The Growing Power of Godly Progressives?

As the demographics of religion change in the United States, faith may have a different degree of influence than it once did.
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Is religion the most important thing in your life? This is one of the questions people had to answer in a 2013 Public Religion Research Institute/Brookings survey as researchers tried to figure out how much faith influences people's views on culture and the economy. They got pretty striking results: More than half of people who they considered to be "religious conservatives" said yes, while only about 10 percent of people classified as "religious progressives" said the same. This means that on a whole host of issues, ranging from abortion and gay marriage to welfare and the minimum wage, faith probably has more of an influence on how conservatives think than it does for liberals.

It's tough to get inside people's heads and understand how their beliefs about God affect their views on culture, but a new report from Brookings hints at why researchers might want to: In terms of numbers, religious progressives are gaining on religious conservatives. According to the researchers, "religious progressives" are people of faith who have typically "liberal" opinions on a range of issues: They want more government support for the poor, rather than less; more freedom to have pre-marital sex and drink, rather than less, etc. From this break-down of age and race, you can see that religious progressives dominate America's growing populations:

Brookings 2014, via the July 2013 PRRI/Brookings Economic Values Survey 

Blacks, hispanics, and people of mixed race are all more likely to be religious progressives than conservatives; these groups are also among the fastest-growing demographics in the United States. Similarly, Millennials are more than twice as likely to be religious progressives than religious conservatives; in fact, people older than 50 make up more than 60 percent of those who are considered to be religious conservatives. Although it's impossible to talk to an 18-year-old about her views on culture and predict what she'll think in two decades, these demographic trends suggest that the religious right is about to start shrinking.

But the question of influence is a little fuzzier. Although more than a third of Millennials are considered religious progressives, roughly 40 percent don't have any faith at all: A growing number of young people don't identify with a particular religion. That, along with the fact that an overwhelming majority of religious progressives don't see religion as "the most important thing in their life," suggests that faith is losing its overall influence over how people think about social and cultural issues.

As the authors of the Brookings study wrote, "Religious progressivism, precisely because of its diversity, will never constitute the same cohesive and relatively homogenous force that religious conservatism represents." In terms of individual hearts and minds, it's hard to tell how much of a role "religion" has in the new wave of "religious progressivism"—it's possible to be religious and progressive at the same time, but it's also possible that those progressive beliefs don't have much to do with God.  

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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