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Assessing a More Prominent ’Religious Left’

Liberal and progressive religious voices have become increasingly prominent in the 2008 presidential campaign. To complement a recent Forum-sponsored panel discussion on the “religious left,” Associate Director Mark O’Keefe asked Senior Fellow John Green to define the various groups that make up the religious left movement and talk about implications for the “religious right.”

Featuring: John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Interviewer: Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Web Editorial, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

In this Q&A:What is the religious left? How large is the religious left? What issues unite and divide the religious left? Is the era of the religious right over?

John Green

For years we have been hearing about the “religious right” and its impact on American politics, but liberal and progressive religious voices are becoming increasingly prominent in media reports and at campaign stops. What is happening?

There is considerable evidence that the group often called the “religious left” is more active in the 2008 presidential campaign than in the recent past.

There has been a spate of books talking about religion and progressive politics, such as Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, Michael Lerner’s The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right and Marcia Ford’s We the Purple: Faith, Politics and the Independent Voter, to mention just a few.

In addition, there are a large number of left-leaning religious and political organizations that are active these days, offering an alternative to the religious right. Some of the most prominent groups, such as Sojourners, have been around for a while, but others are relatively new, such as Faith in Public Life and Catholics United.

There have been numerous activities spearheaded by these groups. A good example is the Compassion Forum sponsored by Faith in Public Life and others, and held in Pennsylvania in April, just before the state’s presidential primary. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama attended the event and fielded questions from a wide array of religious leaders. Last year Sojourners held a similar presidential candidate forum on faith and values.

Beyond such organized events, the presidential campaigns have been addressing faith and values extensively. Indeed, much of the perceived re-emergence of the religious left comes from the attention the major Democratic candidates have given to religion – one thinks of Obama emphasizing his Christian faith in Kentucky or Clinton speaking about her faith with the Christian Broadcasting Network, founded by Pat Robertson.

What exactly is the religious left?

Terms like “religious right” and “religious left” are shorthand for describing particular connections between religion and politics. But the terms often obscure as much as they reveal. The Pew Forum recently gathered a panel of experts on the subject and asked them to define religion and progressive politics. Their answers revealed considerable nuance and complexity.

Two factors are central to the reality behind the terminology. The first is a “liberal” theological perspective that involves less traditional views of the divine, spirituality and religious authority. The second factor is a liberal perspective on political issues.

The core of the religious left consists of people who are liberal in both their theology and their political outlook, a pattern commonly associated with the term “progressive.” So for purposes of discussion, one might call this sub-group the “core religious left.”

But another important sub-group consists of those who have a conservative theological perspective but liberal views on political issues. They are sometimes referred to as “red-letter Christians.” The term comes from those who find support for liberal politics in the parts of the Bible that directly quote Jesus – traditionally printed in red ink.

As if this picture isn’t complicated enough, there are many political moderates among theological liberals. One might call this sub-group “progressive centrists.” Many progressive advocates for issues such as overcoming poverty and protecting the environment are trying to appeal to these progressive centrists. For example, Bob Edgar, a leader in the National Council of Churches, stressed this approach in his book Middle Church. A focus on centrists is also evident in David Gushee’s The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center.

Attention has largely been focused on various kinds of Christians who hold these views, but it is important to remember that these groups extend to non-Christians as well, including believers in the Jewish community and people who are “spiritual but not religious.” There are progressive voices appearing in nearly every religious tradition.

How large are these groups in the adult population?

That question is hard to answer with precision. The Pew Forum plans to develop more precise measures of these groups in the near future. But an article I co-authored for a Brookings Institution book, A Matter of Faith: Religion in the 2004 Presidential Election, made some useful estimates based on the 2004 National Survey of Religion and Politics.

We found that the core religious left, which includes liberal Christians as well as religious progressives outside of the Christian community, made up a little less than one-tenth of the adult population.

We arrived at a similar estimate, also a little less than one-tenth of the adult population, for red-letter Christians. This group included a small number of people with highly traditional religious beliefs and liberal politics and a larger group of people who were somewhat less traditional in their beliefs.

And we found that the progressive centrists were a little smaller than each of the other two groups.

Adding up our 2004 estimates for these three groups (core religious left, red-letter Christians and progressive centrists), the religious left totaled a little more than one-quarter of the adult population. Assuming our estimate is still accurate, the broadly defined religious left is about the size of the membership in evangelical churches as measured by the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey that was released this year. The 2004 aggregate figure may surprise some people, given the small size of each of its components. What it means for the 2008 presidential election is that the religious left, broadly defined, could impact a close contest.

The religious left seems to be a pretty diverse, loosely knit coalition.

Just like the religious right, the religious left is a coalition of different religious groups. For example, the core religious left draws in about equal numbers from Catholics, evangelical Protestants and mainline Protestants, and has strong representation from black and Hispanic Christians. The other elements of the loosely knit coalition also pull from various religious traditions.

What issues unite and divide the religious left’s potential coalition partners?

All three of these groups appear to be united by social welfare issues, especially addressing poverty in the United States and abroad. Other sources of unity are environmental protection and foreign policy. However, social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage are potential points of division, especially between theological and political liberals and moderates.

It could be, however, that the importance of the economy in 2008 will make it easier for these groups to overcome their differences. Indeed, the broader the political agenda, the easier it may be for a united religious left to emerge.

Another thing that these groups share in common is a negative reaction to the religious right. They dislike what they perceive as the religious right’s confrontational style and single-minded focus on “moral values.”

The religious left isn’t entirely new in American history, is it?

You’re right. For most of the 20th century, the dominant form of faith-based politics was on the left, and the best known example is the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The political advantage shifted to the religious right in the 1980 election and may have changed back again to the religious left after the 2004 election. Our panel of experts examined this history.

What about Republicans?

Not all theologically liberal voters are liberal politically. Indeed, some are religiously progressive and politically conservative. Many of these voters are Republicans, and they have often been critical of the religious right. Former Sen. John Danforth expressed the views of this group in his book Faith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How to Move Forward Together.

So, is the era of the religious right over?

Some people, such as E.J. Dionne and Amy Sullivan, have new books saying it is. If one means that the religious right no longer plays the dominant role in American faith-based politics, these analyses are probably correct. The new prominence of the religious left is one important reason why this may be so.

But one would want to be cautious about assuming that the religious right’s organizations, leaders and voters have left politics. They have not. For example, on the same day that Obama and Clinton struggled for religious voters in North Carolina, John McCain was in the state promising to appoint conservative federal judges, a key issue for religious right voters whose support he will need in November. And with the general election in mind, the legislative arm of the conservative Family Research Council is preparing for its next Values Voter Summit in September.

Photo Credit: AP

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