E. J. Dionne is a liberal columnist who is also a faithful Catholic. He has written a column warning liberals about the anti-religion reflex that some of them display. In doing so, he cites a useful study of where both liberals and conservatives fall on the religious spectrum.
Consider the findings of a survey (in which I was involved) released last month by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution. Using the answers to a wide variety of questions, we created a scale that broke our respondents into four groups: Religious conservatives, moderates, progressives and the nonreligious.
Overall, we found that 28 percent of Americans could be classified as religious conservatives, 38 percent as religious moderates and 19 percent as religious progressives. An additional 15 percent were nonreligious.
Among supporters of the two parties, Republicans were far more cohesive. The analysis found that 56 percent of Republicans were religious conservatives and 33 percent were religious moderates. Only 5 percent were religious progressives and just 6 percent were nonreligious.
Democrats, by contrast, were all over our analytical map: 28 percent were religious progressives, 13 percent were religious conservatives, 42 percent were religious moderates and 17 percent were nonreligious.
Among self-identified political liberals, the proportion of nonreligious — essentially, the folks sending me those messages — was even larger: 31 percent of liberals were nonreligious, 33 percent were religious progressives, 30 percent were religious moderates and 6 percent were religious conservatives.
Two things are thus true simultaneously: Nonreligious Americans are a very important part of the liberal constituency, yet the majority of liberals have ties to religion. The survey found that African Americans, who are deeply loyal to most liberal causes (and to the Democratic Party), are among the most religious people in the country. For liberalism to thrive, there needs to be acceptance and, even better, some respect across the boundaries of belief and nonbelief.
Keep reading for the implications for conservatives.