The Rise of the Theological Left: A Response to Tony Jones

A new study from Public Religion Research Institute has been getting a decent amount of press lately, mostly for its contention that theological progressives in the U.S. are on pace to outnumber theological conservatives in the near future. The report has drawn the attention of numerous liberal political blogs and progressive religious bloggers alike. The emergent church’s star blogger Tony Jones claimed that the report should make progressives “bullish about the future of progressive Christianity.” While religious progressives will certainly play a larger role in public life, it is hard to discern exactly what that role will look like.

The PRRI survey echoes many of the findings of a recent Pew study that charted the rise of the so-called “Nones” and the growing population of “spiritual-but-not-religious” Americans. The growth of SBNRs, especially among millennials, had long been discussed but rarely laid out in such detail. It is almost hard to imagine a study of American religious life that doesn’t include some way of identifying Americans who have some spiritual life, just not connected with a formal religious body. Unfortunately, the PRRI study does just that. Respondents are placed into categories based on a three question “Theological Orientation” metric. This was determined by whether participants affirmed “holding a personal vs. impersonal view of God, holding a literal vs. non-literal view of the Bible or sacred texts, and holding a preservationist vs. adaptive view of tradition.” That covers 85% of Americans. The other 15% is comprised of those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or attach no importance to religion. But SBNRs, who comprise just fewer than 20% of the US population, are left in between the groups since it is possible to have theological beliefs about God while still having no attachment to religion. In focusing so much attention on progressive vs. conservative politics, the authors of the PRRI study seem to lose track of the SBNRs somewhere in the shuffle. That could be because SBNRs don’t fit neatly into convenient categories. But if such an ascendant group in American religious life is glossed over, then perhaps we need new categories. A projection for the future of religious life in America that does not take SBNRs seriously on their own merits is incomplete.

But there’s another reason why I’m not sure the rise of religious progressives will convert into the electoral shift the bloggers over at Think Progress are hoping for. If the PRRI study’s trajectories are correct, then it is likely that religious progressives will outnumber religious conservatives within the next few decades. But religious conservatives will still have the institutions that gave them so much success from the late 1970’s onwards, namely a powerful network of think tanks and lobbyists. It is possible to have an outsized role in the political process if you have the institutional heft and money to mobilize voters and ensure your ideas retain a prominent place in the public discourse. Even when religious progressives outnumber religious conservatives, their influence in the public discourse may lag behind until the movement’s institutions mature to match those of religious conservatives’.

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%). When religious progressives assert themselves in the public realm on equal footing with religious conservatives, it will probably not be through explicitly religious organizations, such as the conservative Focus on the Family or the Moral Majority, but through partnerships focused on specific issues like environmental regulations, poverty eradication, and livable wages.

It is easy to look at the PRRI survey and conclude that religious progressivism is on track to overtake religious conservatism as the dominant religious ideology in the US. But what that future will look like and when it will happen will depend on myriad harder questions. How will campaign finance law affect progressive influence in elections? What role will immigration reform play in the future of the American religious landscape? Will millennials’ skepticism of institutions make organizing more difficult? Is the rise of SBNRs a temporary phenomenon or the beginning of a larger trend? These are difficult questions to answer, but they are also the ones that will determine what the future of progressive religion in this country will look like.

Like Jones, I’m bullish on the future of progressive religion. But I’m still hedging on exactly what that future will look like.

Photo courtesy of the national museum of american history

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