White Mainline Protestants: Doubly Out of Touch

The Pew Research Center’s typology study not only offers insight into the split world of white American evangelicalism. It also demonstrates that the mainline Protestant denominations are out of touch with the very people they think are their closest allies: liberals and Christians of color.

Mainline denominations have been moving to the left both theologically and politically throughout the past century, with that move accelerating in the early 21st century. This is largely because the Protestant mainline once was a major force in the United States, claiming most of the white American population as members within the denominations that comprised it. As a result, mainline churches tended to skew in the same direction that the white, middle class culture in the United States was heading, since that demographic was the same group that made up their membership. (Check out my book on the Methodist Episcopal Church to see how this relationship was forged initially in the nineteenth century.)

mainline churches tended to skew in the same direction that the white, middle class culture in the United States was heading

While the mainline no longer claims such a broad membership, it still adheres closely to the values of the white middle class demographic. And, while there are still a great many conservatives within that group, the Pew Report demonstrates that the group as a whole is moving toward more liberal positions on social issues, such as same-sex marriage, care for the environment, and the need for a stronger social safety net.

This alignment between the mainline and the cultural move to the left would seem to be a positive thing, making the denominations more attractive. However, just the opposite has proved true, with mainline denominations posting significant losses over the past fifty years. Why is this? The data reveals some interesting possibilities.

First, in spite of the mainline’s liberal slant, Pew shows that all categories of liberals are less likely to be members of mainline denominations than conservatives are. According to the study, the four groups that make up the liberal side of the political spectrum are the “Devout and Diverse,” the “Disaffected Democrats,” the “Opportunity Democrats,” and the “Solid Liberals.” The percentage of each of these groups that are members of white mainline denominations are 8, 8, 13, and 12, respectively. This contrasts with the four categories of conservatives, which each have between 16-18% of their constituents as members of white mainline denominations. This shows that conservatives are not only more likely to be evangelicals than liberals, but they are more likely to be members of white mainline denominations, too.

Insofar as the mainline is trying to tie itself as closely as possible to political liberals, it is engaged in a losing strategy.

Even more telling is the statistic on who claims to be unaffiliated with any religion (the so-called “nones,” meaning that they answer the question about their religious affiliation with the word “none”). The three most liberal categories have the three highest percentages in this area–Disaffected Democrats at 28%, Opportunity Democrats at 26% and Solid Liberals at a whopping 48%. All of these are substantially higher than any other group, and all are above the average percentage of Americans who are unaffiliated. In fact, together these three groups pull up the average by 10 percentage points. Without them calculated in, only an average of 15.4% of Americans claim to be unaffiliated. With them, an average of 25% of Americans say they are unaffiliated.

All of this should give the white mainline denominations pause. Insofar as the mainline is trying to tie itself as closely as possible to political liberals, it is engaged in a losing strategy. In effect, the mainline is pouring its resources into reaching a group that has already decided that it does not want what the mainline is offering. This is not to suggest that mainline should abandon reaching out to people who are committed liberals. However, it does mean that unless the mainline denominations are ready to engage in serious apologetics to demonstrate the reasonableness of the Christian faith—something that mainline Christians have usually eschewed in favor of engaging in witness through social justice—they will not be effective in doing much more than prompting a sort of civic religion of good works among these liberals. The white mainline denominations will not gain any serious new membership for their efforts.

the numbers suggest that if the mainline wants to thrive, it would do better to focus on conservatives.

At the same time, the numbers suggest that if the mainline wants to thrive, it would do better to focus on conservatives. This is both because conservatives are more likely to be in their pews already and because conservatives are less likely to define themselves as unaffiliated with religion overall.

This may be a bitter pill for the mainline to swallow, but it is essential if it is to survive. Mainline leadership, which often skews to the left theologically and politically, need to recognize that they are out of touch with the conservatives that are already in their flocks and that are more likely to be willing to join their flocks than other liberals. This means the liberal leadership must learn to speak and work with conservatives much more intentionally than it has for decades.

This may not be as hard as it sounds. The two least conservative of the four conservative categories, “Market Skeptic Republicans” and “New Era Enterprisers,” tend to be far less ideologically conservative. They are about evenly split on whether abortion should be legal (51% and 44% think it should be, respectively) and they largely favor same-sex marriage (57% and 54% in favor of it, respectively). They also tend to be more open to criticisms of the US not providing the necessary opportunities to Blacks, immigrants, and women. While these groups are not motivated by social justice because they are not convinced that the political and economic systems are fundamentally broken or in need of change, they are at least socially open enough for the liberal mainline leadership to open a dialogue with them rather than to lump them with the more ideological conservatives and write them off as irredeemable.

Not only are the mainline leaders out of touch with the conservatives they could connect with because of their emphasis on reaching liberals, they are out of touch with another group they have traditionally thought of as allies: marginalized Christians.

Not only are the mainline leaders out of touch with the conservatives they could connect with because of their emphasis on reaching liberals, they are out of touch with another group they have traditionally thought of as allies: marginalized Christians.

The “Devout and Diverse” category, which is the least liberal of the liberal categories, is the place where most of the Christians of color are located in the study. A full 32% of the people in this category are in what Pew calls “other Protestant” traditions—i.e., traditions that are neither “white evangelical” nor “white mainline.” The Disaffected Democrats come a close second to this, with 30% falling into the “other Protestant” category. A substantial number of these Christians are those who are members of the traditional Black Church as well as other Protestants of color.

The same misnomer that broad brushes both Core Conservatives and Country First Conservatives as “evangelicals” (which I wrote about in my last post) holds true for lumping Solid Liberals and the Devout and Diverse. Most mainline denominational leadership would fit into the Solid Liberal category, and they would see themselves as advocating for marginalized Christians who are in the Devout and Diverse category. However, the Devout and Diverse category is far more centrist than the Solid Liberals on social issues.

For example, while 96% of Solid Liberals approve of same-sex marriage, only 46% of the Devout and Diverse approve of it (making them even less accepting of it than the conservative-leaning Market Skeptic Republicans and the New Era Enterprisers). Likewise, while 90% of Solid Liberals believe abortion should be legal, only 49% of the Devout and Diverse do, again putting them in the same range as the more centrist conservative groups.

Perhaps more surprising, even though both groups agree that much more must be done to help Blacks in the United States, the Solid Liberals are more adamant about this. 98% of Solid Liberals say more must be done, but only 89% of the Devout and Diverse. In the same vein, while only 94% of the Solid Liberals approved of the Black Lives Matter movement, only 57% of the Devout and Diverse did.

If the Solid Liberal leadership of the white mainline denominations want to give genuine preference to the poor, they need to first adopt a listening attitude to what the people from the Devout and Diverse group says. Otherwise, that leadership teeters precariously on the edge of colonizing the experiences and opinions of marginalized Christians with their own experiences born from a more privileged life.

In addition to this, the Solid Liberals tend to be well-educated (57% college grad or above), financially stable (62% feel financially secure) urbanites (44% live in the city, 11% in rural areas) who are employed full time (57% have full time jobs), while the Devout and Diverse tend to be less educated (56% high school or below), financially insecure people (only 35% feel financially secure) who are much more likely to live in rural areas (34% live in the city, 23% in rural areas) and who are not employed (30% have full time jobs). The very different experiences that these differences will cause people in each group to have should not be downplayed.

While Solid Liberals may be deeply concerned about issues of poverty and the needs of the marginalized, the Devout and Diverse are actually living those issues. If the Solid Liberal leadership of the white mainline denominations want to give genuine preference to the poor, they need to first adopt a listening attitude to what the people from the Devout and Diverse group says. Otherwise, that leadership teeters precariously on the edge of colonizing the experiences and opinions of marginalized Christians with their own experiences born from a more privileged life.

Having once set the trend for mainstream American culture, it now is woefully out of touch with those who are in its pews and those who it thinks it best advocates for in the name of justice.

This data should be a wake-up call for the leadership of white mainline Protestant denominations. Having once set the trend for mainstream American culture, it now is woefully out of touch with those who are in its pews and those who it thinks it best advocates for in the name of justice. Its significant decline in membership is witness to just how far out of touch it has become. The only way back from this is by humbling itself to listen to and learn from the very people it has ignored either because it has thought them part of the problem or because it has thought it already knew what they needed.

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