Daily Comment
The Unlikely Rebound of Mainline Protestantism
For the first time in decades, a study finds that white mainline Protestants outnumber white evangelicals in the U.S.
By Bill McKibben
July 16, 2021
Congregations like the one at Two Ridges Presbyterian Church, in Wintersville, Ohio, have been growing, reflecting a surge in the over-all number of white mainline Protestants.Photograph by John Greim / Getty
Since we’re at a delicate moment in our democracy—featuring a Presidential candidate who lost the Electoral College by just 42,918 votes and responded by urging his followers to attack the Capitol—we should be grateful for signs of certain kinds of moderation returning to our national life. A new Gallup poll reports that, as vaccinations spread and unemployment drops, more Americans say that they are “thriving” than at any time in the past dozen years, which surely means that at least some of the anger in the country might wane. And, last Thursday, the Public Religion Research Institute reported some interesting numbers about faith in America, which may indicate something similar.
Most of the news coverage of the P.R.R.I. study has focussed on the fact that it shows a dramatic drop in the number of white Americans who identify as evangelical Christians, from twenty-three per cent of the population in 2006 to fourteen per cent in 2020. There has also been a slight drop in the number of “nones”—the religiously unaffiliated—from twenty-six per cent in 2018 to twenty-three per cent in 2020. But what I found most unexpected was the reported uptick in the number of white mainline Protestants. According to the study, they represent 16.4 per cent of the population (up from thirteen per cent in 2016), which means that they now outnumber white evangelicals, some of whom may have defected to the traditional denominations. Though the methodology is a little unclear—this “2020 Census of American Religion” categorizes all self-identifying white Christians who said that they weren’t evangelical or born again as “white mainline Protestants”—the news seems as profound as it is unexpected.
For several decades, a prevailing narrative of white American Christian life has been about the decline of Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, and other once-dominant Protestant sects. In this telling, the “mainline” became the “sideline,” as congregations fled the moral relativism of out-of-touch pastors, who replaced God’s word with liberal politics. Having been baptized a Presbyterian, grown up as a Congregationalist, and spent my adult life as a Methodist, I watched this decline close up. Churches closed, congregations aged, and the image of Christianity in the popular mind came to be one of sexism, libertarian capitalism, and a pervasive individualism—the idea of God as, above all, a “personal savior.”
The fade of that brand of evangelicalism in America—the P.R.R.I. report shows that its cultural hegemony is increasingly confined to the Southeast—is not a great shock. As early as 2007, researchers were picking up strong signals that young people weren’t as inclined to follow those churches on key cultural issues: eighty per cent of even young churchgoers reported, critically, that their strongest perception was that Christianity was “anti-homosexual”—not an illogical conclusion given the amount of time that evangelicals spent on the issue (oddly, since the Gospels never mention it). Eventually, most white evangelical congregants tied themselves to Donald Trump—in 2016, eighty-one per cent of white evangelical voters chose him and, according to a P.R.R.I. poll from 2018, he had a seventy-two-per-cent approval rating among them—despite the fact that he showed not the slightest sign of Christian understanding or behavior. As a result, at least in part, some prominent evangelicals started to leave their churches. (And, certainly, some evangelicals never supported Trumpism.) New recruits are not flooding in to replace those who have left: white evangelicals, according to the P.R.R.I. report, are now the oldest of religious Americans, with an average age of fifty-six.
The reported rise in the number of mainline Protestants, though, is surprising. Diana Butler Bass, an unflagging chronicler of American Protestantism who, having gone in her personal life from the mainline to the evangelical and back again, was ahead of her time, points out that, for decades, the media paid no attention to these declining (and demure) denominations, concentrating instead on the provocative Falwells, Swaggarts, and Robertsons. “If one was born after 1980, it was hard to know that mainline Protestantism even existed,” she writes.
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The new numbers, of course, don’t mark anything like a return to the previous status quo, when mainline Protestantism ruled American spiritual life. Take 1958 as a high-water mark: that year, as Dwight Eisenhower laid the cornerstone for the Interchurch Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the religion researchers Mark Silk and James Hudnut-Beumler report that fifty-two per cent of Americans, many of whom were moving to the new suburbs, were affiliated with one of the mainline denominations that are members of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, which was headquartered in that building. (It is sometimes called the Protestant Kremlin—or the God Box.) Without this “firm foundation, national morality could not be maintained,” the President intoned. (Ike himself, raised in the Mennonite tradition, was baptized a Presbyterian less than two weeks after taking office.)
But the very broadness of the church’s reach was its weakness: attendance was, as many pointed out, often more a cultural expectation than an active commitment. As the nineteen-sixties and seventies wore on, and the liberal denominations started making significant commitments around racial justice and peace, many of their adherents did fall away. For others, though, the churches didn’t go far enough, with many wavering for decades about the idea, for example, that gay congregants should be full participants in church life. Being in the middle seemed a recipe for irrelevance.
Yet perhaps the Trump years have taught us a little bit about the virtues of a kind of modest center—even now, according to the P.R.R.I survey, thirty-five per cent of white mainline Protestants identify as Democrats, thirty-three per cent as Republicans, and thirty per cent as independents. (The Biden years may prove instructive, too, as the Catholic bishops—who have made common cause with right-wing evangelicals for years—threaten to deny the President communion.) In any event, these mainline churches are not the same as those of the suburban heyday of the sixties. Like surviving local independent bookstores responding to modern readers, they have had to become more responsive to the emotional needs of spiritual seekers, channelling the desire for connection into the arts and a wide array of service projects.
Butler Bass writes a newsletter, in which, after the P.R.R.I. poll came out, she described how a declining Episcopalian church in Santa Barbara, California, that she once attended managed to rebound: “They married gay members before marriage equality was legal in California. They went to protest marches. They innovated liturgy. They read liberal theology books, studied feminist and liberation theology, embraced contemporary biblical criticism. They followed no plan—except for believing that Christianity was an adventure and that Christian community could be transformative, challenging, and deeply spiritual in and for the world.” Today, when activists fight pipelines or police brutality, they often lean on support from the clergy of such places of worship, who tend to skew more liberal than their congregants in the pews.
Butler Bass and other church progressives may now compete with evangelical megachurch pastors as unofficial spokespeople for their faith, complicating the public image of what white Protestants in America believe and how they act. “A really important moment is here,” she wrote last week. “The story of an old religious tradition hasn’t ended the way critics once thought. Paraphrasing the words of the old Monty Python sketch, ‘We’re not dead yet.’ We’ve just been awaiting resurrection.”
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Bill McKibben is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He writes The Climate Crisis, The New Yorker’s newsletter on the environment.
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