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Religious progressives more diverse, younger, smaller in number than religious conservatives

WASHINGTON — One-in-five Americans (19 percent) are religious progressives, while 38 percent are religious moderates, 28 percent are religious conservatives, and 15 percent are nonreligious, a new survey finds.

The new Economic Values Survey, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Brookings Institution, was used to develop a new religious orientation scale that combines theological, economic and social outlooks in order to paint a new portrait of the American religious landscape.

“Our new research shows a complex religious landscape, with religious conservatives holding an advantage over religious progressives in terms of size and homogeneity,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute. “However, the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation.”

Religious progressives are significantly younger and more diverse than their conservative counterparts. The mean age of the religious progressive population is 44 – just under the mean age in the general population of 47 – while the mean age of religious conservatives is 53. Twenty-three percent of Millennials (ages 18-33) are religious progressives, while 17 percent are religious conservatives. Among Millennials, there are also nearly as many nonreligious (22 percent) as religious progressives. Conversely, 12 percent of the Silent Generation (ages 66-88) are religious progressives, while 47 percent are religious conservatives. One-in-ten (10 percent) of the Silent Generation are nonreligious.

Religious progressives are considerably more diverse than religious conservatives. Catholics (29 percent) constitute the largest single group among religious progressives, followed by white mainline Protestants (19 percent), those who are not formally affiliated with a religious tradition but who nevertheless say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives (18 percent), and non-Christian religious Americans such as Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims (13 percent). Notably, white evangelical Protestants constitute only four percent of religious progressives. By contrast, white evangelical Protestants constitute more than 4-in-10 (43 percent) religious conservatives, followed by Catholics (17 percent) and white mainline Protestants (15 percent). Black Protestants comprise about 1-in-10 of both the religious progressive (9 percent) and religious conservative (8 percent) coalitions.

“Religious conservatives are a known quantity and they play an important role in our politics,” said E.J. Dionne, Brookings senior fellow. “But this survey also shows that religious progressives are a more significant group than is usually assumed, and that there is a strong social justice constituency among religious Americans that cuts across labels.”

Religious progressives and conservatives hold different beliefs about what it means to be a religious person. Nearly 8-in-10 (79 percent) religious progressives say that being a religious person is mostly about doing the right thing, compared to 16 percent who say it is about holding the right beliefs. A majority of religious conservatives (54 percent), on the other hand, say being a religious person is primarily about having the right beliefs, while 38 percent say it is mostly about doing the right thing.

On questions related to economic policy and the role of government, religious progressives generally hold similar views to nonreligious Americans and religious moderates, while religious conservatives stand apart. For example, 37 percent of religious conservatives agree that the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, compared to 69 percent of religious moderates, 72 percent of the nonreligious, and nearly 9-in-10 (88 percent) religious progressives.

Religious progressives and conservatives are also distributed in very different ways within the two major political parties. Among Democrats, 28 percent are religious progressives, 42 percent are religious moderates, and 13 percent are religious conservatives; additionally, 17 percent are nonreligious. Among Republicans, a majority (56 percent) are religious conservatives, 33 percent are religious moderates, 5 percent are religious progressives, and 6 percent are nonreligious.

“As is the case with ideology, Republicans are more religiously homogeneous than Democrats,” said Bill Galston, Brookings senior fellow. “When major legislation such as health insurance reform is at issue, Democrats often face the challenge of balancing diverse religious perspectives within their coalition.”

 

Among the Findings:

In addition to the religious orientation findings, the Economic Values Survey included a wide range of questions on economic outlook, economic issues, priorities, and values.

The top four most important economic issues cited by Americans today are the lack of jobs (26 percent), the budget deficit (17 percent), the rising cost of health care (18 percent), and the increasing gap between the rich and poor (15 percent). About 1-in-10 say that social security (9 percent) or the rising cost of education (9 percent) is the country’s most important economic problem.

  • While roughly one-quarter of Republicans (26 percent) and Democrats (25 percent) say the lack of jobs is America’s most important economic problem, Republicans and Democrats strongly differ in their views of the importance of the budget deficit (31 percent vs. 7 percent most important) and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor (6 percent vs. 21 percent most important).

Americans are generally pessimistic about upward economic mobility. Nearly half (47 percent) of Americans believe that their generation is worse off financially than their parents’ generation, compared to 16 percent who believe their generation is doing about the same, and 36 percent who believe they are better off than their parents’ generation.

  • The Silent Generation (age 66-88) is the only generation in which a majority (59 percent) believe they are better off than their parents’ generation. Only one-quarter (26 percent) of the Silent Generation believe their generation is worse off than their parents’ generation. Baby Boomers (age 49-67) are divided (45 percent worse off vs. 40 percent better off). Majorities of younger Americans in Generation X (age 34-48) (51 percent) and Millennials (age 18-33) (58 percent) believe they are worse off than their parents’ generation.

A majority (54 percent) of Americans agree that hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people, while 45 percent disagree.

  • There are substantial divisions by income level. Nearly 6-in-10 (59 percent) Americans with household incomes under $30,000 a year believe hard work and determination are no guarantee of success, a view held by less than half (48 percent) of Americans with household incomes in excess of $100,000 a year.

Less than one-third of Americans believe the federal government is either generally working (7 percent) or working with some major problems (24 percent). Roughly two-thirds say the federal government is broken but working in some areas (40 percent) or completely broken (26 percent).

More than 6-in-10 (63 percent) Americans agree that government should be doing more to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Similar numbers (62 percent) say it is the responsibility of government to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves. A majority (56 percent) of Americans also believe the government should guarantee health insurance for all citizens, even if it would require tax increases.

A majority of Americans believe American capitalism is working very well (9 percent) or somewhat well (45 percent), while more than 4-in-10 say it is working not too well (26 percent) or not at all well (16 percent).

  • Among Americans who say American capitalism is working, one-third (33 percent) believe this is because the system encourages personal responsibility, while a similar number say capitalism is working because it provides equal opportunities for everyone (29 percent). About 1-in-4 (24 percent) say capitalism is working well because it promotes individual freedom, and roughly 1-in-10 (11 percent) cite the creation of wealth.
  • Among Americans who say American capitalism is not working, more than one-third (34 percent) say this is because the system encourages greed. Roughly 3-in-10 (28 percent) say that American capitalism is not working because it does not provide equal opportunities for everyone. More than 1-in-10 say the primary reason capitalism is not working is because it creates poverty (14 percent), or because it creates lasting inequalities (11 percent).

A majority of Americans (53 percent) believe that “one of the big problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life.” By contrast, nearly 4-in-10 (39 percent) agree that “it is not really that big a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others.”

  • Nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) Democrats and a majority of independents (54 percent) agree that one of the biggest problems in this country is that we do not give everyone an equal chance in life. By contrast, a majority of Republicans (58 percent) and Americans who identify with the Tea Party (57 percent) think that it is not really a big problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others.

Americans are divided on the economic impact of family structure and instability. Nearly half (49 percent) of Americans agree that family instability and the decline of two-parent families is a primary cause of America’s current economic problems, while an equal number (49 percent) disagrees.

  • There are significant racial and ethnic divisions. About 6-in-10 Hispanic Americans (62 percent) agree that family instability and the decline of the two-parent family are primary causes of America’s current economic problems, while white Americans are divided: 49 percent agree and 48 percent disagree. Roughly 6-in-10 (59 percent) black Americans disagree that family instability and the decline of two-parent families is the primary cause of America’s current economic problems.

There is a broad consensus about the values that should guide the government’s economic policy, with approximately 8-in-10 Americans in agreement that promoting freedom and liberty (86 percent), encouraging people to live more responsible lives (86 percent), and promoting equality and fairness (79 percent) are extremely important or very important values for guiding government economic policy. More than 6-in-10 Americans cite providing a public safety net for people facing hardships (64 percent) as an extremely or very important guide, while fewer Americans (59 percent) say the same of supporting private charity for the poor.

 

The Economic Values Survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with The Brookings Institution. Results from the survey were based on 2,002 bilingual (Spanish and English) telephone interviews of adults 18 years of age and older, including 800 respondents who were interviewed on cell phones. The margin of error for the survey is +/ 2.6 percentage points.

The topline questionnaire and full methodology can be found online: http://publicreligion.org/research/economic-values-survey-07-2013/

Public Religion Research Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization specializing in research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life. The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC. 

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