Will Religious Progressives Become…?

From Napp Nazworth:

Peter Steinfels, professor emeritus at Fordham University, said there were two reasons to doubt that religious progressives could build a significant political movement, such as the one built by religious conservatives. Steinfels, who said he would probably be categorized as a religious progressive by the report, did not contribute to the report but was on the panel as a discussant.

First, Steinfels doubted that religion could be a motivating force for religious progressives because religious progressives are less likely to say that religion is the most important thing in their life.

Among religious conservatives, 54 percent answered that religion is the most important thing in their life, but among religious progressives, only 11 percent answered that religion is the most important thing in their life.

“Unlike the wishy-washy options of ‘religion is among the important things’ in my life, or ‘religion is somewhat important,’ the ‘most important’ response has always seemed to me a good measure of the strength and intensity of religious identity,” Steinfels explained….

The second reason Steinfels is skeptical about the potential for a Religious Left movement is that most religious progressives, 87 percent, believe that religion is a private matter that should not influence political and social issues.

“Their view may provide a sort of negative counter to aggressive religious interventions on behalf of traditional sexual and personal norms,” Steinfels argued, “but it does not provide much ground for religious engagement on the sorts of issues the study puts before us – helping the poor, maintaining the safety net, and opposing inequality.”

Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of PRRI, noted a third reason to doubt that religious progressives could become a significant political force: religious progressives are more dispersed and do not attend religious services as often as religious conservatives. Therefore, it is harder to find religious progressives in order to mobilize them.

Religious conservatives are mostly found in evangelical and Catholic churches, Jones explained, and they go to church often. Religious progressives, on the other hand, are scattered across Christian denominations as well as other religions – such as Judaism, Islam and Hinduism – and do not attend religious services as often.

“The challenge of finding religious progressives is a real challenge,” Jones said. “You can’t just walk into churches and find a bunch of them there. They’re much more dispersed.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • scotmcknight

    Since I didn’t comment in the post itself, I’ll do so here… There’s something odd, if not wistful, in the perspective of the post. Think big picture: Has the mainline had an influence in the political sector? Beyond obvious. In fact, many have said Prot liberalism’s influence on culture was so huge it became unnecessary as a church. In my opinion, progressivist politics and religion walk hand in hand. The distinctive feature, probably, of progressive religion is not a unified theology (which is the critique of the post’s speakers) but a fairly unified politics. Hence, in my view, the opposite is the case. Progressivist religion is influencing politics significantly, even perhaps more than the Moral Majority and the Christian Right. The progressivist candidate is now in his second term, isn’t that all the evidence that is needed?

  • AHH

    This seems to slide much too easily between using “progressive” and “conservative” as religious labels and using them as political labels. Admittedly there is substantial correlation between the two, but it is bad for the church and society when everybody assumes that the secular political categories can simply be equated to the religious categories.
    Or so says this commenter who sees himself with moderately conservative theology and moderately progressive politics.

  • Tom F.

    Perhaps the issue lies in the difference between these two questions:

    1.) Will progressives build a significant political movement?

    2.) Will this movement be like the one religious conservatives have built?

  • Jeremy B.

    I’ve struggled with this for a while. I’m not sure it’s easy to get around. I find I have to caveat “moderately liberal Christian” with “Politically, not theologically” quite a bit. I’ve yet to figure out a simple way to get around this. It doesn’t help that many of the churches I’ve attended willfully conflate the two in order to create hostility towards the political left. “Liberals just have two fingers on the bottom rung of the ladder down to apostasy!”

  • AHH

    It occurs to me that, in addition to the two individuals who have pointed out the wrong-ness of this conflation of religious and political views, one could name at least 2 movements as counterexamples (theologically conservative, politically progressive):
    1) Evangelicals for Social Action
    2) Much of the African American church
    An interesting question is whether there are counterexamples in the other direction. I can’t think of any committed theological liberals who advocate conservative politics, but I’m not around that theological category very much.

  • Camassia

    Bruce Bawer and John Danforth spring to mind, but they’re both pretty moderate Republicans. It’s true that I can think of a lot more people going the other way, which is probably why Scot’s earlier post with graphs showed a lot more theological conservatism than economic/social conservatism.

  • attytjj466

    Points well taken. However, I do not agree that religion, progressive or otherwise, had much to do with Obama ‘s election. Other forces and factors were at work, not the least of which was the historic nature of Obama ‘s election, and the relative weakness of the two republican candidates he faced, as well as the Bush war and economy at the end of the Bush second term.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I think I agree with your main point. Progressives by their very nature wouldn’t organize around theological lines because tolerance is one of the fundamental virtues of the movement . . .if someone has a different idea about salvation for example, the general answer is “ok, you are free to have that opinion.” The Christian Left has never been, and as I can see it, will never be a force with similar characteristics to the Christian Right because it embraces that sort of tolerance . . to have a successful religious-based movement, you need clear definitions of “who is in and who is out” and dividing lines. The left has too much diversity (and accepts that diversity) for that sort of coherence (look at how Occupy Wall Street floundered , . because no-one could agree on what they were fighting for) . . one could say from a political standpoint it’s a blessing and a curse. And I say this as a (often frustrated) progressive.

    So, instead, the focus becomes on standard issues core to progressive christian ethos-human rights, environmental issues, social welfare etc. There is much more agreement on what side is which when speaking about specific issues.


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