The latest meme going around at the moment is a Pew Research survey on religion. What has caught people’s attention is how the share of religious conservatives falls with each new generation while religious progressives seem to be rising with each new generation.
Of course, progressive Christians have latched on to this story. There is a sense of vindication that after years of seeing the Religious Right grow, that now it is time for Religious Progressives to step out into the limelight while Conservatives recede into the background.
It should be no surprise to readers of this blog that I am not so sanguine about all of this. While some see this as a sign of revival of the mainline denominations, I think this news might have the seeds of our destruction instead of our salvation. I think that as usual, Progressive Christians are glomming on to any thing that might say that we are yet relevant and poised for success.
My concerns are many. First off, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that social conservatives are on the way out. Strangely, they tend to happen after the Republicans lose an election. But religious conservatives haven’t gone away. And I don’t think anything has changed here. Ten years ago people were talking about the fall of the Religious Right, and we will still hear this story ten years from now.
Second, we have to separate the political sphere of religious conservatism from the religious conservative subculture. Having come from that background and having studied it as well, I can tell you that American evangelicalism and the cultural Christian Right existed long before the Moral Majority. They may have not garnered news headlines back then, but the culture was there and it was distinct from the wider culture. My guess is that even if Religious conservatism recedes, that doesn’t mean that scores of evangelical churches will close tomorrow. What it means is that it won’t have such a central place in the wider culture. Groups like the Family Research Council might close up shop, but there will still be religiously conservative churches that will not suffer because they no longer have the ear of Presidents.
This is a really long way of saying that religious conservatives aren’t going the way of the GOP. The Republican party could wither and die, and religious conservatives would still exist because they are both a religious movement and a cultural one in addition to a political movement.
Third is the whole demographics equals destiny thing. The hope is that all of these young progressive millenials will just come flocking into our empty mainline churches where we focus less on social issues (not really, we just agree with them on the social issues). But the thing is, they aren’t coming to our churches now. We tend to have churches that are friendly to LGBT persons and focus on issues like climate change. But we aren’t dealing with a stampede of young adults. Why? I don’t have the exact answer, but I wonder if part of it is that to come to our churches, people have to be invited- which means that we have to be willing to talk to people about our faith lives. Of course the problem is that we are hesitant to talk about our faith lives seeing religion as private. The evangelical mega-churches or the evangelical emerging community down the road are not growing because they tend to be socially conservative. It’s not like there is a teeming mass of folk who hate on gays and want to join a church that agrees with them. These communities are growing because they specialize in making disciples who invite friends and relatives to come to church with them. Faith isn’t a private thing, but a public thing that they share with others. Mainline Protestants grew in the past partly because we were the establishment church, the cultural church. We still expect the culture to bring our future members, but the reality is that the culture no longer sees the church as important. So if we are waiting for those hordes of hipsters to enter the doors of our churches, we are going to be waiting a long, long time.
Related to this is that progressive Christianity is bad at replicating itself. Again since we were the church of the dominant culture, we expected culture to help form new Christians. We never had to learn how to pass the faith on to the next generation, let alone to our friends and family. James Wellman notes that because the prevailing thelogy among the laity in mainline churches tends to not see Christianity as the true faith, we end up with a dying tradition. I think he’s right here. Yes, we end up with a faith that doesn’t kill others, which is a good thing, but we don’t have a fighting faith, let alone a faith worth fighting for.
This feeds into my final observation for now: most religious progressives see their faith more as add-on than a central part of their lives. Peter Steinfels writing in the progressive Catholic magazine Commonweal, is not convinced that religious progressives will become dominant:
It turns out that 87% of religious progressives view religion as a “private matter” that should be kept out of public debate on political and social issues. That view may provide a negative counter to aggressive religious intervention on behalf of traditional sexual and personal norms, but it does not provide much ground for religious engagement on the kinds of issues that the study puts before us – helping the poor, maintaining the safety net, and opposing inequality.
I do not believe that most religious progressives have religion and church at the center of their lives and social networks, at least not in the same numbers as conservatives. Their religion functions more in an advisory copacity to be considered with a variety of other inputs, rather than as a guiding force. The vitality of the religious right has been based on being able to marry this guiding force to a particular political ideology. I don’t think that will ever be the same for religious progressives. My perception is that the Religious Right is more inclined to be animated by out of their religious conviction to pursue political ends while progressives are motivated by their political convictions, seeing the church as chaplain to their cause.