Bullish Times for Religious Progressives?

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics…” is sometimes used to dismiss statistical analysis, but in fact, when dealing with statistics that have gone through the rigor of multiple peer reviews, I would say that this really isn’t always true. Some statistical analysis is revealing because it is accurate, sophisticated and really does the job.

My colleague, Tony Jones, in his recent post hails the new Economic Values Survey (EVS) as calling for bullish times for religious progressives, and progressive Christianity in particular. Needless to say, I’m not buying it.

Going back to Roger Olson’s post on mainline Protestantism, in which he questions the continuing habit of calling liberal Protestants “mainline”—Olson instructs us that the real mainline Christians are evangelicals and Southern Baptists—a claim that I regard as true statistically and in terms of their political weight. My take is that the EVS report embodies a rather conventional liberal ideological persuasion that bends the report toward the progressive side of the spectrum, as a way of saying, “Yes, conservatives are big, but in fact, progressives, if we count correctly, are bigger.”

Now, I am a progressive but I’m not persuaded by this new study. There are a number of issues with the EVS report. First, the troubling statistical problems: they don’t report the reliability of their “religious orientation scale,” and yet they report reliability for their other scales. Second, in a footnote they admit that very few people rank high across all three scales (theological, social and economic) and very few people rank low across all three scales. This suggests that the three scales should not be combined, as they don’t form one concept. Finally, the way they create their religious orientation scale, if a respondent believes that the Bible is literally true, holds a personal view of God, believes in preserving religious tradition, is against same-sex marriage and abortion, they can still fall under “religious moderate,” if they hold a more economically liberal perspectives. In what world would a person like that be considered a ‘religious moderate’? No wonder there are so many religious moderates in their sample, it is an artifact of how they created their scale.

Furthermore, on the EVS findings: Only 1-in-10 religious progressive says that religion is the most important thing in their lives. These folks may have progressive values, which I largely share, but religion seems to have little or no relation to these values. Moreover, large percentages of progressives want their religion kept “private” and out of “public issues.” My sense is that these are precisely the kind of people that are either Protestant “mainline” types or formerly so, which previous studies have called “lay liberals.” These folks are generally only tangentially associated with religion and use Christianity as a kind of “folk” ideology: Be nice, forgive and live a good life. They fit very well into Chris Smith’s quintessential “moralistic therapeutic deists,” rather then some woolly construct called religious progressives.

Finally, the EVS reports that religious progressives see religion as doing the “right thing” rather than having a “right belief.” Jones seems to take this as indication that these folks are “incarnational Christians,” a phrase that he has chosen for his particular form of emergent Christianity.

I quite like the phrase and the notion. I’ve argued that this form of Christian faith both captures what’s “new” in American Christianity and is nicely illustrated in my recent book, Rob Bell and a New American Christianity. Nonetheless, I don’t see the EVS report as a ringing endorsement of “incarnational Christianity,” or that it indicates a rising social and religious movement. The problem with religious progressives is that they don’t want it to be a part of a social movement precisely because they are private about their faith—most don’t attend a church, and the younger generation, as the EVS rightly indicates, are deeply alienated from religious institutions of any kind.

What continues to remain vibrant in the American religious landscape is a bedrock conservative type of evangelicalism, which is institutionally strong, and, from my perspective on American religion, is the mainline Christian religion in the United States for the foreseeable future. Trust me, when I say, I’d love to be proven wrong!




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