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The religious left exists, but not as a political movement

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 21 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

More than 2,000 people of various faiths attended the Wild Goose Festival on Aug. 8-11 to hear music, speeches and other presentations. The gathering represents what some say is a growing constituency called religious progressives.

Nate Baker-Lutz, InterVarsity Press

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.

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