Are Mainline Protestants Democrats?

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

“Without the Jedi, there can be no balance in the Force.” – Lor San Tekka in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. 

I wanted to clarify something about American Protestant Christianity that seems to have been stirred up by the candidacy of Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Mayor Pete is a practicing Episcopalian, a denomination that is part of the mainline tradition of American religion. Pete’s not shy about speaking about faith during interviews and on the campaign trail. So, the media has started to pick up on Pete’s messaging and some have written pieces about the “other” type of American Protestantism. 

As a member of a mainline denomination myself, I appreciate the fact that the media is beginning to give some airtime to anything other than evangelical Christianity. However, I’m not sure if the average American, or average journalist fully understands the political dimensions of mainline Protestantism. Many of them want to believe, to paraphrase Lor San Tekka, that “without mainline Protestants, there can be no balance in the politics of American Protestants.” 

The assumption here is that mainliners are a refuge for politically liberal Christians who still hold a belief in orthodox Christian principles. However, that’s a mischaracterization. In fact, it would be ill-advised to even consider that mainline Protestants are a solid voting bloc for any political party. Let me explain by first displaying the political partisanship of some of the largest evangelical denominations in the United States in 2018. 

As can be seen from the graph, there’s a lot of red and very little blue. Take the Southern Baptist Convention, which has become the de facto proxy for all of evangelicals’ political behavior and religious belief. In 2018, nearly two thirds of them (64.8%) identified as Republicans, compared to just a quarter (27.8%) who affiliate with the Democrats. And that’s not atypical among evangelicals. Over three quarters of those from the Assembly of God are Republicans, while the same can be said for nearly two thirds of Lutherans from the Missouri Synod and nondenominational evangelicals. The only denomination that is included here that breaks from the pattern is the Church of Christ, which I have a sneaking suspicion was misidentified by a number of survey respondents. 

That pattern is not surprising, though. It’s well known that evangelicals are Republicans who strongly support Donald Trump. So, in order to bring balance, many would expect to see that mainline Protestants are the mirror opposites of their evangelical kin. 

I took the denominations that are often referred to as the “seven sisters” of Mainline Christianity and did the same procedure, dividing them into Democratic, Independent, and Republican categories using data from 2018. That’s displayed below. 

Again, we should expect to see a lot more blue than red in this data visualization to believe that mainline Protestants are a refuge for Christian Democrats. But, that’s clearly not the case. First, note that there are only three denominations where Democrats comprise a majority of the population: ABCUSA, Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ. However, these are slim majorities. For instance, Mayor Pete’s Episcopal Church is just 52.7% Democratic compared to 41.1% Republican. That’s not what I would call overwhelmingly liberal. 

And when looking at some of the other “seven sisters,” we see the opposite of what many would guess: there are more Republicans than Democrats. The United Methodist Church, which is the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States, is 53.7% Republican compared to just 35.1% Democratic. Other denominations follow suit including the Disciples of Christ (52.8% Republican) and the PCUSA which is 49.9% Republican. 

If anything this confirms the idea that while evangelicalism (especially white evangelicalism) is overwhelmingly Republican, the major of mainline denominations are much more politically diverse. In fact, I would be uncomfortable labeling any of them as Democratic denominations, considering that the gap between Democrats and Republicans in the most lopsided denomination (Disciples of Christ) is just twenty points. The same gap for most evangelical groups is on the order of forty percentage points. 

Let’s not equate “less conservative” with “liberal.”

But, is this just some weird artifact of using data from just 2018? Maybe mainline Protestants used to be much more Democratic and then have drifted to the middle over time. To test this, I plotted the mean political partisanship of three different groups in the GSS from 1972 to 2018. Mainline Protestants are the red line, evangelicals are denoted by the gold line, while the mean partisanship of the entire sample is in blue as a way to give a reference point. 

The results from the 1970’s are fascinating. Mainline Protestants were much more Republican than both the average American and the average evangelical during this time period. This has a great deal to do with the fact that “southern Democrats” were still a thing during this point in American history. Interestingly enough, the partisanship of evangelicals was not that different than the overall partisanship of the country as a whole between 1972 and the late 1980’s. Then, evangelicals took a hard turn to the Republican party. This turn has evolved into a slower drift in recent years, but now evangelicals are further to the Republican end than mainline Protestants. 

But notice the trend line for mainline Protestants. In effect, the average mainline Protestant in 1972 had the same political partisanship as a mainliner in 2018. Mainliners are just as Republican as they have ever been, which means something quite different given how conservative Republicans are these days. The amount of consistency there is startling considering that the trend line for the entire sample shows so much movement. 

To put it simply, if you were a mainline Protestant in 1972, evangelicals were not at all like you in terms of partisanship – they were closer to the Democratic side. Now, they are politically further to your right. If anything, the best way to describe mainline Protestantism’s politics today or forty years ago is slightly to the right of center. It would be a mistake to ever identify them as Democrats, although it would be more appropriate to say that many were moderate Republicans.  

When someone like Mayor Pete runs for office, it’s easy to think that his liberal views of politics and theology are emblematic of his religious tradition, but that’s really just the exception fallacy. As a counter example, consider that President George W. Bush was also a member of a mainline denomination – the United Methodist Church. No one wrote stories about mainline Protestants being overwhelmingly conservative when he ran for President. 

On balance, mainline Protestants are political moderates. Because of their diverse political composition they may be ideal places to practice political deliberation in American society as Djupe and colleagues have written about (e.g., here). However, they are also declining at a rapid rate, having dropped from 30% of the population in the 1970’s to just 10% today. It seems telling that the one Christian tradition that is politically heterogeneous is also the one that is also rapidly declining. 

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.  The syntax for this post can be found here. 

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