Religion and the 2004 Election

A Special Supplement to Religion in the News
Fall 2003


                                                      by Laura R. Olson

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Table of Contents

Special Section: Introduction

The New Religion Gap

Hispanic Catholics

Non-Hispanic Catholics

Evangelicals Inside the Beltway

Evangelicals Outside the Beltway

Mainline Protestants

African American Protestants


Arab Americans: Muslims and Others












































































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Mainline Protestants belong to the historic, once socially dominant, largely hierarchical denominations. They account for 20 to 22 percent of all Americans, one in five.

However, these denominations have been in numeric decline since the 1950s. Some cynics like to call mainline Protestants “oldline Protestants.” The decline, though, according to most observers, has leveled off since the 1990s.

Demographically, mainline Protestants are on the old side. The churches are full of gray-haired people. They're better educated than the general population, overwhelmingly Caucasian, and occupy higher paying and higher status jobs. This economic advantage has always been characteristic of mainline Protestants. This is why they were socially dominant until the 1950s, ’60s, or so.

Why have mainline Protestants been losing members?

The 1960s generation rejected a lot of the institutions that they saw as being part of the existing power structure. Many left the church of their parents and have moved away from organized religion altogether. Evangelicalism presented a very attractive alternative for others who sought a more contemporary worship style and clear-cut answers to life's problems.

 Mainline Protestantism is not rigid at all. Scripture is open to interpretation; it means what you want it to mean. Clergy in the pulpit might say, “Here's an interpretation I would like to put forth, but you feel free to disagree.” Clergy are not seen as the authoritative voice on theology or, more importantly for our purposes, politics or social issues.

This is exemplified in commercials being run by the United Methodist Church, which say: “The United Methodist Church, open hearts, open minds, open doors.” That exemplifies the general approach of mainline Protestant churches: “We're open to whatever, we're open to diversity”—political diversity, economic diversity, and to some extent diversity in sexual orientation.

It is safe to say that political influence on the part of mainline Protestants has indeed been in some decline since the 1980s. The mid-1950s to the mid-1980s was a period of significant and sustained public witness by national mainline Protestant leaders. Clergy and other leaders were deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the Nuclear Freeze Movement, the fight in American cities for fair housing and economic justice for the poor, and sheltering refugees from the Nicaraguan Contras.

All of this, of course, flows out of mainline Protestants' longstanding commitment to the fight for social justice. This goes back at least to the 1920s when Protestantism in the U.S. began to teach a couple of important things that bear on politics. First was that Jesus Christ was a moral teacher who modeled working for social justice for the poor—not so much Christ as personal savior, but Christ in this world working for the poor, working for social justice.

The second line that mainline Protestant seminaries have emphasized is the importance of being active in this world—not just thinking about the sweet by-and-by and the world to come in heaven, but rather getting down in the trenches and doing something about poverty and racism and other things.

In the 1960s, this theological trend gave rise to so-called new breed leftist mainline Protestant clergy. Many of these pastors went into congregations and found it very difficult to mobilize their congregants. They were excited about civil rights and these kinds of political issues, but they walked into churches attended by people who were well off socio-economically, conservative in an Eisenhower kind of way, and not very willing to push the envelope when it came to politics.

Nevertheless, there has always been a strong sense of noblesse oblige in mainline Protestantism.

In recent years, mainline Protestant political influence has moved out of the spotlight. It has moved off the national stage, but I would argue that there is a lot of the action locally that doesn't get covered in the national press.

Why this move from national to local-level witness?

First, the Reagan years redefined the political culture in a way that made mainline Protestants political outsiders in Washington, D.C. No longer did they have the kind of entree they had with the Johnson administration, or even the Carter administration. All of a sudden the doors shut, and they were out. If you don’t have access to D.C., you have to turn elsewhere to get things done.  

Second—this is also related to Reagan—if the political action is in the states, then that's where you want to direct your activism.

Third, a lot of mainline Protestant churches for the first time have poor people on the steps of their churches, and their longstanding commitment to social justice motivates them to try and do something to help these folks.

So, today mainline Protestants are not as visible. The anti-poverty work is not perceived by mainline Protestants themselves as political. They say this is social work.

They do still have some national-level witness. It isn't all that influential, but let me mention it anyway.

First, the National Council of Churches, despite some challenges in the past five years or so, is still there and still witnesses for social justice.

The Interfaith Alliance positions itself as an antithesis to the Christian Right. It doesn’t get a lot of press, and maybe that’s rightfully so.

Washington-based denominational lobbying offices are poorly funded. In some instances, they are staffed by one guy and maybe an administrative assistant. They're also hindered by the fact they can only speak on issues that their denominations have voted upon and come to some kind of agreement about. They can't just go out and do whatever is politically expedient. They only represent the agenda their denominations put forward.

These lobbying offices can be effective when they work in coalition. For example, in the 2000 international debt relief initiative, these Washington offices played a very important role.

At the same time, mainline Protestants are not going to look to these offices for guidance on Election Day. Most mainline Protestants don't even know these offices exist.

The action is at the local level. There remains a large number of very liberal clergy who are willing to talk to their congregations about issues like gay rights, for example, or problems inherent in the Iraq war, and so on. However, a lot of mainline parishioners don't listen to their clergy.

Some congregations, especially in cities, have a lot of political synergy—everybody is liberal and involved in social justice issues.

But keep in mind that region makes a big difference. Mainline Protestants in the South are clearly more conservative. They reflect the political culture around them. It’s regional, and it's urban/rural.

Looking ahead at 2004, what can we expect from mainline Protestants? I would argue that mainline Protestants are swing voters. In the World War II era, mainline Protestants in the pews were Eisenhower/Nixon type Republicans, strong fiscal conservatives. Now, there has been a shift toward the political center. Why might this be?

First there has been some marginal effect of the political clergy that they've been listening to for many years. Not a big influence, but some. More importantly, there is reaction against the Evangelical-Republican Alliance. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” or something to that effect.  

They're no longer reliably Republican, and they're not a bunch of Democrats, either. However, they're more open to voting Democrat, especially for moderate candidates like Bill Clinton, and perhaps Howard Dean or Joe Lieberman.

They remain politically important for this reason, and because they vote. Turnout rates among mainline Protestants, especially the most committed, are high. They're very well educated. They also have a longstanding commitment to civic engagement and place great weight on the importance of being a good citizen. These characteristics predict voter turnout. So I think it's safe to say that probably about one in every five voters on Election Day 2004 will be mainline Protestant.

 Another reason they are important is that many of the hotly contested moral issues floating around out there, such as gay rights, have already been fought out in mainline Protestant circles. A lot of these folks have already grappled with issues, such as abortion rights, gay rights, environmental protection, racial reconciliation, and this sort of thing. If these become wedge issues or cleaving issues, you can expect mainline Protestants to have a good deal to say.

Will the people listen to them? Mainline leaders, if they attract media attention and if they work in coalition with left-wing groups, could help shape the public agenda. Even if they're not reaching people in the pews, they might affect the public discourse in interesting ways.

Two big issues to watch are the ongoing controversy about the war in Iraq and gay rights.

The United Methodist Church ran a commercial before the war, saying, “We're President Bush's church and we're against the war.” Of course, nobody paid attention to it, but that particular denomination was willing to go on national TV and say: “We're against the war.” They probably have some propensity to do so again.

A study by Andrew Kohut and John Green, however, showed that the most committed mainline Protestants, the attenders, are quite Republican and very, very pro military, which suggests that Bush is going to get their vote, maybe even more so because of the war.

Gay rights is going to be a wedge issue. The Episcopalian Church, as we all know, fought bloody battles during the summer months over Bishop Robinson’s installment as the first openly gay bishop. How much mainline clergy will have to say about gay rights is hard to say, because many clergy are scared to death to talk about it. Often, mainline clergy are afraid to talk politics because they worry it will undermine their job security. If they're seen as too liberal, especially on something as controversial as gay marriage or gay rights, their congregation might boot them out.

Finally, many of them are elderly. Many want to make sure that Social Security is protected and might like to see a prescription drug benefit added to Medicare. To some extent, that would draw them toward the Democratic Party.