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