home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted September 23, 2009

Survey compares 'conservative'
and 'progressive' religious activists

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A new survey for the first time compares the activities, demographics and motivations of "religious activists" who are involved in politics, divided between "conservative" and "progressive" groups.

Among its findings are that activists at both ends of the political spectrum are deeply religious, though their political interests and religious profiles are dramatically different.

The 2009 Religious Activists Survey was conducted over this spring and summer by the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, Ohio, and Public Religion Research of Washington.

Bliss Institute director John Green said that among the more striking differences between progressive and conservative religious activists are their views on the Bible and their political priorities.

The researchers themselves defined the two groups as conservative or progressive and divided the participants accordingly, with slightly different questions to each group.

"Almost half of the conservative religious activists took a literal view of Scripture," Green said at the Sept. 15 release of the study. "Only 3 percent of the progressive religious activists had a similar view, and the largest single category on that side was the idea that Scripture 'contains' the word of God; it's not the literal word of God or the inspired word of God but simply contains the word of God."

As to political priorities, strong majorities of the conservative group listed just two issues as "most important" for religious people to focus on: abortion, cited by 83 percent, and same-sex marriage, cited by 65 percent. No other issue was categorized as a "most important" priority by more than 26 percent of this group.

The progressives' responses were more spread out, with five different issues being identified as "most important" on the scale of five possible ways to quantify each of eight issues. Seventy-four percent of progressives identified poverty as "most important," 67 percent gave health care this ranking, 56 percent marked the environment as most important, with jobs/economy and the Iraq War being marked as "most important" by 48 percent and 45 percent, respectively.

The only issue for which the two groups gave similar rankings to a topic was immigration, which 21 percent of progressives and 26 percent of conservatives marked as most important.

The two groups have markedly different religious affiliations.

Of the conservatives, 89 percent said they are either evangelical Protestant (54 percent) or Catholic (35 percent). Mainline Protestants accounted for 9 percent, with only 1 percent identifying with some other Christian faith and 1 percent either listing non-Christian religions or no faith affiliation.

Among the progressives, 44 percent said they are mainline Protestants, such as Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian or Episcopalian. Seventeen percent are Catholic, 12 percent identified with Unitarian, interfaith or mixed-faith churches, 10 percent are evangelical Protestants, 8 percent said they have no formal religious affiliation, 6 percent are Jewish and 2 percent listed other faiths.

Whatever their affiliation, large majorities of both groups said religion is very or extremely important in their lives, with 96 percent of conservative activists and 74 percent of progressive activists marking one of those two responses.

In a discussion of the survey at the National Press Club, E.J. Dionne, a syndicated columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that the survey affirms the notion that core religious divisions in this country "are no longer primarily defined by theological issues." Instead, the splits are political.

Debates among believers at backyard barbecues focus not on the virgin birth or infant baptism, Dionne said. "More often, they are about issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and also about attitudes toward government."

That has led to "a peculiar kind of ecumenism" in the country, said Dionne.

He repeated a comment by Grant Wacker, a professor of church history at Duke Divinity School, "that one of the most remarkable changes of the 20th century is the virtual evaporation of hostility between Protestants and Catholics. I don't think that's because Baptists have come to have great respect for Tridentine theology, he said, it's because they see Catholics as allies against graver problems."

Another respondent at the press conference, Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, noted that as recently as 2004 when Howard Dean, former Vermont governor, was running for president, analysts were commenting about the Democratic Party's disconnect from religion being important in society.

But by February of 2008, Dionne, Green and writer Amy Sullivan "had a press conference right here at the National Press Club called 'Is the God Gap Closing?'" Cromartie recalled. "Well, clearly, from this data, it is not only closing, it is closed. And of course, with the election of President (Barack) Obama and his comfortableness with using God language in the campaign, it satisfied the concerns of a lot of people. And this data does the same."

Dionne said that "I don't think this project would've occurred to anyone 10 years ago because I don't think people took the idea of progressive religious activism seriously 10 years ago. That probably shouldn't have been the case but there's clearly that sense of movement that . . . I think reflects the fact that something new was either born or revived in our politics."

Green and his associates studied responses of 4,200 progressive activists and 3,000 conservative activists to a 10-page mail survey. Participants were drawn from membership lists of politically active religious organizations that were national in scope. Other names were drawn from lists of clergy and other religious professionals who made federal campaign contributions in 2008, for instance.

The report said the margin of error for the study was plus or minus 2.3 percentage points for the progressive group and plus or minus 3 percent for the conservative group.