percent of religious progressives think a person has to believe in God to live a moral life, as compared to 74 percent of religious conservatives.
Jack Jenkins is a Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative.