News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

U.S. Religious Progressivism 'Way of the Future'

Even as Christian congregations dwindle, activist nuns and progressive theologies move to the fore.
 
 
Share

Photo Credit: Thomas Altfather Good / Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

WASHINGTON, May 2, 2014 (IPS) — The future of religion in U.S. politics lies not with conservatives but rather with religious progressives, social scientists here are suggesting, with a faith-based movement potentially able to provide momentum to a new movement for social justice.

According to a new report from the Brookings Institute, a think tank here, the current religious social justice movement can be compared to the period of civil rights activism in the mid-20th century.

“There really is an opening now for a religious movement for social justice that is similar in many ways to the civil rights movement. We see it around issues of minimum wage, budget cuts, and immigration,” E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and one of the authors of the report, told IPS.

“On social justice issues, religion has long been a progressive force, and Pope Francis is challenging people’s assumptions that religion is an automatically conservative force ... After years of paying lots of attention to religious conservatives, religion by no means lives on the right.”

The United States has a strong history of religious groups in social justice movements, including in pushing for the abolition of slavery and the institutionalization of civil rights, as well as the social welfare programs put in place a half-century ago. Yet today, religion and progressivism are often seen as being at odds.

According to the report, for instance, just 47 percent of white Evangelicals in the United States think government needs to do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor. On the contrary, 85 percent of Democrats hold this belief.

This schism underscores two trends that have defined the U.S. religious landscape over the past two decades: a decline in those who regularly attend religious services, and a rise in the conservative “religious right.”

According to the report, these trends are interrelated, as “many young Americans were not turned off by faith itself but by the rightward trend they perceive among leaders. To young adults ... ‘religion’ means ‘Republican,’ ‘intolerant,’ and ‘homophobic.’”

Yet despite these trends of growing secularization, Dionne said, “a religious voice will remain essential to movements on behalf of the poor and the marginalized and also on behalf of the middle-class Americans who are under increasing pressure at a time of inequality.”

Further, demographics indicate that this religious voice will not be from the conservative wing, Dionne suggests. During the last presidential election here, in 2012, the ages of the religious coalitions that voted for President Barack Obama versus his Republican rival, Mitt Romney were starkly different.

Of those who considered themselves actively religious, Romney voters were primarily elderly, while Obama’s supporters skewed far younger. “What’s clear,” the report suggests, “is that the religious right is not the way of the future.”

Congregational decline

The Brookings researchers acknowledge steep challenges facing any incipient religious movement in the U.S. for social justice.

A primary challenge is congregational decline. In 1958, about 49 percent of Americans attended church services weekly, while today that number is down to about 18 percent.

This decline naturally decreases the coalition size and donor base available for grassroots work. In addition, this has often been accompanied by a decreased respect for religious groups, exacerbating divides between those who consider themselves religious versus secular.

Tensions also exist when religious groups try to engage in political issues without using morally ambiguous political methods. For example, many religious progressive leaders want to abstain from the “quid pro quo” nature of political deal-making.

Ideological divides within religious communities can threaten the work of social justice advocates, especially opposition from single-issue groups.