Perhaps being socially progressive and Christian are not such mutually exclusive value positions after all?
In her recent paper on the rise of the Christian Left, Karen Tong put forward a view that suggests that most Christians tend to land on the Right of politics, that Christians are essentially conservative, politically speaking, that voting patterns amongst Christians on the Left are less certain and that there are fewer Christians on the Left side of politics than on the Right. Her primary data source seemingly being the National Church Life survey (2016). In this article I want test some of these contentions and do so by offering a social profile of the Christian Left, using data from a nationally representative survey of Australians aged over 18 years under taken for me by instinct and reason (2014-15) prior to the National Church life survey. Additional data are drawn from recent surveys of millennials and O 55s conducted by instinct and reason (2017-2019).
First and foremost, my research asked people if they identified as being on the Left or the Right of the political spectrum. The results of the survey shows that there are in fact more Christians identifying on the Left of the political spectrum (25%) than on the Right (18%). The data also suggest that the spread of the Christian vote is also more nuanced than the National Church life survey suggests with Labor voters attracting 27% of the Christian vote, Greens 11%, and Liberal Nationals 37%. Moreover, some Labor voters identified as being on the Right while some Liberal voters identified as being on the Left. Christians as a political cohort are in then a complex group and segmented across the political divide.
The data showed that the Christian Left is to be found across our cities and country towns, just as much as the Right. But beyond domicile, the differences are stark. The Christian Left person is more likely to be a university educated female aged 35 – 44 years, from a culturally diverse background, while the Christian Right person is more likely to be male aged over 75 years, perhaps possessing a trade. People on the Christian Left are more likely to practice their faith on a daily basis and through the month while the Christian Right are typically Sunday church goers or perhaps Christmas and Easter. Across the Board people in the Christian Left are more likely than the Right to be engaged with a host of practices including sacred reading, doing retreats, making pilgrimages, receiving spiritual guidance of various kinds, meditating, participating in healing rites of various kinds or doing yoga. Compared to the Right, the Christian Left are far more likely to actually invest time and money in their spiritual development. The Christian Left can also be found being out and about bushwalking, camping, gardening, volunteering in a community group or supporting an environmental group. Importantly they reported being more likely to find that their engagement in such things added to their spiritual lives, as did their participation in the arts and crafts. Members of the Christian Left were also more likely to state that engaging with practices such as these added purpose to their lives.
The Christian Left is not an alternative grouping to other Christian gatherings. They are part and parcel of the mainstream. But if they have one thing in common is that they are mostly not part of the fundamentalist movements within Christianity. Insights arising from my analysis on one contemporary social issue of interest – assisted dying for the terminally ill – illustrates the point. Christians (aged 18 – 35 years) from Roman Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Churches were more likely to support, for example, assisted dying for the terminally ill, than were members of other Christian churches.
These data present a picture of the Christian Left as people who are deeply engaged with their beliefs and practices and that links exist between faith-based living and their broader participation in society. Belief as such is central, not marginal, to their political lives. These insights also readily rebut the view that most Christians are on the Right of politics or that to be a Christian to be a conservative. Rather, when proper segmentation tools are used it can readily be seen that there are distinct and consistent voting patterns present amongst distinct Christian groupings. The Christian Left, as it were, is already a critical voting bloc, it just hasn’t harnessed its political power into a coherent or well-organized social movement that is as pervasive as the Christian Right. One thing is clear though, the Christian Left has had enough of being lumped in with the fundamentalist Right. A non-denominational space is opening up that allows one to be socially progressive and Christian. This space allows people to develop and express values that have grown out of their belief and practice, rather than simply having to be a public representation of some historically received, culturally laden, doctrinal position. As people bring to bear insights from the physical and social sciences upon value-based issues of the day, they will continue to arrive at informed positions on issues that hadn’t even been thought of when things like the Bible were being complied. Scholars such as John Crossan contend that social change, and particularly social justice, are central to Christianity. If Crossan’s analysis is correct, then in these times of increasing social inequality one would hardly be surprised to see Christians, in some numbers, align with the political Left, or form their own expression of it, and collectively work together for a better world within a collective, non-hierarchical and non-denominational manner. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.
Anthony Hogan PhD is a sociologist. He is Adjunct Research Professor, Public and Contextual Theology Research Centre, Charles Sturt University, Barton, Australia. His most recent book is entitled Can we start again please? Towards reform of the Catholic Church. Kindle Publishing (Amazon.com) (2018).