The Unlikely Rebound of Mainline Protestantism


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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…

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