What Motivates Cultural Progressives – Part 1

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.

  • Donald McBee

    I wanted to make an observation on your survey, granted online surveys have a tendency to be self selecting, so its no surprise what demographics responded to it. I am myself an atheist and cultural progressive of sorts, but I didn’t participate in the survey. Also rather lacking in melatonin, but certainly not rich.

    I wanted to take issue with this statement you made: “They want a government concerned with their desires instead of the desires of religious individuals.” This statement may be accurate for some cultural progressive, but certainly not all. Indeed, a secular government, secular public schools, and secular society is a boon to religious freedom and desires, rather than a hindrance. Many religious people are advocates for keeping religion out of politics and vice versa because they recognize that mixing the two has unintended consequences. Many are members of religious minorities, Jews, Muslims, Jains, Hindus, Wiccans, etc. others are progressive Christians who don’t wish for the Christian Right to have undue influence on public policy.

    To given an example of unintended consequences is when conservatives in Louisiana recently passed a state voucher system for private religious schools. Oddly enough, many of the supporters of this law have retracted their support after a Muslim school applied for the vouchers. Apparently it didn’t occur to them, when they were debating said law in the legislature, that religion doesn’t just include Christianity, but all religions, and due to the secular nature of the Constitution, its an all or nothing proposition. The government shouldn’t play favorites, after all.

    A more accurate retelling of your quote should be: “They want a government concerned with the desires and freedoms of all individuals instead of the desires of the Christian Right.

  • George Yancey

    Fair enough Donald. First understand that even if I was using quantitative methods with a probability sample that I would be capturing tendencies and not absolutes. There are always exceptions to tendenices. The example I use in class is hieght and sex. Men do tend to be taller than women but not all men are taller than all women. We did not use a probability sample but other reserach with probability samples do show atheists to be wealthier, whiter, more male and more educated than the rest of the population. So I am pretty comfortable with that assertion.
    As it concerns wanting a government based on secular interest I am once again looking at the general trend of the responses. Few really talked about religious freedom except the freedom to not be religious. It does not seem that protection of minority religions is the driving force behind their desire to keep church and state seperate. What was more common was dicussions about stopping laws that had religious justifications. So while a pure concern for freedom of all religions my movitate your desire for a secular government there was little evidence that is a major motivating factor for most cultural progressive activists.

  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    I think it is probably unfair and far to simplistic to claim that the secular left “want a government concerned with their desires instead of the desires of religious individuals.” Many secular progressives are highly motivated because of what they see as the negative effects/harm done by “the desires of religious individuals.” Religious individuals, from this perspective, desire things that are viewed harmful or false in and of themselves. From the perspective of most social progressives they are not motivated by their own desires unless their own desires are understood to be a desire to embrace reality and minimize harm. There is great disagreement on what causes harm with both sides having their own blind spots. I believe that what you are really seeing is two groups – the religious conservative and the secular progressive – each excelling at identifying what is wrong with the other without any real insight into the harm that their own views do. We’d probably be all fixed in a generation if we could just accept that what scares the other side sees about us is often tied to legitimate problems that we need to set about fixing that rather than worrying about what the other side is getting wrong.

  • George Yancey

    I think we are all motivated by our own desires to some degree. We like to paint it as altrusitic and sometimes it is. But it probably is not as altrusitic as we like to think. I do not think that cultural progressive activists are any worse than those in othe groups. But I do not think that they are more altrustic than other individuals.
    I am not arguing that this is the only values driving cultural progressives. In the next few blogs I will identify others and some of which tap into the motivations you are talking about. Lack of space does not allow me to discuss them all at once.
    I do agree with you that both sides have their vision of society. Both of them are blinded to a certain extend by this vision. Theories of social movements suggests that the values these movements develop tend to comport to the precieve needs of the members in these movements. I see this as true for both the Christian right and cultural progressives. But a lot of work has gone into exploring these dynamics among the former but not the latter. That is why I think our book is relevant.

  • rumitoid

    My first question would be how many respondents? The lack of this notation seems odd. What was also odd to me was the minor appearance of “OUR sample” after a consistent use of the possessive “my” or “mine” in the beginning and then clsoing with “OUR book” after opening with “MY latest book.” Was there a team of researchers that suddenly became your staff between paragraphs? Sorry, but such inconsistencies sound alarms for me or at least give me pause.
    But there are far bigger problems, as I see it, not the least of which is giving the impression that you have “discovered” a secret or overlooked group and these blogs are a form of expose of this, by your whole tone, “dangerous force.” Your bent is quite clear, and several examples have already been pointed out. It feels strange to point out that Catholics have been doing this for a few centuries. I have read a number of books on this topic going back twenty-five years, when it mattered to me.
    Yet how this plays out against the Christian Right wanting a Christian Nation when it comes to abortion, gays, and prayer but not so much when it comes to helping “the least of these” or going to war is interesting. “Socialism” had to be turned into a demon by them as well as Big Government. There is a withering and ultimately damning amount of contradictions in the overall platform of the Christian Right, yet I am aware this is not homgenous for all that generally fall into this category. There is a definite “some are more equal than others” on the Right and, it seems to me, the progressives are responding to that issue.
    What many on the Christian Right see as impingements on their freedom of religion is just a steady movement to end a tradition of favoritism for that faith, a movement to real equality that Progressive Christians support. American Ideals and Christian Values clash, but the Right wants its cake and to eat it too.

  • George Yancey

    The use of our and my was due to the fact that I have a co-author and yet this is my blog. So I apologize for the confusion. I will try to be more careful about that in my future blogs. My sample size was over 2500 respondents to the open ended questions. As I stated it is not a probability sample but definately a large enough sample to locate interesting patterns.
    As it concerns my motivation, I am not looking to expose some “secret” organization. I see cultural progressive activist no more as a dangerous force than I do other groups with vested interest. But I do not see them as pure as the driven snow either. I see them as an important social movement with their own motivations and needs.
    I am analysizing an organization that scholars have tended to overlook. There is nothing secret about cultural progressive activists. But I think they deserve just as much academic attention at the Christian right. I find it intersting that you know what my “bent” is from that assertion. Just to be clear I do not consider myself a cultural progressive activists or a member of the Christian right. But I find it boring to do research on groups that a lot of other people have done reserach on and so the cultural progressive activists are more interesting to me.
    Given that assertion I do not disagree with your critque of inconsistency within the Christian right. I would suggest that this is true for any signfincant social movement. There is inconsistnancy since a major reason for social movements are to create social identity and to meet the needs of those in the movements. But like I said this sort of argument has already been made about the Christian right so it is boring for me to make that argument again. Looking at how this manifest itself in the groups that oppose the Christian right has been facinating.
    Just to illustrate how inconsistancy is not merely the property of the Christian right I found it interesting that several of our respondents complained about the racism in the Christian right. One of the pieces of evidence they had for this racism was the “white” nature of the Christian right. Yet as I pointed out about 95 percent of our sample was white. Ironically the same criteria that can be used to condemn the Christian right as racism could also be used to condemn the organizations the reespondents worked in. Perhaps this sort of inconsistancy is impossible to avoid in a complex social movement. Noting that is not an attempt to find a “dangerous force” but merely the type of social observations that it is important for social scientists to make.

    • Evil Gay Teen

      I am beginning to think this blog is actually an extended satire, perhaps a subversive homage to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where so-called evangelical “academics” validate every liberal caricature of the modern christian right, specifically its well known inferiority/persecution complex. From Brad White’s incessant plugging of the discredited Regnerus anti-gay hit piece (with the comments conveniently disabled), which I guess I cannot fault him for since he and his pals at Witherspoon paid top dollar for it.
      It really takes some chutzpah to engage in naked anti-gay politics disguised as “Christian sociology” and then blog about how marginalized you are in your profession!

      PS – I am talking to you Brad…

  • George Yancey

    If you want to talk to Brad then talk to Brad instead of making a fool of yourself on my blog. If you have legitmate arguments to bring like the other comments I will address them. I respect them even if I do not agree. You are the one who supports stereotypes of liberal intolerance and inabilty to engage with those they disagree with in this silly post. I have approved it just to illustrate that this type of mentality is out there, but from this point forward I will only approve posts that make at least one substantive point.

  • http://www.virtue-quest.com/ Robert King

    I have a question about the title/label of the study: When I read “Cultural Progressive Activist” I think of a much broader population than the sample you surveyed: “members of organizations that had as part of their purpose opposition to the Christian or religious right.” Or do you take opposition to “the religious right” to be the very definition of “Cultural Progressive”?

    I think “opponents of the religious right” is certainly a valid and interesting population to study. But I would not conclude (without further evidence) that it is representative of all those who fit the label “cultural progressive”. I would think that a study of “cultural progressives” would require a sample of a broader scope of organizations.

    That said, “opponents of the religious right” would seem to be a significant sub-set of “cultural progressives,” and comparing the sub-set to the whole would also be tremendously interesting. Your budget for doing studies is infinite, isn’t it? ;-)

    • George Yancey

      Good observation. A point one of the reviewers of the book made was that we were not studing cultural progressives but cultural progressive activists. Just like work on the Christian right is not work on conservative Chrisitans but work on those who are active. In the book we take care to label our population cultural progressive activists so that we accurately denote our sample. So why the title? If I had my druthers I would have called the book “The Culture War Blues”. But the publisher through that this was too cute and I relented to their title. I guess they dropped the word activists to keep it shorter but it is less accurate to what we did.
      Now would we have liked to do a broader study of cultural progressives. That sounds like it could be fun. But as you alluded there are limits to my resources. Thanks for the comment.

  • John Riley

    I find this study to be incredibly interesting and compelling, and am looking forward to reading your forthcoming post on the topic. I would identify myself as a “cultural progressive” although I am a Jesus Follower. I do believe that church and state should be separate, to an extent, and that Christianity should be chosen as a person’s religion, not because of government intervention that propagandizes the subject, but because of an intelligent and thoughtful inquiry into the meaning of life. In fact, Christianity has most prospered historically when the government was either indifferent or oppressing Christians.

    I do hope that America continues to respect religious freedom, and that the Christian right will wield their power in a way which doesn’t infringe on the self-determined nature of religion. I’m a self-proclaimed idealist, but feel that America’s power in the world is at the peak when popular culture quits oppressing.

  • George Yancey

    Thanks for your comments. I hope you do enjoy the future posts where I try to further develop this topic. I post every two weeks on Sundays if you want to look for them.


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