Religious Progressivism: A Contradiction in Terms No More

image-2 For most Americans, Paul Begala once quipped, the term “religious progressive” makes about as much sense as “jumbo shrimp.” Devotees of cable news or talk radio may be forgiven for their confusion. Religion is often portrayed in those venues as a monolithic force, firmly entrenched on the conservative side of the culture wars.

But cast a net in the sea of public opinion and you may be surprised by your haul. For instance, as part of an extensive survey, respondents were asked to rate their feelings for the poor on a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 meaning completely negative feelings and 100 completely positive. The same respondents were asked if religion is “an important part of your life” and (if yes), does it provide “some guidance, quite a bit of guidance, or a great deal of guidance in your day-to-day life?” Across the board, the more religious a respondent was, the higher his professed level of sympathy.



But does theoretical sympathy translate to anything that helps anyone? Do these people volunteer? Do they give to charity? And do they support progressive policies? The data do take a stab at answering this last question. The same respondents rated their feelings about people on welfare. Again, the scale was 1 to 100. Scores were lower, but greater religiosity still meant higher scores.

One might assume that these results are due in large part to the influence of the African American church, given that body’s place as the most visible wellspring of religious progressivism. This might be especially true on our second question, given the racialization of welfare. But a positive correlation holds even if we exclude African American respondents.

Take note, support for those on welfare doesn’t necessarily mean support for welfare or food stamps or any other progressive policy. Some fascinating new studies from Pew Research are beginning to address these questions, but there’s still plenty to be teased out.

At the very least, though, it seems policymakers and the media would do well to avoid the assumption that strongly religious Americans are uniformly opposed to progressive causes. Jumbo shrimp, after all, are quite popular.

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Source: The American National Election Studies ( Time Series Cumulative Data File. Stanford University and the University of Michigan [producers and distributors], 2010. Questions VCF0847 and VCF0220 and VCF0223. VCF0220 and VCF0223 averaged from 1 to 97 (excluding DK and NA responses).

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