The last quarter of the twentieth century will surely be remembered for its religious conservatism. The Moral Majority, led by fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, dominated headlines during the 1980s. Support from conservative political operatives like Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie helped it to mobilize millions of Christians for causes as different as championing parochial schools and opposing Sandanistas. Falwell's movement had barely started to fade when televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition took center stage. Both leaders drew heavily from the energies of independent Baptist and Pentecostal clergy and from the seemingly inexhaustible reservoirs of grass-roots evangelical piety.
But what about America's other Protestants--the members of such middle- to left-leaning denominations as United Methodists, Episcopalians, and American Baptists? These historically mainline denominations played a prominent progressive role during the civil rights era. Their clergy, along with leaders of such ecumenical organizations as the National Council of Churches and the National Conference of Christians and Jews, were frequently in the forefront of civil rights marches and demonstrations. A few years later, these same clergy led protests against the Vietnam War. Yet these denominations seemed to disappear from public view in the 1980s and 1990s.
What was the cause of this quiescence? Did it reflect a change of heart, failure of nerve, or lack of resources? Were the mainline denominations as moribund as they appeared to journalists and pundits? Were they perhaps more effective than the media realized? What potential do they now hold for progressive politics at the start of a new century?
American mainline Protestantism did experience serious retrenchment in the 1980s. The six largest of these denominations lost a total of 5.6 million members between 1965 and 1990--their constituencies diminishing from 28.1 million to 22.5 million. The Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) suffered the most serious declines, respectively losing an estimated 58 percent and 33 percent of their members. The United Church of Christ also experienced a significant loss (23 percent), as did the United Methodist Church (20 percent). In comparison, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declined by only 8 percent, and the American Baptist Churches USA dropped by 2 percent.
Critics charged that losses of this magnitude demonstrated the moral failure of progressive religious perspectives. In his widely discussed book The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity, conservative layman Thomas Reeves argued that the hemorrhage would continue until denomination leaders spoke out strongly against homosexuality and abortion, distanced themselves from feminism, and backed away from affirmative action. Meanwhile, well-organized conservative pressure groups within the denominations (such as Episcopalians United and the Presbyterian Lay Committee) actively promoted traditionalist views.
Yet research does not support the view that mainline membership losses stemmed from disaffection with progressive policies. Congregants were hardly in sympathy with all their denominations' positions, but disagreements of this kind accounted for only a small share of declining participation. Indeed, nearly all of it was attributable to demographic, rather than ideological, factors. In the 1960s, mainline members were better educated and more likely to be employed in professional and managerial occupations than members of fundamentalist or evangelical churches. Like other upper-middle-class people, mainline members married later, had fewer children, and had them later. These children, in turn, went to college, postponed their own marriages and childbearing, and had smaller families. For these reasons, mainline memberships diminished.
Recent figures also suggest that the sizable declines of the 1980s no longer characterize the mainline denominations. During the 1990s, the United Methodist Church declined only modestly, from 8.9 million to 8.7 million members, as did the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), from 2.8 million to 2.6 million members, while other denominations held steady, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (at 5.2 million), the Episcopal Church (at 2.5 million), the American Baptist Churches USA (at 1.5 million), and the United Church of Christ (at 1.5 million).
With some 22 million members, mainline Protestantism must still be considered a force in any accounting of American religion's public role. Mainline members continue to be heavily overrepresented among members of Congress and are influential in business and the professions. Collectively, these denominations operate more than 200 colleges, universities, and seminaries. Their clergy are among the most highly educated in the nation. Members gather regularly in more than 75,000 congregations across the country. Each denomination is a well-organized federation that connects local congregations with regional and national offices. Besides its national headquarters, each denomination maintains an office in Washington that keeps legislators apprised of church positions on social issues and parishioners informed about legislation.
At present, the public role of mainline Protestantism is perhaps best characterized as active but not activist. Mainline clergy and laity eschew the high-profile political activism that has characterized the Christian right in recent decades. To be sure, an occasional pastor gets thrown in jail for picketing or quits eating to make a political point. But mainliners generally follow the historic Presbyterian dictum of doing everything "decently and in order."
This means working through electoral politics, making courteous visits to Capitol Hill, and encouraging one's parishioners to take part in community service agencies. No mainline organization comparable to the Moral Majority or Christian Coalition has emerged. No mainline preacher has run for national office in recent years and, with the exception of the Reverend Robert Schuller (whose Crystal Cathedral is loosely affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, a small mainline body), no mainline clergy have gained media notoriety comparable to that of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson.
Mainline denominations are active but not activist because they are, as the very idea of "mainline" implies, the religious establishment. Even with its sizable Roman Catholic population and influential Jewish population, the United States was predominantly a Protestant bastion--and a mainline one at that--well into the second half of the twentieth century. As the religious establishment, Protestants worked quietly behind the scenes, influencing public policy through their roles in government, business, and the professions, rather than adopting the more activist styles of outsiders or radical reformers.
This pattern of quiet influence has remained strong, despite the mainline's numeric decline. One of the most distinctive ways mainline Protestantism contributes to civic engagement is simply by generating social capital. In "Mobilizing Civic Engagement: The Changing Impact of Religious Involvement" (Civic Engagement in American Democracy, edited by Theda Skocpol and Morris P. Fiorina), I examined the statistical relationships between participation in religious activities and participation in other kinds of community organizations, comparing mainline Protestants with evangelical Protestants. For mainline Protestants, the more active a person is at church, the more likely that person is to be a member of a wide variety of community organizations. Church involvement among mainline Protestants is also positively associated with filling leadership roles in other community organizations, volunteering for service agencies, and participating in electoral and partisan political activities. The pattern for evangelical Protestants is quite different: The more often a person attends church, the more likely that person is to hold memberships in other church-related groups and to do volunteer work at the church; but church involvement is not positively associated with engagement in the wider community.
Social capital of this kind is by no means channeled exclusively into liberal or progressive causes. Members of mainline denominations have increasingly voted Democratic in recent presidential elections. But on specific social issues and in their general political leanings, mainline members reflect a wide spectrum of positions. For instance, in General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center between 1983 and 1998, approximately 25 percent of the members of the six largest mainline denominations identified their political views as "liberal," 39 percent as "moderate," and 36 percent as "conservative." These figures were virtually the same as in the nation at large during the same period.
Representing constituencies with diverse political orientations, denominational leaders typically view their mission as promoting serious discourse about public issues as much as supporting specific social policies. As one denominational executive explained, "Our focus is on process rather than on product." Thus, church leaders to whom I have spoken generally express satisfaction with current debates about homosexuality at denominational meetings, despite press coverage depicting these debates as rancorous and divisive. The reason is that these debates encourage serious reflection on the meanings of sexuality, dignity, and human identity. Many progressive leaders favor open discussion of controversial bioethical issues for the same reason.
Mainline denominations have nevertheless taken specific stands in a number of policy arenas. For instance, within the past year, the Washington office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has publicly supported the Foster Care Independence Act (renamed the Chafee Bill), proposed revisions to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, and encouraged members to sign petitions in favor of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Similar measures supported by the United Church of Christ have included the Fair Minimum Wage Act, the Bipartisan Consensus Managed Care Improvement Act, and the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.
Besides taking stands on issues, mainline leaders actively participate in a wide range of cooperative advocacy efforts and social service coalitions. As an example of the former, the American Baptists' National Ministries' Office of Governmental Relations in Washington--as a member of the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty--has consistently urged the denomination's members to write their representatives opposing the Religious Freedom Amendment, a measure deemed threatening to the denomination's historic commitment to separation of church and state. As an example of participating in service coalitions, the Economic Justice Loan Committee of the Episcopal Church oversees a budget of $7 million in loans for projects that benefit poor and marginalized people, such as low-cost housing or credit unions. Most of these projects involve complex partnerships with other community agencies, such as neighborhood and development associations, banks, and municipal offices.
At the grass-roots level, mainline congregations disproportionately perform service activities and join community-wide coalitions as well. In a national survey I conducted in 1997, members of theologically liberal churches were significantly more likely than members of conservative churches to report that their congregations sponsored all of the following: inner-city ministries, counseling programs, meetings for alcoholics, shelters for the homeless, AIDS ministries, low-income housing programs, interfaith coalitions concerned with community issues, gay and lesbian issues, and efforts to encourage greater understanding among different religions.
While mainline leaders frequently express frustration at the limited success of public-policy efforts, especially at the national level, there have been major accomplishments as well. Over the past half-century, racial prejudice has diminished markedly, just as progressive Protestant leaders argued it should. Efforts on behalf of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, to which many of these leaders devoted themselves during the 1970s and 1980s, have resulted in major international treaties. Gender equality in ordination, while far from fully accomplished, has progressed further in mainline denominations than in most other religious traditions. And despite serious challenges from fundamentalists, the First Amendment freedoms to which mainline denominations are committed remain largely intact.
Still, mainline Protestantism faces several significant challenges as it attempts to make its public voice more effective. One is overcoming the increasingly localistic orientation in the society at large. In religion, this orientation encourages people to be active in their congregations but disinterested in denominational activities at the national or international level. This religious-style localism is compounded by the public's broader distrust of government. One denominational official put it this way: "We have a major job of civic education on our hands. Ronald Reagan transformed us from a nation of citizens into a nation of tight-fisted taxpayers. We have to re-educate people about the role of government."
Another significant challenge for mainline Protestantism is defining its distinctive identity. In interviews, pastors and laypeople routinely deny that being "Presbyterian," "Episcopalian," or "Methodist" makes much difference. All that matters, they say, is having faith and being a good person. Such thinking makes sense at a time when more and more Americans switch denominations and, for that matter, when denominations themselves are busily eradicating historic theological differences. Yet church leaders are divided about how to reflect these sentiments in public statements about social issues. Some urge distinctly "Christian," "Protestant," or even "Baptist" formulations, but worry that policy makers will regard them as too sectarian to be credible. Others argue for more inclusive language, but fear that audiences may wonder why these statements are coming from churches.
Whether it chooses a narrower or more inclusive selfdefinition, mainline Protestantism faces a difficult challenge in making its activities more visible to the wider public. At a recent meeting devoted to exploring the public image of mainline churches, religion writers for prominent newspapers and magazines uniformly declared the work of mainline leaders boring, poorly packaged, and devoid of newsworthy content. Denominational representatives expressed consternation that serious programs and events seldom received media attention. Yet in many ways, the mainline style of political engagement does defy easy headlines. Mainliners pride themselves on sticking with issues over the long haul--like racial equality, economic justice, hunger, peace, and the environment--and pursuing these issues quietly rather than staging events merely to make news.
In the final analysis, Protestant leaders will also have to make difficult decisions about which issues they are willing to support. To date, the preferred style has been to keep all pots simmering at once, often to avoid giving some constituency the impression that their favorite issue is being neglected. But staff members in the denominations' Washington offices recognize that this strategy results in spreading resources too thinly to be effective. With limited resources, they say, concentrating attention on one or two issues at a time may be a better strategy.
Whether mainline Protestants will figure out how to meet these challenges remains to be seen. But around the country, the mood in mainline churches is optimistic. Most members--left, right, or center--have long since given up expecting everyone in their denominations to agree with them. But most are in it for the long haul, disagreements and all. Perhaps this is what liberal democracy is all about. ¤