A liberal revival?

According to the New York Times, after a period when it was more fashionable to study relatively marginalized religious movements like evangelicalism and Mormonism, historians are turning their attention back to liberal mainline Protestantism. One of the more surprising arguments, made by David Hollinger, is that the legacy of the mainline may be deeper and more enduring than its numerical decline suggests. He contends that, despite the apparent success of conservative evangelicalism in displacing it from the center of American Protestantism, liberal Protestantism succeeded in imparting certain broadly progressive values to American society.

Perhaps providing some support for Hollinger’s thesis, a report released this week by the Brookings Institution and the Public Policy Research Institute suggests that the religious conservatism in America is actually declining, and progressivism is on the upswing. The report summarizes the results of a survey of Americans’ views on economics and religion, and a key finding is that younger generations are more likely to identify as religiously moderate or progressive (or not religious for that matter). This trend seems to mirror the same long-term demographic changes that are contributing to the woes of the Republican Party. In short: America is becoming less old, white, and conservative and more young, non-white, and liberal.

Of course, “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive” and the like are notoriously slippery and malleable terms (particularly when it comes to theology). And we don’t know if increased religious liberalism will translate to a revival of more progressive religious communities. At the same time, though, these trends hardly seem to support the oft-repeated claim that hard-core theological conservatism is the key to successful, growing churches.

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4 thoughts on “A liberal revival?

  1. I’ve read several pieces about the Brookings report, and I’m surprised that I haven’t seen anyone bring up the truism that people get more conservative as they get older. So does it really signify the direction the country is heading that the younger generations are more progressive?

    I don’t know, but it is interesting that if you look at the graph in the article you linked, Generation X actually seems to have fewer religious progressives and more moderates than the baby boomers, whereas the millennials return to baby-boomer levels on those axes but have fewer conservatives and more nonreligious. It’s also interesting to me that when you look at the original report (http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/2013-Economic-Values-Report-Final-.pdf) you see that their definition of these terms arises from combining theological, economic and social opinions, and *theological* conservatives still make up the plurality of respondents at 38%. The report points out that millennials are only somewhat more likely to be theological liberals than the oldest generation they polled (the pre-boomers), but, again, there are fewer conservatives and more nonreligious.So I’m not sure what that says for a progressive Christian revival.

  2. I’m not sure that truism is actually true though. Are older people more conservative because they’ve gotten more so as they aged, or because they came of age during a more conservative time? I’ve even read about some research suggesting that people even get more liberal insome respects as they age. And it’s very difficult for me to imagine today’s twenty something’s adoptin conservative attitudes on, say, homosexuality or race as they age.

    But I agree that theological liberals shouldn’t feel too smug about these results. For one thing, I think it’s likely that the number of people who feel no particular pull toward organized religion will continue to increase. More liberal attitudes on religious matters are by no means guaranteed to lead to increased religious commitment–possibly the opposite.

    • I don’t know how true it is, but I thought of it because it’s come up in discussions about declining church attendance. Some people argue that many young adults of every generation stop going to church but they often start again when they have kids of their own. So I was surprised someone didn’t make a similar argument here.

      I have heard research suggesting that people get more tolerant as they get older, but this particular poll didn’t measure people’s tolerance exactly. It asked about gay marriage, which goes a little beyond mere tolerance, and it didn’t ask about race at all. So it’s not surprising that the older folks came off as more conservative on that front. The pollsters asked more questions about economic attitudes — after all the thing is called the Economic Values Report — and on that front I don’t know that the generation that came of age during the New Deal, let alone the 1960s, really grew up in a more conservative time than young folks today. The section discussing economic values actually doesn’t break it down by age, so it’s hard to tell how big a factor that was. But I can imagine young leftists reversing course on that one more easily than reverting to 1950s attitudes toward homosexuality.

  3. Yeah, it would’ve been interesting to see the theological, economic, and social views each broken out by age category. Since there’s not an obvious connection between social liberalism and economic liberalism (though I think you can make the case that they’re connected), it certainly seems possible that they can vary independently.

    It’s also kind of confusing how “theological orientation” is just one element of the overall “religious orientation” scale.

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