Religious Progressives: Is the Church Veering to the Left?

A recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute indicates that the makeup of politically active churchgoers is shifting from being mainly conservative politically to mainly progressive. The study says:

Religious conservatives make up smaller proportions of each successive generation, from 47% of the Silent Generation, 34% of Baby Boomers, 23% of Generation X, and 17% of Millennials. Religious progressives constitute nearly twice the proportion of Millennials (23%), compared to the Silent Generation (12%). Among Millennials, there are also roughly as many nonreligious (22%) as religious progressives.

This indicates that while the old guard of religious conservatism is dying out, the younger generation of religious activists is apparently selling out.

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The left-leaning media has welcomed this study warmly, as you would expect, loudly trumpeting their victory for all to hear. But I do not think this study means exactly what they think it means. First, it is important to realize that this is a study of economic values first and foremost. The religious survey part of it seems secondary. But the terms being used are also rather fuzzy. Notice this puzzling line from the study:

Among Democrats, 28% are religious progressives, 42% are religious moderates, and 13% are religious conservatives . . .

Wait, wait, wait. 13% of Democrats are religious conservatives? What does that term even mean then? I began looking for the study’s working definitions of “religious progressive” and “religious conservative.” The summary said that the terms were based on “a newly developed religious orientation scale that combines theological, economic, and social outlooks.”

So, they just averaged out a person’s overall perspective on theology, economics, and social issues to determine whether they were “conservative,” “moderate,” or “progressive.” So, I am assuming that a “churchgoer” who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible as vehemently as he believes in increasing the minimum wage would come out “moderate,” since the aggregate would be a wash?

And this is the rub. The most important factor is actually the factor least likely to be mentioned in reference to the study: those pesky moderates.

Various moderates could have vastly different perspectives within the parameters of the study. Notice the “social orientation” metric for the study. There were only two questions to determine social orientation: one’s stance on abortion and homosexual marriage. 46% were called social “moderates.” So 46% of those surveyed were either for abortion and against homosexual marriage or for homosexual marriage and against abortion. When you consider that very many, perhaps even most, so-called conservatives allow for abortion in certain cases, it starts to look more like about 75% of those surveyed might be called “conservative” depending on your definition of conservative, which is the problem here.

This survey really only charts the demographics of the extremes. It indicates that the majority of Americans are a mixed bag ideologically, and that most of them veer toward the middle when their views are “aggregated.” It also indicates that young churchgoers, especially Roman Catholics, generally align more firmly with a more “progressive” ideology. What it doesn’t mention at all is the fact that many, if not most, American Protestants who hold what would be considered “conservative” beliefs checked out of politics long ago.

I encourage you to read the study and its religious orientation method. It is definitely interesting. I don’t think it is definitive, however.

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by

About the author

Michael Minkoff

Michael Minkoff writes, edits, and typesets from his office in Powder Springs, Georgia. He honestly does not prefer writing about politics, but he sincerely hopes you enjoy reading about it. He also wonders why he is typing this in the third person.

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