Activists on left, right share faith but little else
By Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service
Published: September 25, 2009
WASHINGTON (RNS)—A new report confirmed long-held assumptions about religious activists from the left and right. The only thing both sides seem to have in common: faith is a more important part of their lives than among the general public.
But beyond that, the two poles differ dramatically on political priorities and biblical interpretation.
If you’re a conservative religious activist, you’re likely a male evangelical who reads the Bible literally and views fighting abortion and same-sex marriage as the top political priorities.
On the other hand, if you’re a woman who attends a mainline Protestant church, hold an expansive view of Scripture and think health care and poverty are top priorities, you’re more likely to be labeled a progressive religious activist.
Anti-war protesters marched from the National Cathedral to the White House last year. At center is Sojourners/Call to Renewal founder Jim Wallis (in hat) and National Council of Churches General Secretary Bob Edgar (with clergy stole). (RNS FILE PHOTO/Courtesy of Ryan Beiler/Sojourners)
John C. Green, one of the co-authors of Faithful, Engaged and Divergent, said the surveys depict two groups that aren’t just “at loggerheads” with each other, but rather take wildly different views of hot-button political issues.
“What this suggests is that these groups are talking past each other,” said Green, director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics in Akron, Ohio. “They have, really, very different priorities. ... A lot of what’s going on is an argument about what the political agenda ought to be.”
Robert P. Jones, another author of the report, said the surveys also indicate differences in the ways the two groups mobilize their activism.
For example, progressive religious activists are more wired, engaging in online activism, while conservative religious activists are more involved in state campaigns and ballot initiatives. But no matter what their rate of activity, religious activists on both ends of the ideological spectrum said their faith was an important driver of their work.
“Both religious activist groups cite faith as an important factor in their voting decision,” said Jones, president of Public Religion Research. “But conservative activists were more likely to say that their faith was the most important factor in their voting decision.”
Although the findings clearly delineated differences between the groups, the authors said it showed at least one challenge for both groups—the age of activists. Close to 50 percent of both groups—49 percent of conservatives and 43 percent of progressives—were older than 65.
Researchers mailed surveys to random samples of participants of major activist organizations. The margin of error for the 1,886 usable responses from the progressive organizations was plus or minus 2.3 percentage points and the margin of error for the 1,123 usable responses from conservative organizations was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Some participating groups chose to remain anonymous, but progressive groups included Interfaith Alliance and Sojourners, and conservative groups included Concerned Women for America and the National Right to Life Committee.
The report is significant, in part, because it reflects dramatic changes in the nation’s faith-based activism, said E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was invited to comment on the findings.
“I don’t think this project would have occurred to anyone 10 years ago because I don’t think people took the idea of progressive religious activism seriously 10 years ago,” said Dionne, a Washington Post columnist.
Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics & Public Policy Center, said the report answers questions about whether Democrats could succeed in narrowing the so-called “God gap” that had seen religious voters flocking to the GOP.
“Clearly, from this data, it’s not only closing,” he said. “It’s closed.”