If you've ever stood in a pet shop and watched Siamese fighting fish attack their reflection in a glass tank, then you know what it's like to read a fascinating new survey of more than 3,000 religious activists on the left and the right.
The survey was published this week just as leaders and foot soldiers of the religious right -- the group most closely identified with religious activism in politics -- gathers for the fourth annual Values Voter Summit
in Washington, a weekend of red-meat speechifying and unabashed angling among Republican candidates looking to challenge a suddenly vulnerable Barack Obama. (One VVF highlight -- not to be confused with the WWF -- will be a straw poll
of the top 10 preferred candidates for 2012.)
Yet as the numbers show, the religious right is increasingly being matched by a nascent "religious left." Some 24 percent of the adult population, about 45 million Americans, shares the "traditional" religious mindset of conservative religious activists, but 18 percent, about 38 million adults, shares the "modernist" mindset that is characteristic of progressive religious activists.
As for the survey, "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 E.J. Dionne, a liberal-leaning Catholic and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who was on a panel presenting the new study of religious activists, conducted by Public Religion Research
and the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics
.Michael Cromartie of the conservative-leaning Ethics and Public Policy Center was also at the release in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. He noted that the report puts to rest the question of whether there is a "God gap" between Republicans and Democrats: "Clearly, from this data, it's not only closing. It's closed."
When it comes to theological and social issues, the survey does show that the divide between the two camps remains vast. Conservatives are focused on two main issues -- abortion and same-sex marriage -- while liberals spread their concerns more widely and focus on pocketbook issues like poverty and health care and jobs. Faith versus works, one might say.
But more interestingly,
religious activists of both stripes turn out to be much like the "elites" they often disdain -- overwhelmingly white, well-educated, well-to-do, older and fiercely attached to their religious and political mindsets.
Both groups are animated by their shared beliefs, with 96 percent of conservative activists saying their beliefs are "extremely important" or "very important" to them, while 74 percent of progressives say the same thing. Both figures are well above the national average of 62 percent.
More than nine in 10 conservatives say they attend religious services at least several times a month and often more than once a week, and nearly three-quarters of progressives say the same; that latter figure is at least twice the national average.
Christians dominate both movements, with 99 percent of conservative activists identifying as Christians and 71 percent of liberal activists calling themselves Christians. (Twelve percent of liberal activists are Unitarians or "mixed faith" and six percent are Jewish; Jews did not register among conservative religious activists.)
Their political beliefs are just as strong: 91 percent of religious conservatives identify as political conservatives, and 81 percent of religious liberals identify as political liberals. But both are even more partisan than that, as 84 percent of conservatives identified as Republicans and the same percentage of liberals identified as Democrats, and less than one in 10 say they are independents.
Religious activists on both sides of the aisle are well-educated, with seven in 10 conservative activists holding a college degree or higher and nine in 10 progressive activists saying the same -- while just 17 percent of the general public has a college or post-graduate education.
Both groups tend to be wealthier than most, though conservatives have an edge on liberals: 38 percent of conservatives make more than $100,000 a year, and one quarter make more than $150,000. Among liberals the figures are 30 percent making over $100,000 and 13 percent over $150,000. Still, not a bad gig compared to the $27,000 annual income of the typical American.
They even look alike, as some 95 percent of conservative religious activists are white, while progressives clock in just below that, at 92 percent white.
And they tend to be older in equal measure, and much older than the general population: While 60 percent of Americans are under 50 years of age, only 16 and 17 percent of conservative and religious activists, respectively, are under 50. Indeed, just 2 percent of conservative activists are between the ages of 18-34, and the figure is a mere 4 percent for progressives. Almost half of conservatives (49 percent) are over 65, and 43 percent of liberals are also senior citizens.
In short, if you gathered the entire religious right and religious left in a room on Capitol Hill you'd be hard-pressed to figure out which was which. The only obvious clue might be the fact that conservative activists are more likely to be men than women, by a 60-40 ratio, whereas progressive activists are more likely to be women, by a 52-46 percentage. (Who knows about the missing two percent.)
On the other hand, there are a number of stark and fascinating theological and ideological differences, though none terribly surprising:
Given a list of eight issues, 83 percent of conservatives listed abortion as a priority and 65 percent said same-sex marriage. Immigration (26 percent) and poverty (23 percent) were well down the list, with health care (10 percent) and the environment (6 percent) barely making the cut. Eight in 10 conservatives also want to have marriage legally defined as between one man and one woman, while six in 10 progressives want marriage defined as the union of two people of either gender.
For liberals, poverty (74 percent), health care (67 percent), the environment (56 percent), jobs/economy (48 percent) and the Iraq war (45 percent) dominate their attention. Same-sex marriage (8 percent) and abortion (7 percent) were almost afterthoughts, showing the religious divide between social justice and personal morality appears wider than ever.
In fact, more than nine in 10 conservatives (92 percent) say the chief cause of America's problems is "moral decay," while just 4 percent cite poverty and discrimination.
And the study confirms that the alliance of white Evangelicals and Catholic conservatives is the driving force of the religious right: More than half (54 percent) of conservative activists are Evangelical Protestants, and more than a third (35 percent) are Roman Catholics. Just 10 percent are mainline Protestants or "other Christian."
Shared beliefs, stark disagreements.
As Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address
, as he sought to divine the odd kinship of sworn foes who were finally winding down their bloody Civil War, "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."
Now, nearly 150 years later, that peculiar dynamic still seems to be at work.