On the Left and Right, Activists Are Driven by Religious Convictions

The Christian Century, October 20, 2009 | Go to article overview

On the Left and Right, Activists Are Driven by Religious Convictions


Long-held assumptions about religious activists on the left and right have been confirmed in a new 40-page report issued in mid-September: the only thing both sides seem to have in common is that faith is a big part of their lives--bigger than among the general public.

Beyond that, the two poles differ dramatically on political priorities and biblical interpretation.

If you're a male evangelical who reads the Bible literally and views fighting abortion and same-sex marriage as the top political priorities, you're more likely to be a conservative religious activist.

On the other hand, if you're a woman who attends a mainline Protestant church, holds an expansive view of scripture and thinks health care and poverty are top priorities, you're more likely to be labeled a progressive religious activist.

The survey was released on September 15 in a week when many commentators said that the public outbursts of entertainers, athletes and politicians seemed to reflect the rising polarity and hostility in U.S. society. While religious activists might be expected to act with more civility, activists on the two sides are no less ardent about their causes.

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John C. Green, one of the coauthors of "Faithful, Engaged and Divergent," said that the surveys depict two groups that aren't just at loggerheads with each other, but hold 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."

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 project findings.

"I don't think this project would have occurred to anyone ten years ago because I don't think people took the idea of progressive religious activism seriously ten years ago," said Dionne, a Washington Post columnist. (A half-hour CBS documentary on religious advocacy, produced in collaboration with the trifaith Interfaith Broadcasting Commission, was scheduled to air September 27 on many network affiliates.)

On another trend, Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said the survey answers questions about whether Democrats could succeed in narrowing the so-called God gap that had seen religious voters flocking to the GOP.

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