It is election time again. Once every four years we go through our ritual of deciding who is going to be the “leader of the free world” for the next four years. Of course there are a variety of special interest groups doing their best to help determine who that is going to be. One of the groups a lot of scholars and social commentators generally pay attention to is the Christian right. Indeed, this group has had its share of victories and defeats over the last couple of decades and deserves attention. But what about those who fight against them? Those fighting the Christian right have attracted little academic interest. But recently I have conducted research on such individuals who I will call, for lack of a better name, cultural progressive activists, and some of that research is in my latest book, What Motivates Cultural Progressives. My next four blog entries will report on some of my findings.
In my research, I asked open-ended questions with an online survey to members of organizations that had as part of their purpose opposition to the Christian or religious right. Demographic information on the members of this group revealed they are relatively likely to be white, male, wealthy and highly educated. These qualities suggest a group that enjoys majority group status in a number of ways. Since I do not have a probability sample, it is tricky to generalize this finding. But when you have a sample that is 93% white, 64% male, 52% making more than 75K, and 43% with graduate degrees, then it is hard to believe that this is not true to some extent in the general population. Cultural progressive activists do quite well.
My general theoretical framework is that cultural progressives are part of a social movement, and we should think of them as such. Social movements should be understood as ways to meet the social needs of a particular group as well as provide members of that group a social identity. So to understand cultural progressive activists, we need to understand their social movement. Cultural progressive activists have developed a social movement with certain values that meet the social needs and provide a social identity for those who enjoy majority status in our society. Over the next few blogs I will explore those values in an attempt to better comprehend cultural progressive activists.
This entry will focus on the fear of mixing religion and politics. This was a consistent theme in the answers of my respondents. They often commented on the importance of separation of church and state. What that phrase meant varied among the respondents but this was stated as a common value. It is similar to the fact that “biblical values” is a common value among Christians, but what it means can vary among Christians. Cultural progressive activists may see church/state separation as a way to justify exclusion of religious individuals from governmental service, to prevent religious individuals from influencing educational curriculum, having Christians leave them alone in their personal lives or taxing churches and synagogues. But separation of church and state was the common ideal that cultural progressives used to justify their requests.
This fear of mixing religion and politics should be seen as a reaction to the possible Christian influence in our political world. A quote from the literature I read in one of the organizations represented this fear well. “A well-organized and well-funded campaign is under way to undermine the separation of church and state in America’s public schools. Aggressive religious pressure groups are pushing school boards nationwide to change the curriculum to their doctrines.” For cultural progressive activists, fear of religious groups is theorized to be remedied by keeping churches separate from the state. Cultural progressive activists justify a great deal of their political demands by valuing the separating of religion from the government. For example, they can demand that religion should not prevent women from getting an abortion or individuals marrying someone of the same sex. This allows them to demand abortion and same-sex marriage on the basis of maintaining a secular government free of religious influence.
The fear of mixing religion and politics also applies to their attitudes towards educational institutions. Since our educational systems are run by the government, many of these activists also fear an intrusion into our education system by Christians. Our educational system is also important because of the role it plays in socializing the next generation. One of the respondents stated of the Christian right that “They are eager to impose shoddy sex education and Creationism on all children.” The fear of Christians taking over the education system and indoctrinating children with religious values drives many of the respondents. They perceive science and education as ways to develop a more progressive and tolerant civilization. Christians who want to take over or maintain control over these areas of our society are seen as roadblocks to a better society for all.
Most cultural progressive activists in our sample are not highly religious. In fact more than three fourths of them are either atheists or agnostics. This indicates why they may have this fear of mixing religion and politics. They want a government concerned with their desires instead of the desires of religious individuals. Separation of church and state meets a real need for these respondents since it puts them in a position to advocate a secular government based on their values rather than the values of highly religious Christians. Thus, the concept of church/state separation provides them legitimacy to oppose most, if not all, of the Christian right’s political desires by arguing that we should not shape a government based on religious values.
The desire to keep politics and religion from mixing is also important in shaping the social identity of cultural progressive activists. Cultural progressive activists see themselves as individuals grounded in secular reality rather than religious superstition. As such, they want governmental and educational institutions to match that secular perspective. Cultural progressive activists very much see themselves as secular individuals and even those who attend religious institutions likely envision themselves as secular in that they live in the real world instead of the ethereal world of those who take religion too seriously.
In the next three blogs I will look at other values I found in the themes of my respondents and how those values motivate them. I will also discuss how those values meet their social needs and help create their social identity. Hopefully, this discussion will lead to more understanding of an important special interest group, one that is as important as the Christian right group they are battling.