By Ryan P. Burge and Paul A. Djupe
Featured Image Credit: Washington Post
One of the questions that we often get asked when we post analysis of Protestant Christianity is: what is a mainline Protestant? It seems that evangelicalism has become pretty widely known, while mainliners have not gotten the same notoriety. With that in mind, here’s a quick primer on mainline Protestants.
It is commonplace to identify the mainline to consist of members and churches in the American Baptist Church (USA), Disciples of Christ, Episcopal Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Quakers, Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church. As you will see, there is considerable variation within this group. These religious bodies are also associated with the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (abbreviated NCC), though the NCC’s membership extends well past these mainline bodies.
Generally speaking, mainline Protestant denominations are the more moderate counterpart to their evangelical cousins. It would never be appropriate to say that American Christianity was united, but over time as denominations formed and schismed, the mainline denominations remained in the more modernist camp. Though the reasons for the splits have varied considerably (see here for the Presbyterian family tree), how the Bible was to be read was a critical and common one. This theological difference is most clearly seen through the lens of biblical literalism. Biblical literalism (the idea that the Bible teaches that the Jonah was really swallowed by a whale, that Jesus came back from the dead in bodily form, and that the world was created in six 24-hour days) is a hallmark of evangelicalism, but is uncommon in mainline churches, which the graph below illustrates. Only 1 in 5 mainline Protestants are literalists, compared to nearly 2 in 3 evangelicals. The difference between the two is most succinctly described in the official position of the United Church of Christ: “We take the Bible seriously…not literally.”
There are other religious differences as well. Evangelicals place a great deal of emphasis on having a “born-again” experience. They believe that each individual needs to make an affirmative and spontaneous commitment to follow Jesus Christ and come forward during the invitational portion of a church service to make that commitment known. (Think Billy Graham revival). This affirms the idea of adult baptism and rejects infant baptism since infants cannot make an affirmative choice. On the other hand, many mainline churches use a confirmation process, whereby every young person in the church who is of a certain age goes through a series of informational classes and then decides whether they want to join the church. Eventually, that group of students is confirmed membership into the church body. There are other differences, too. For instance most mainline denominations ordain women, while evangelical churches (by and large) do not.
One would assume that the theological liberalism of mainliners would also translate into this group being more likely to support Democrats. The reality is much more complicated than that. The graph below shows the mean partisanship of both evangelical and mainline Protestants from 1972 to 2016. In the 1970’s, mainline Protestants were noticeably more Republican than evangelical Christians. The reason for this has more to do with evangelicals than mainliners. The primary reason is that the “Southern Strategy” of the Republican Party was still ongoing and Southern Baptists had not yet experienced the Conservative Takeover of the early 1980s which moved the denomination to the right (both theologically and politically). Notice that across the entire time frame, that mainline Protestants have become less Republican, but only very slightly and are now internally divided. In reality, some mainliners could accurately be described as “Country Club Republicans” a term that denotes individuals with above average incomes that prefer lower taxes, but are generally moderate on social issues.
This description moves into sharper focus when considering how evangelicals and mainline Protestants view social issues in the graph below. While there is not a tremendous amount of difference between the two groups in terms of partisanship, a significant gulf opens up when looking at abortion and gay marriage in 2016. Note that for both issues, just over a third of evangelicals are in favor of liberal social policy, while 60% of mainline Protestants are in favor of allowing gay people to get married and women being able to have an abortion if they chose to do so. This may be rooted, at least in part, on their theology. If one believes the Bible to be literally true, passages like “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5) or “Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” (Romans 1:27), can have a tremendous impact on one’s political orientation. On the other hand, many mainliners will say that those passages must be read in the context of when they were written and can be interpreted in many different ways.
The Future of Mainline Protestants
The elephant in the room for mainline Protestants, however, is that their share of the American population has seen an unprecedented decline in the last 40 years. For instance, in the mid 1970’s, 3 in 10 Americans identified as mainline. In fact, they were the largest religious group in the United States. Today, only one in ten Americans identify as mainline. This drop in adherents is surely linked to the rise in the religious nones. While just 5% of respondents in 1972 said they had no faith, today it’s closer to 22%. In 2017, Ed Stetzer wrote that if the current trend continues, mainline Protestants will disappear in 23 years. At the very least, the future of these denominations is not a rosy one.
This speaks to a larger trend occurring in American religion: moderates are disappearing. Work by Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock finds that the share of the population that is intensely religious (meaning frequent church attendance, prayer, and a literal view of the Bible) has not declined, while many moderate individuals have stopped identifying with religion entirely. Mainline Protestantism is ground zero for this phenomenon. It’s impossible to know if mainline traditions can reverse this trend, but it seems likely that fewer and fewer young Americans are aware that evangelical Christianity is not the only flavor of Protestantism in the United States.
Indeed, one of the conventional stories about the mainline is that they became generals without armies, with denominational elites taking political stances on civil rights and against the Vietnam War that were far too liberal for the membership. “Storms in the Churches” were the result, leading to the loss of members and donations. The downward trend seen above has been linked to the political activism of the mainline.
The distribution of partisanship among mainline affiliates belies this story, however. Partisanship was strongly “bimodal” (two peaks) in the 1970s and has since steadily flattened out. As the average in the graph above shows, the pews have not emptied of conservatives, but really of both strong Democrats and Republicans about equally. One reason: mainline affiliates are less likely to report hearing their clergy speak out on political issues. If political engagement drives out the apolitical, then the lack of political engagement across these denominations would make for a happy home for political independents.
The decline of the mainline may have lasting impacts on civil society since these denominations are heavily invested in health care provision (e.g., Riverside Methodist Hospital) and education (Gustavus Adolphus College is affiliated with the ELCA), as well as community food pantries, shelters, and other social welfare work. They also were leading voices from the religious community lobbying government; that voice has constricted considerably as the membership has declined.
Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.
Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (see his list of posts here). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.
For Further Reading
Djupe, Paul A. and Christopher P. Gilbert. 2009. The Political Influence of Churches. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Djupe, Paul A. and Christopher P. Gilbert. 2003. The Prophetic Pulpit: Clergy, Churches, and Communities in American Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Findlay, James F. 1993. Church People in the Struggle: The National Council of Churches and the Black Freedom Movement, 1950-1970. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hofrenning, Daniel J. B. 1995. In Washington But Not Of It: The Prophetic Politics of Religious Lobbyists. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Jones, Robert P. 2016. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Olson, Laura R., Paul A. Djupe, and Wendy Cadge. 2011. “Mainline Protestantism and Deliberation about Homosexuality.” In Religion, Sexuality, and Politics in Canada and the United States, Clyde Wilcox and David Rayside. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Smidt, Corwin. 2016. Pastors and Public Life: The Changing Face of American Protestant Clergy. New York: Oxford UP.
Walz, Jeffrey S., and Steven R. Montreal. 2007. Lutheran Pastors and Politics: Issues in the Public Square. St. Louis: Concordia.
Wuthnow, Robert, and John H. Evans, ed. 2002. The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[…] followed by those in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Note that both of these are flavors of mainline Christianity. Atheists clock in at the third position, and agnostics are ranked fifth in mean political […]
[…] By Ryan P. Burge and Paul A. Djupe @ Religion in Public […]
[…] another 14% neither agreeing or disagreeing. What is also striking is that mainline Protestants, despite their more liberal leanings, are also tepid in their feelings about same sex marriage. This data indicates that just 43.3% […]
[…] What is a Mainline Protestant? By Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe […]
[…] 78% say their campus welcomes transgender people). Large numbers of students attending public and mainline Protestant institutions also agree their campuses welcome the LGBT community. Differences in LGBT inclusivity […]
[…] of any religious organization in the US. In the American religious landscape it is the prototypical mainline church – filled with middle and upper-middle class, mostly white congregants who are moderate on social […]
[…] 昨年はまた、主流派のクリスチャンの数がわずかに増加した。これは、２０年近くで初めての増加だ。 […]
[…] year also brought a small uptick in the number of people who identify as mainline Protestants—their first increase in nearly 20 […]
[…] Non-white evangelicals, white mainline Protestants, and white Catholics. Which makes sense. The mainline is filled with old school, country club Republicans and younger social progressives. Non-white […]
[…] mainline churches also stand out here. For instance, just a third of the Episcopalians voted for the Republicans, […]
[…] Protestant there are only three buckets for you: evangelical, mainline, and black. We already wrote an explainer about mainline Protestants. But, why is one religious category based on race and not just their religious beliefs? Well, […]
[…] that their church belongs to and then that denomination is classified as falling into evangelical, mainline, or Black Protestant camps. The identification approach simply asks people whether they are […]
[…] in the United States that are more moderate (I happen to be one of them). However, they are disappearing at a rapid rate. The average mainline Protestant is nearly 60 years old, and many of them aren’t even that […]
[…] Here’s an excellent list curated by the Religion in public blog: […]
[…] religious families and even larger groups of religious traditions: evangelicals as separate from mainline Protestants (at least in the US). The history of doing so is motivated from splits in Protestant denominations […]
[…] to evangelicals, but can be seen across the board, though those already supportive in 2007 (e.g., Mainline Protestants) showed less movement. Even a strong majority (60 percent) of nones in 2007 who still attended a […]
[…] des jeunes générations. De même, le nombre de catholiques a lentement diminué, alors que le nombre de protestants historiques « Mainline », lui, s’est véritablement […]
[…] evangelicals perceive quite a bit less among their friends. There’s considerable diversity among mainliners and Catholics. Only among the nones do we see unity by race – both perceive little Trump support […]
[…] the most, but all have moved more supportive since 2016. Catholics begin the same place as mainline Protestants in 2016, but the gap between contexts has fully closed by 2020, with the most movement found among […]
[…] more or less inclusive. The figure below differentiates our Protestant sample into evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and the unclassified and then by their partisan identification. It is clear that evangelical […]
[…] worth pointing out is that of the oldest five religious traditions, four of them are from the mainline flavor of Protestant Christianity (ECUSA, UMC, PCUSA, and ELCA). The average Catholic is 50, the […]
[…] including 89 percent of Assemblies of God pastors and 83 percent of Southern Baptists. The mainline Protestant denominations (the bottom 4) are more divided, but with substantial majorities of Disciples of […]
[…] surprises are that nearly ⅔ of mainline Protestant Republicans are in the MAGA stream – not a lot of country club Republicans to be found here. But, […]
[…] non-religious are staying that way. Compared to other groups, evangelicalism is doing well. If mainline Protestant and Catholic retention rates have dipped 20 percent since the 1970s, retention has only dipped 5 […]