White mainline Protestantism is in decline — at least, that’s been the prevailing narrative for the past few decades.
White evangelical Christian denominations have ascended to political power, continuing a trajectory that’s been in place since Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority movement of the 1980s. Meanwhile, the traditionally politically centrist Protestant tradition — which includes such denominations as Episcopalians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, and more — has ceded its position of influence in government and media while also hemorrhaging members.
Mainline Protestants — 86 percent of whom are white (historically black Protestant churches, like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, are not generally counted among historic mainline denominations) — have historically been about evenly split between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. But, in an increasingly fractured political landscape, what is next for these relative moderates?
As Robert Jones wrote in his 2017 book The End of White Christian America, the mainline Protestant tradition in America once doubled as “a shared aesthetic, a historical framework, and a moral vocabulary” for American values. Now, however, that tradition feels consigned to irrelevance, even as the Christian nationalist tradition that has informed so much of evangelical thought continues to become more and more influential.
But we may now be seeing a rise of the politically active mainline Protestant tradition, particularly as a foil to Trumpian Christian nationalism. There was presiding Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry’s fiery sermon at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding this spring, in which he called for radical social justice. Then there was Bishop Gene Robinson’s political message welcoming LGBTQ Christians at the interring of Matthew Shepard (he also urged listeners to go “vote”). There was Rev. William Barber’s revival of Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign: a Christian movement to end social injustice and wealth inequality.
Across denominations, major mainline figures have been making high-profile statements deeply critical of Trump, racism, and capitalism alike. Meanwhile, historic organizations like the National Council of Churches, a historic umbrella organization for mainline Protestants, are taking more politicized stances: the council recently demanded that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh surrender his nomination over his handling of the sexual assault allegations against him.
Perhaps most notably of all, white mainline Protestants are the only religious demographic to change their minds on Trump since his inauguration. While a September Public Religion Research Institute poll found that nearly all religious blocs, from white evangelicals to the religiously unaffiliated, remain constant in their stated views on Trump, approval of the president has dropped by 9 percentage points among white mainline Protestants, to 48 percent.
In an increasingly polarized age, mainline Protestants — and, in particular, white mainline Protestants — may be some of the only “swing voters” left. In both Tuesday’s midterms and the 2020 elections, white mainline Protestants represent a potentially powerful electoral force. And the rise of liberal progressive activism among mainline Protestants may represent a spiritually robust counterbalancing force to the increasingly right-wing nature of evangelical Christianity.
To better understand the future of mainline Protestantism, and what that means for the American electorate, I turned to scholars and authors James Hudnut-Beumler and Mark Silk, editors of the 2018 academic essay collection The Future of Mainline Protestantism in America. We spoke about the history of mainline Protestantism in America, what it means to be a “values voter,” and the gender disparity within mainline Protestant voters. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Tara Isabella Burton
So, for starters, what exactly is mainline Protestantism, and why was it such a potent culture force in America before the 1960s?
Mainline Protestantism comes from the Protestants who first came to the United States, plus those early 19th century American groups like Methodists and Disciples of Christ, Congregations, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and reform groups who came from Europe who were the only initial Protestants.
Only subsequently in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Protestants fissured into fundamentalists and a more moderate main group, was there any sort of divisions that we would later recognize as a division between mainline Protestantism and evangelicals. So, mainline Protestants are the remnants of the oldest Protestant groups in America.
As old groups with large members of adherents, they were culturally significant because their members could be found in every walk of life and especially in politically important and culturally important places like governmental leadership positions, in Congress, in the Supreme Court, in the Presidency. And leading the media.
Mainline Protestants comprised over half of the population until the early 1960s, and together with Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists they accounted for upwards of 80 percent of Americans. These big box denominations, if you will, accounted for a lot of cultural clout.
There seemed to be a kind of pan-Protestant leadership at the national level in the 20th century, through the establishment of organizations like the Federal Council of Churches, now known as the National Council of Churches. Just look at the National Cathedral in Washington, an Episcopal church, which dared to call itself a National Cathedral. There was a sense in which a Protestant establishment really did have certain sort of leadership over American culture — inclusive up to a point, and powerful.
And there were were important figures in the middle of the 20th century, who would normally appear on the cover of Time magazine — if you were the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church or the leading Methodist Bishop, these were important figures in American society generally. And even though numerically mainline Protestants didn’t overwhelm everyone else, they counted for a lot.
Tara Isabella Burton
When did that change? What are some of the factors that led to mainline Protestant decline? And to what extent did the rise of the political evangelical right as a potent electoral and cultural force factor into that?
When it began to come apart for mainline Protestants, it was partly with the rise of the evangelicals, but before that, it began to come apart when they stopped having as many children. They didn’t have four or five children, as they had in the 19th century and early 20th century. They didn’t pass on the faith to their children as effective way through confirmation classes or Christian colleges. Then, through the problems of Vietnam, and [the era of] campus unrest, each successive generation of mainline Protestantism has been a little less observant than the last.
But the fascinating thing is that the declining mainline Protestant church-affiliated politicians and cultural leaders out-punched their weight, and have continued to do so for a much longer time than their churches’ adherents’ population numbers would, by themselves, suggest. Just because you have a much larger number of evangelicals doesn’t mean you have Episcopalians in Congress at the rate of a mere one percent. So people who have been part of the big-tent religious institutions have been overrepresented in Congress relative to the evangelicals to this day. It’s been a slow change.
Tara Isabella Burton
Let’s talk about mainline Protestantism now, as a voting bloc. What are their values and needs? Can we talk about them the way we’d talk about, say, white evangelicals, who often have a clearly defined set of policy positions?
Mainline Protestants have been getting together with other Protestants since 1908 with the formation of the Federal Council of Churches in the age of the social gospel, calling for things like reform to child labor, laws against lynching. Their high point was the civil rights movement as allies, and the anti-war movement.
Now, if you look at the National Council of Churches, the successor to the Federal Council of Churches, it’s a shell of what it once was. But it’s in these churches’ DNA to play in the public sphere. Their version of church does not allow them to say “we’ll just do our religious thing in our houses of worship and we’ll go to heaven and it’ll be okay. We’ll just let the world die on its own, because it’s an evil God-forsaken place.”
The one thing that nearly every mainline Protestant could be made to agree on is they’re supposed to do something about the world that they live in. They won’t all agree on what that something is.
Much of the important public role of the mainline churches is at a local, subnational level. For example at my community [in Connecticut],the need to take care of Syrian refugees — became a huge deal for mainline Protestantism. They really led the way, adopting families, getting things together to take care of them. Likewise if you go up the road from Hartford to Springfield there was a Congregational church who took in an undocumented woman to protect her.
The thing I told a recent group of mainline Christians was, particularly here in the South, everybody is a values voter. And they get irritated — the ones who are not conservative Christians but other Christians — they get irritated when they’re told they’re not values voters. They just have different values they’re executing on than we currently feature on television, when abortion and homosexuality is the only religious value we’re keying in on.
Tara Isabella Burton
What about voting, particularly in the upcoming midterms? Given the Public Religion Research Institute poll that came out recently that suggested that mainline Protestants were turning away from Trump, who is shifting, why, and what does this mean for the future of mainline Protestantism?
One of the things that’s revealing about that: it found that 25 percent of white evangelicals would, under no circumstances, support anyone but Trump, they’ll go down to the end of their days for Trump. For white mainline Protestants that number is 22 percent. Even though white mainline Protestants don’t support Trump overall, it shows you what a diverse group white mainline Protestants are. We have to understand them in the aggregate — but there are going to be some real swing voters among mainline Protestants.
Take a white woman who is is fairly conservative on social issues. But on the other hand, she is in favor of gun control and spending money for education and social welfare program and feels badly for DACA kids, but at the same time doesn’t like abortion and so on. Those people in that category are pulled in opposite directions in terms of the political parties. So if Donald Trump behaves like a complete jerk, they say, well, okay, I’m done with him. At least for the next five minutes. These are people pulled by the parties. That’s why you see shifting there but not around white evangelicals.
One of the features of mainline Protestant voting is that there tends to be a very, very salient between white male and female mainline Protestants, with the women voting strongly Democrat and men voting quite Republican. The joke I would make is that “you know mainline Protestant couples don’t talk to each other, so don’t be surprised.” As we focus on what’s going to happen next Tuesday, it’s important to understand that those white soccer moms who are attending Presbyterian and Episcopal and Congregationalist churches are a key factor. They underperformed a bit for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — whether they over-perform as the Democrats hope they will is a big question.
Tara Isabella Burton
What about more broadly? Where do you see mainline Protestantism going? Will it continue to decline, or are we seeing a resurgence of its traditional social role?
The fascinating reality of these churches is that they’ve always been nurtured by people who are coming from more conservative expressions of faith into them. My wife is a working Presbyterian minister, and it’s been fascinating throughout her 30-plus year ministry to see people who’ve been wounded by the more rigid churches on the spectrum — we’re usually talking evangelical here, but sometimes Catholic — who find themselves coming to the mainline church who take the places of some of the mainline children who don’t come back. We don’t know what the future is but it’s more complex than saying that the same group of people who are there now are all we’ve got to work with.