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The religious left exists, but not as a political movement

More than 2,000 people converged on rural North Carolina earlier this month for the third annual Wild Goose Festival, a gathering featuring music, art and speeches on religion and social issues — all with a liberal twist.

The festivalgoers fit the description of what some call "religious progressives," a label that riffs on the idea of "religious conservatives" to describe those who exhibit both faith and left-of-center politics. According to research released recently by Public Religion Research Institute and the liberal leaning Brookings Institution, this group may have the potential to change the dynamics of religion and politics in America.

But the diverse religious and political views of those involved in the Wild Goose event also reflect a big reason the term "religious progressive" may amount only to a label and not a movement that rises to the political prowess of the so-called religious right.

"These terms (like "religious progressive") are really shallow because they don’t actually describe anybody," said Frank Schaeffer, a 61-year-old author and former conservative evangelical who spoke at Wild Goose. "They are catch-all media phrases. There is no such thing. There are just a lot of individuals on different paths of spiritual journey."

But Rosa Lee Harden, an Episcopal priest, social activist and co-producer of this year's festival, believes religious progressives are more than just the creation of researchers. "Both in my work and my own observations, religious and spiritual progressives are a huge growing data point. … There is no doubt. You could see it in the last presidential election."

These differing opinions illustrate the difficulty pollsters like those at PRRI have had determining whether there is truly a cohesive religious movement on the left.

Indeed, a couple of weeks after announcing that nearly one in five Americans are religious progressives, PRRI chief executive officer Robert P. Jones cautioned against concluding that even if religious progressives become more numerous than religious conservatives — as the data suggest — a movement will be born.

"Compared to their conservative counterparts, religious progressives face considerably higher obstacles to successful organizing," Jones wrote in the Washington Post.

Identifying progressives

The organizing ability of religious conservatives partly derives from the fact that their followers identify themselves as religious and conservative and support many, if not all, of the leading issues associated with those labels.

But if a pollster asks a liberal Christian how he or she identifies, the responses are less straightforward, usually a mélange of theologically conservative beliefs mixed with moderate views on the economy and liberal opinions on social issues like immigration or same-sex marriage.

"The challenge to identifying people who sort of share this progressive worldview is they don’t identify themselves that way. They don’t really see themselves as part of a religious progressive movement," said Dan Cox, director of research for PRRI. "So, we came up with something different" to measure their presence.

By asking a sample of more than 2,000 adults in May and June a variety of questions dealing with their religious beliefs, views on economics and the hot-button social issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, researchers came up with scales gauging the leanings of each respondent in the areas of theology, economics and social issues.

The results showed 38 percent of Americans are religious moderates, 28 percent fit the religious conservative profile, 19 percent were classified as religious progressives and 15 percent were nonreligious.

Broken down by generation, the group with the largest percentage of religious conservatives is the so-called Silent Generation, or those 65 and older. The baby boomer generation features roughly equal numbers of religious moderates and religious conservatives. By Generation X, born between 1965 and 1981, religious moderates dominate, and the largest share of religious progressives is found among Millennials, or those born after 1981, although there are still more religious moderates in this group.

“Our new research shows a complex religious landscape, with religious conservatives holding an advantage over religious progressives in terms of size and homogeneity,” said Jones in a news release. “However, the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation.”

Spiritual journeys

PRRI's report ignited a lively online discussion on whether the voice of religion in politics and the culture wars will shift to a more progressive or moderate tone as Millennials and their children age. But even those who would fall into the religious progressive cohort are skeptical that such a group — if it exists — could band together and effectively compete with the religious right.

Schaeffer, the son of one of evangelical Christianity's icons, the late Francis Schaeffer, and who wrote a memoir about his leaving the faith titled "Crazy for God," said religious people on the left are too diverse to group together as a political force.

"Your average progressive evangelicals are against most, if not all, abortions," he said. "They are also in favor of gay rights and increasingly gay marriage, so what would you describe them as. That is where it all falls apart."

Both Schaeffer and Harden agree that if someone came to Wild Goose looking to enlist people into a political movement, they would leave disappointed.

"If it were about a candidacy or a political party it would not be well received," Harden said. "If it were around issues, then there is a greater likelihood of it working."

Jones agrees that transforming what PRRI has identified as religious progressives into a single-minded political movement would be a tall order.

In addition to not self-identifying as a single group and having a diversity of viewpoints and faith traditions, including nonreligious, Jones wrote that other obstacles to keeping religious progressives together include that they are dispersed around the country and not concentrated in any single area; religion is not the most important thing in their lives; they are less involved in their local congregations than conservatives, making it more difficult to communicate; and they are more likely to see their religion as a private matter and not refer to their faith in public debate.

"Organizing across such varied theological, cultural, ethnic and geographic terrain presents significant practical challenges for progressive religious leaders," Jones wrote, concluding that borrowing from the moral majority playbook of the 1980s won't work for religious progressives.

Progressive change

The Rev. Peter Laarman, director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles, has been what PRRI would call a religious progressive his entire adult life. He said the diversity among religious progressives is both a strength because of the respect they have for differing viewpoints and a weakness because it prevents groups working on different issues from banding together for a single cause.

"The capacity of religious progressives to effect change is limited by the fact that they don’t know each other and they are fragmented into single-issue formations," said Laarman, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. "We don't have the convening power of the religious right."

He said the Democratic Party has tried to tap into this diverse group of believers with limited success. But the nonreligious cohort of progressives, Cox said, did turn out in 2012 for the re-election of President Barack Obama, giving the incumbent 70 percent of their vote, and some observers said they were key to Obama winning Ohio.

But the nonreligious don't dominate the Democratic Party in numbers. They make up 31 percent of self-identified political liberals, according to the PRRI survey, while religious progressives comprise 33 percent of liberals.

"For liberalism to thrive, there needs to be acceptance and, even better, some respect across the boundaries of belief and nonbelief," wrote E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at Brookings.

Dionne wrote that the most effective way for Republicans and Democrats to tap into the strength of religious progressives is to appeal to what members of this elusive group have in common — a passion for social causes like immigration reform, wage reform, combatting human trafficking, lowering incarceration rates of minorities, etc.

And the Rev. Laarman said the effort won't just shore up the future of either political party but benefit society at-large as well.

"People forget that religion was used for most progressive change in America," he said.


Twitter: @deseretbrown