New Poll Shows Religious Right and Left Look Very Different

It should be said at the outset that the new poll released today by the Bliss Institute and Public Religion Research concerning religious activists (on both the left and the right) contains very little that will surprise anyone who has studied religion and politics in recent years.

That should not be taken to mean that there is nothing of worth in the poll results. Far from it. It confirms, for example, much that observers have had to intuit or scratch out from other data. The religious right—pardon me, conservative religious activists—is mostly evangelical (54%), with lesser contingents of Catholics and mainline Protestants. If you’re not standard-grade Christian, however, you’re probably not a part of the demographic: only 1% were Mormon, Orthodox, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, and less than 1% were non-Christians.

Progressive believers were a much more diverse group, which is also not a surprise: 44% mainliners, 17% Catholics, 12% Unitarians/mixed faith, and so on down the line. Only 10% claimed to be evangelicals, a point we’ll come back to in a moment.

More not-shockers: conservative activists are focused like laser beams on abortion and homosexuality, while progressives are interested in poverty, health care, the environment, the economy in general, and ending the war in Iraq. Conservatives love them some individualistic ethics and free-market economics, progressives want to see structural reform. Cons are for torture and progs are against it (if that makes any sense). And the two sides have very different views about church-state relations, though interestingly enough, they both agree that faith should play a role in the public square in roughly equal numbers. [For an in-depth analysis of progressive attitudes on church-state issues see Rebuilding the Wall of Separation: A Progressive Discussion on Church & State—Ed.]

One last result that should not come as a surprise if you stop to think about it: conservatives report attending church far more frequently than their liberal counterparts. 52% of conservatives are in the pews more than once a week, compared to 25% of progressives. Once-a-week numbers are a little more balanced: 37-36. Does this mean that conservatives are more religious than progressives, or that there’s something about church that makes one a conservative? Nope: evangelical and Catholic churches typically offer more than one service a week. Mainline congregations, which tend to be smaller, are open for business only on Sundays.

As for the surprises, such as they are: although evangelicals are concentrated in the deep South, their activists aren’t, particularly: 26% of them live in the Midwest, while 29% of them call Dixie home. Also surprising is the rough regional parity: 27% of religious progressive activists live in the South, 20% in the Midwest, while the West splits 21-24% in the progressives’ favor. The Northeast holds 16% of progressives, and 11% of conservatives; so the religious right is somewhat more concentrated in the South, while the religious left is more distributed.

Religious lefties are upbeat about their prospects. The study says:

Progressive activists most frequently mentioned being visible and publicly influential (33%); including speaking out, organizing, reclaiming the faith from the right, or serving as an example. One thing that stood out among responses in this category was the widespread use of active verbs like “continue,” “keep on,” “maintain,” and “remain”—which indicate that progressive activists have a strong sense that they are already experiencing some visible success. One typical comment in this area was the following: “continue to network and fundraise and get the word out about progressive religious values.” Another activist called on activists to “advocate a progressive agenda while standing as people of faith; we can’t surrender the label of ‘religious values’ to fundamentalists.”

Apparently religious progressives don’t share their secular friends’ despair of finding a suitable counterweight to the religious right.

This study generated its sample by surveying members of national activist organizations, and its authors are frank about the limits of their approach. That’s remarkable given the approval ratings progressives give their organizations:

If I were Jim Wallis, I’d want to know what was behind that disappointingly low 49% approval, pronto.

Some of my friends and colleagues wonder about the concept of polls like this one. It’s true that they can be used to push a false equivalence between right and left. Objectively, the religious right has been much more effective than the religious left in recent years, despite its small numerical advantage.

I haven’t heard how this particular poll is being spun yet, but from the looks of it, my friends’ and colleagues’ concerns are somewhat misplaced. It says little if anything about the relative position of either group, preferring to describe their characteristics instead. And inasmuch as those characteristics include a committed, even passionate, constituency on the left, there’s some reason for hope here.

That hope is probably to be found outside the usual suspects on the religious left. Jim Wallis or “freestyle” evangelicals only make up 10% of the cohort, by this survey’s measure, and social Catholics only 17%. That doesn’t mean that their views should be disregarded, but journalists and others reading the latest quotes from “prominent progressive faith leaders and organizations” may want to ask some questions about how representative they are of the movement as a whole, and why they exert as much influence as they do.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the death of the mainline has been exaggerated. An interesting but perhaps impractical follow-up to this study might track the two groups through church and para-church organizations. That’s where the grassroots action is. My suspicion is that such a study would discover that outside-the-Beltway activists are far more influenced by their local leadership than the activist groups studied here. But you never know. We might be surprised.

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