The Rise of Progressive Religious Activists

Religious activists are embracing progressive issues such as health care reform and immigration reform, poverty, and climate change, write Valerie Shen and Sally Steenland.

Members of the Rock Harbor Church worship in Costa Mesa, California, on September 27, 2009. (AP/David Zentz)
Members of the Rock Harbor Church worship in Costa Mesa, California, on September 27, 2009. (AP/David Zentz)

Progressive religious activists have grown in size and clout over the past four years. Faith groups across the country have gained attention for their work on issues ranging from poverty and the environment to health care and torture. They have organized congregations, trained leaders, created strategic messages, and sought common ground. In so doing, they have challenged the decades-long monopoly that conservative religious activists have held in the public square, as well as the perception that the “religious view” on policy issues is automatically a conservative one.

Now comes a new research study that looks at both conservative and progressive religious activists and finds significant differences between them—especially in the diversity of their ranks, the issues they claim as most important, and their views toward religion.

Robert Jones of Public Religion Research and John Green of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics released last month“New Surveys of Progressive and Conservative Religious Activists in the 2008 Election”Major findings include:

  • Ninety-eight percent of conservative religious activists are Christian, as opposed to 71 percent of progressive religious activists. Evangelicals account for more than half of conservative activists (54 percent), but only 10 percent of progressive activists. A larger portion of conservative activists are Roman Catholic as compared to progressive activists, at 35 percent and 17 percent respectively. Mainline Protestants account for almost half of progressive activists (44 percent), but only 9 percent of conservative activists.
  • Progressive religious activists care about a greater number of issues than conservative activists. For instance, a majority of progressive activists rank poverty, health care, the environment, and the economy as most important, while a majority of conservative activists rank only abortion and same-sex marriage as most important.
  • Health care reform is a core issue for progressive activists. Seventy-eight percent of progressive religious activists believe the United States should have comprehensive national health insurance, as opposed to 6 percent of conservative activists.
  • There are also stark differences between the two groups’ views on separation of church and state. Eighty-one percent of progressive activists say the United States “should maintain a strict separation of church and state,” while only 21 percent of conservative activists agree with this statement.
  • Equally striking are the two groups’ different views regarding the Bible. Forty-eight percent of conservative activists say that the Bible is the literal word of God, as opposed to just 3 percent of progressive activists.

Progressive religious activists were influential in the 2008 presidential campaign and continue to be active on health care reform, climate change, immigration reform, and other policy issues. The top two conservative issues—abortion and same-sex marriage—are often thought to be less politically powerful now than they were in the 2000 and 2004 elections. And although abortion is proving highly contentious in the current debate on health care legislation, other issues such as taxes, government, and the deficit are getting top conservative billing these days.

But conservative activists’ agenda has not changed despite new issue headlines. Conservative activists are fighting for a vision of America that never was—and never should be—because of their literal view of the Bible, overwhelming belief that America was founded as a Christian nation that has strayed from its divine roots, and fear that public officials don’t pay sufficient attention to religion.

Progressive activists face a brimming agenda as they tackle complex, contested issues such as health care and climate change. Progressive activists, like conservatives, want to add to their ranks. But progressives have been more vocal about the importance of civility and truth-telling in public debates. They have spoken out against inflammatory rhetoric and false claims and called for integrity and civility.

No matter where you stand on the issues, that’s a good place to start.

Valerie Shen is the Special Assistant for Domestic Policy at American Progress, and  Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative