The Theological Left Is Rising

This will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, but it’s time to be bullish about the future of progressive Christianity (aka, Incarnational Christians). According to a new survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, the proportion of religious conservatives in the United States is shrinking with each successive generation, and close to 20 percent of Americans today are religious progressives.

In American, conservative theology is waning, progressive theology is waxing.

Here’s what it currently looks like:

From the report:

Notably, Hispanic Americans are more likely than black or white Americans to identify as theological liberals.

That’s noteworthy, of course, because Hispanic Americans are the fastest growing segment. Here’s how that looks:

The entire report is worth reading and considering. Especially because it looks at not just theology, but also politics and social stances, and it does so across generations. Here’s one more chart to show how things are changing by generation:

Really, read the whole report. And if you do, please leave your observations in the comment section here.

What do you think these changes portend?

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  • Gregg Carlson

    If progressives can become as flexible in the modes of worship as they are their theology they will start to grow significantly. Often liberal progressives cling to 19th century traditional worship with robes and organs like that was the worship style of Jesus. Conservative evangelicals have been much more experimental with contemporary worship forms but have been locked in a more literalist view of the authority of Scripture over all else. We need a revolution of progressive church planting. something I know you and Doug are doing and we at CPR are heavily involved in as well.

  • NateW

    Funny there are no comments on this. For me, surveys and stats mean very little. At their very best they only tell us what people THINK they believe. I have experienced many people who would fall under “liberal” and/or non-religious but are really dogmatic fundamentalists when it comes down to it (just have a different idea of what is fundamental) and I’ve known many conservatives who are wonderful examples of the “incarnation” despite voting against abortion and gay marriage.

    Beliefs and positions that are meaningful are not able to be objectified and tabulated; they are worked out, lived out, in the present subjective circumstance.

    I hate surveys because incan always see both sides of the issue and usually disagree with the assumptions that led the surveyer to ask the question in the first place. If I was asked “must one believe in god to be a good and moral person?” On a muktiple choice survey, I honestly could not answer. Define “believe!” Define “God!” Give me some context! What If you mean “must a person believe in a deity that lives in the clouds and periodically steps into creation to do miracles”, then my answer would be an emphatic “no,” but if you take the bible literally when it says that “God is love” then to believe in God is to have faith that self-emptying love is the way to life and to take that into oneself in love for others. This is arguably the very definition of the good/moral life, so yeah, belief in that idea of God is certainly necessary to be a good and moral person.

  • BradC

    interesting survey because of the inclusion of economics and social issues in the report. I would encourage people to download and read. IMHO – it would help to expand the control group – I know 2,000 is valid in a statistical model but I would like to see more. We use 5,000 as a minimum in our work.

    I hate to say “we told you” but this will be no surprise to those in the “emergent conversation”. For many years those in the conversation have been saying that the post modern turn will produce a reduction in absolutism and a return to a more open belief system – it is just impossible for people to claim absolute understanding anymore without sounding silly – this survey is a reflection of that shift occurring.

    Progressive theology needs to produce more robust theological thought to engage/inspire people. Report is confirmation of the trajectory of theology – still a lot of work to be done!

    • “Progressive theology needs to produce more robust theological thought to engage/inspire people.” In your opinion where are the progressives lacking?

      • BradC

        Some good work is being done in the area of Harmatology and the “doctrine” of original sin, good work in the area of Soteriology and the “doctrines” of salvation, some excellent work in Eschatology.

        I think a great deal of work needs to be done in the area of Ecclesiology. I think the church is stuck in the mire of modern assumptions and needs to be freed from the muck. I think a lot of work needs to be done in the area of Pneumatology and the role of the Holy Spirit in this world, Ecology, Theology proper, etc (sorry for all my systematic language)

        I don’t mean to suggest no work is being done by progressives – just that a lot of work is yet to be done.

  • Phil Wood

    It’s an interesting survey and I’m wondering what the comparative figures would be here in the UK. I’m only guessing but from a lower base, I would reckon a higher progressive percentage here. I also suspect that many of those reckoned as progressive in your survey would count themselves as Evangelical here.

    • LogicGuru

      Probably right on the first. What percentage of Brits are nominally CofE? In the US the Episcopal Church represents about 1% of the population, and other “mainline” churches are relatively small. Baptists and “nondenominational” churches–evangelical and largely conservative are big. However I doubt that progressives could count as Evangelical anywhere.

      • Phil Wood

        Just over 850,000 Anglicans, which is slightly less than the total of RC mass attendance. As regards the second point, I still think we’re not necessarily using ‘progressive’ and ‘Evangelical’ to mean the same thing. My blog has a majority north American readership. It’s my (admittedly unscientific) observation, that the centre of gravity among my American interlocutors is to the right of what would be usual in the UK. This may have something to do with the significantly more secular climate.

        • Wow! Anglicans + Roman Catholics are only ~2 million in a population of 53 million?

          I knew the Church was doing badly in Europe, but that’s downright abysmal.

          • Phil Wood

            Looking at the 1990’s churches in England and Wales lost around a million members. There’s evidence recently that the decline has slowed, but it still leaves Post-Christendom Britain an overwhelmingly unchurched place. Many of us have been asking some fundamental questions about the relevance of Christianity in a postmodern context. My own church (Wood Green Mennonite Church, London), is working with a journeying ‘fresh expression of church’ called ‘Walking Church’:

            • Postmodernism is ridiculous on its face, but it is the logical outgrowth of the theological chaos that has been Christianity since the Great Schism and likely before.

              Once you learn that the best way to eliminate sin is to redefine it as not-sin, it’s pretty hard to go back.

              • Phil Wood

                The UK is the oldest industrialized nation in the world. I don’t think it’s surprising that we should see such a profound cultural shift here. I think it’s a question North American Christians should be asking – whether the same trends are coming your way.

                The UK can be a very challenging environment to be a Christian, but I wouldn’t want to say it’s all doom and gloom. We’re discovering what it means to follow Christ without Constantine.

                • As a Catholic in the United States in the early 21th century, reading GK Chesterton’s essays from the early 20th century in England is like reading an alternate universe where all the politicians names are different but all the religious, political and economic issues are exactly the same.

                  I have to say that I have NO doubt whatsoever that the same apostasy and persecution is coming to America very soon indeed. Empires collapsing is always challenging.

                  • Phil Wood

                    My attitude to what’s happened here sees the opportunities as well as the downsides. I don’t believe we should be looking back to the good old days of Christendom or fretting about ‘persecution’. In the main our discomfort is to do with the shift from a dominant cultural role, to a more marginal one. I think in many ways the new situation enables us to follow Jesus with a fresh sense of purpose.

                    • To a certain extent, that is true. After all, the Roman Catholic Church didn’t really gain power under Constantine, but rather under St. Benedict.

                    • Phil Wood

                      John Howard Yoder coined the term ‘Constantininism’. He meant more than Constantine as a person. A few years ago our church spent time at a Roman Catholic retreat centre. This little post was a reflection on loss and renewal after Christendom:

                    • Yeah, he meant the combination of Church and State power. But his examples were all twisted- cases where the State had tried to wrest power from the Church. I’m not so sure the opposite wouldn’t be a good thing, but I won’t see it in my lifetime.

            • LogicGuru

              I read somewhere that in the UK cathedral services are actually doing better–and that provides a clue. (1) people want church to be impersonal–they want to go, not to belong. This is part of the appeal of megachurches in the US: one can attend anonymously. (2) People want high quality, high style liturgy–good music, fancy ceremony, a good show–people are mobile, no long stuck with whatever the nearby church offers.

              Other thoughts. Sunday services aren’t convenient any more, particularly since most women now work and so are no longer looking for a day to dress up, get out of the house and talk to grownups. Like men, they’re doing that every day. So you can’t expect many people to be regular Sunday attenders. Some will pop into downtown churches near their work during the occasional week day, more will go occasionally for rites of passage and special events on public occasions. Sunday churchgoing is over and churches have to accommodate, to provide what is convenient for people.

              None of this is rocket science. None has anything to do with postmodernism, whatever that is. Just convenience and, to put it crudely, consumer preferences.

              • Phil Wood

                Yes, you’re right about Cathedral services. They are increasing. Though, even there the picture has some quirks. Cathedral congregations are larger, but in the downturn people are giving less. Some of our best known Cathedrals have cut budgets and their staff teams.

                Otherwise, there are signs of hope. There’s evidence of growth in black majority churches, especially in London. The development of ‘fresh expressions of church’ is also encouraging. It’s going to take time and fresh vision. We’re still trying to understand what it means to do mission in a strange new land.

        • LogicGuru

          “Progressive” is interestingly ambiguous. Could mean people involved with “progressive Christianity”, with churches that do the social activist stuff, or it could just mean Christians who are political liberals, whose politics doesn’t have anything to do with their religion. The articles I’ve been reading seem to ignore the latter group. By “evangelical” I mean low church, non-liturgical, focused on the Bible, teaching and preaching rather than liturgy. One could be evangelical in that sense and progressive but my guess is that in the US evangelicals are overwhelmingly conservative, while progressives would be largely from churches that were liturgical or faux-liturgical.

          • Phil Wood

            There’s no doubt an interesting tangent we could follow on the use and abuse of labels. Surveys of Evangelicals here in the UK have shown a constituency which is becoming less ethically conservative (e.g. on issues of sexuality). There’s also been discussion as to where the Emerging Church fits in the traditional Liberal/Conservative spectrum.

  • Guest
    • Thursday1

      A highlight from the above link:

      “Even if these religious progressives do exert a force in the public realm, it will likely look far different than the religious conservatives they are being compared to. According to the PRRI study, most religious conservatives (54%) view religion as the most important thing in their lives. For religious progressives, the far majority consider (59%) it as one important thing among many. Religious progressives are actually more than twice as likely to say religion is not as important as other things (29%) than as the most important thing in their lives (11%).”

      Matches my observation that the target market for the institutional religious left is made up of people who are just less religious. That does not bode well for the formation of progressive religious communities.

  • Whenever somebody mentions progressive Christianity of any sort, it reminds me of this guy.

  • Sauls Thomas
  • Thursday1

    In American, conservative theology is waning, progressive theology is waxing.

    This seems excessively spin-like, as is the post’s title. It’s highly questionable whether people who self identify as religious moderates and progressives:

    1. Have any interest in theology per se, beyond a few gut level intuitions.
    2. Have much interest in any religious institutions, including those on the religious left.

    Seems more like garden variety secularization to me, with not everybody wanting to go all the way to outright unbelief. But whatever it is, it mostly seems to be highly individualistic and free form, not institutional and actually thought out.

    On the other hand it is unquestionably true that conservative Christianity is in decline.

  • Guest


  • Jerry Lynch

    Sorry, I don’t get the point. Stats show an increase of Progressives and…? Progressives are right? Time to crush Conservatives? God is on our side? The Nones seem to be fairing at least as well. Is that the natural evolution of being Progressive?

  • The changing thinking based on age group might mean that young progressives will age and remain progressives, or maybe people just get more theologically conservative as they age.

    Banging heads with conservatives as I do at Cross Examined, I hope you’re right that progressives are increasing.

    • Shades of Winston Churchill there. Next you’ll be telling us that you’ve rediscovered that men who aren’t liberal when they are young have no heart, and men who aren’t conservative when they are old have no brains.

  • Frederick William Schmidt

    Tony, looks like we were thinking about the same issues this week. My take on it…Christianity OF the left or the right might be good news for politicians, but not for the church:

  • BrotherRog

    My only quibble with this piece is that it seems to equate liberal Christianity with progressive Christianity. They’re not the same. Progressive Christianity is the postliberal, postmodern-influenced evolution of mainline liberal Christianity. Peace.

  • That’s very interesting indeed. But I cannot enjoy the rise of liberalism if this means rejecting the concept of a personal God altogether.

    By the way, do you know how I could create my own patheos blog on progressive Christianity?


    Lothar’s son – Lothars Sohn

  • elcalebo

    1. What’s their definition of liberal, and what’s their definition of progressive?

    2. Why do the first two graphs have a ‘liberal’ category but not a ‘progressive’ category, but the third is the other way around?

    3a. And if ‘it looks at not just theology, but also politics and social stances’ does that mean they compare theological stances to political/social stances to test the stereotypes (theologically evangelical/orthodox = traditional on gender/sexuality/abortion, right wing; theologically liberal = progressive on gender/sexuality/abortion, left wing) and measure the difference between evangelicals?

    3b. Or does it just mean that they add political and social stances in order to make sure the stereotypes are as accurate as possible? (Ie, we can’t tell from your religious beliefs which box to put you in, but since you’re left wing you must be a liberal or at least a moderate?)

    4. As others have asked, is there any attempt to distinguish between more ‘active’ Christians who are probably very involved in a faith community and see their faith as the primary factor affecting how they live their lives, ‘Sunday Christians’ who go to church but don’t let their faith affect the rest of their week, and more ‘nominal’ Christians who seem to have a much loose affiliation to certain theological beliefs and commitments?

    My suspicion – not based on any research, just my very limited and subjective observations in New Zealand – is that among what I’ve called ‘active Christians’, self-identified theological liberalism is waning and almost everyone in younger generations would either avoid self-identifying themselves as anything (‘just a Christian’) or self-identify as evangelical/orthodox. However, some younger generations’ version of what it means to be evangelical/orthodox can be a lot more ‘liberal’ than others, and I think this latter group is a lot more prominent in younger generations than older ones (I’m in this latter group myself, and I personally think it’s actually more orthodox, more accurate and more faithful to the biblical witness than more ‘fundamentalist’ evangelicalism).

    You could almost say that while Boomers had polarised antithesis between evangelicals and liberals, Gen X/Y/Z is seeing more people characterised by a synthesis.

    Actually, to be more precise, I’d say that the language of conservative/evangelical vs. liberal has largely faded, but we’re left with something of a spectrum… The largest group ‘active’ Christians in Gen Y in NZ still seem to be those who fit the old stereotypical conservative evangelical/orthodox stereotypes, who we could call ‘fundamentalist evangelicals.’

    But there’s a growing group characterised by the new synthesis, who we could call ‘progressive evangelicals,’ who have a high view of Scriptural authority, but believe this demands a holistic kingdom of God theology rather than just ‘going to heaven when we die’ etc. This group will have some views which the first group may see as liberal, but are really just orthodox – eg. kingdom of God, centrality of social justice to the gospel, redeemed heaven and earth eschatology, non-literal reading of the creation accounts. And some views which have until recently been associated with liberal churches only, but are now increasingly supported by evangelicals – eg. a progressive attitude to homosexuality.

    There’s also a smaller group who could perhaps be considered ‘liberals’ but who haven’t been reared in the aging liberal churches, but in evangelical churches, and have reacted against evangelicalism and either become attracted to the likes of Caputo, or Zizek and his Christian disciples like Peter Rollins, or in lieu of any good books or thinkers to articulate their views, have come up with their own version of faith that perhaps sticks to some elements of their evangelical background (even just the identity marker ‘Christian’) but removes or modifies other parts in a somewhat ad hoc way. To be honest though, (I’m probably being unfair, but) I suspect that this third group would really rather be in the second group, but they haven’t come across the second group, or perhaps it reminds them too much of the first group that they feel they have to react against for a while – Fowler’s stages of faith and all that.

    None of these three groups are clearly distinguished from one another… young people move from one to another with time, and they don’t really have their own separate churches (apart from some emergent churches that only have the second and third groups), but will usually co-exist in the same (self-identifying evangelical) churches. My own church has all three groups and a Gen-X pastor who sits somewhere between group 1 and 2 and loves having a lot of enthusiastic young people in the church, but doesn’t always agree with everything we believe.

    As I say, these impressions aren’t based on research, they’re just my impressions. I’d be interested to see if the research supports my suspicions, doesn’t support them, doesn’t measure for them, or hides them – it depends on all the questions I’ve asked above. If my impression of a growing ‘synthesis’ is at all accurate, the research’s simple division into ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives,’ along with a flattening ‘moderate’ category, is problematic from the start.

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