Congress & Mainline Protestantism’s Sad Retreat

on January 7, 2015

About 90 percent of members of the U.S. Congress profess adherence to Christian churches, according to a new survey from Pew, compared to nearly 95 percent 50 years ago. Members adhering to other religions, especially Judaism, have increased, with Jewish representation going from just over two percent to just over five percent. Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist representation stand at under one percent each. Less than one percent profess no religious affiliation.

In contrast, about 15 to 20 percent of the American general population profess no specific religious affiliation, and about 75 to 80 percent profess Christianity. No surprise here. Politicians, typically ambitious extroverts, obviously are much likelier to be joiners and adherents of institutions.

Maybe most interesting, although again not surprising, is the shift in types of Christian affiliation. Fifty years ago over half of Congress was Mainline Protestant. Today it’s only about a quarter. Methodists by themselves were nearly one fifth of Congress then, now it’s less than ten percent. Presbyterians also dropped by about 50 percent, and Episcopal/Anglicans lost about a third. Congregationalists dropped by four fifths, and now comprise less than one percent, a steep decline from their ascendancy in early America.

Catholics are up from under 20 percent to over 30 percent. And Baptists increased about a quarter, now just under 15 percent. Undefined Protestants have more than doubled to more than 10 percent, probably reflecting the growth of nondenominational Christianity, although almost no members of Congress specifically professed nondenominational.

Mainline Protestants still have more outsized representation in Congress than their very small share of the population would indicate, especially Presbyterians and Episcopalians, who are the traditionally most elite Protestant churches in American public life.

But Mainline Protestants are clearly no longer Americas’s flagship churches. They are now mostly sideline, sometimes portrayed as historical curiosities or vestiges of a bygone era. Some conservatives celebrate this demise of historically liberal Protestantism, which has been largely displaced by Evangelicals and Catholics.

Nobody who cares about America should celebrate Mainline Protestant implosion. These churches literally founded and shaped America across four centuries. They helped create our democratic ethos. They transcended party differences and mediated how Americans, especially their governing and social elites, translated their faith into governance without succumbing to fisticuffs.

Some of America’s greatest social reform movements emerged from Mainline Protestantism. These churches gave the nation civic conscience and orderly habits for government and debate.

What will replace Mainline Protestantism in American public life? There’s no clear answer, and some suggest that recent decades of culture wars and partisan chasms result from the Mainline’s retreat without leaving a natural spiritual successor. Jody Bottum, in his articles and recent book, explains that neither Catholics nor Evangelicals have the cultural ballast and history in America to step forward into the breach.

So the old Mainline Protestant elite, once so venerable, has become almost marginal, slipping away quietly from Congress and our culture with little fanfare. But their departure leaves behind an emptiness that will ultimately be filled by a successor spiritual force. We should be hopeful, but it will be very hard for any new religious cohort to repeat the remarkable accomplishments of the Mainline Protestants dating back to Jamestown and Plymouth Rock.

  1. Comment by Greg on January 7, 2015 at 6:29 am

    Mr Tooley – you assert that Mainline Protestantism has “retreated” from the public square and the culture wars. On the contrary, they have been leading the charge for secularism, a denigration of traditional values, and the discarding of the Great Tradition, etc.. They promote Marxist, to include anti-American, hermeneutics through which to view faith and culture.

    Far from retreating, they are orchestrating their (our) own demise. It’s just that when you graduate from their indoctrination camps (schools) and town halls (churches), you don’t move up the church ladder, you simply leave the faith – which is the logical conclusion of their agenda.

  2. Comment by Tex Taylor on January 9, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    Excellent retort. Contrary to the author’s assertion, I don’t see that “mainline” Protestantism has retreated from the public square in any fashion, and in fact has taken on a very active role of prosecuting the very faith it claims to represent.

    Frankly, “Mainline Protestantism” is liberal politic with a thin veneer of religiosity to mask the stench from where I sit.

  3. Comment by Diaris on January 7, 2015 at 10:36 am

    Mark, your article refers to “Congregationalists.” I’m assuming you’re referring to the largest body of Congregationalists, the United Church of Christ. Most Americans are probably not even aware that Congregationalist churches exist, but they may be aware that there is a UCC down the street – although, given the UCC’s decline, they may not be around for long.

  4. Comment by yolo on January 7, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    I had to copy this comment from Amazon: “Helpful insights and basic conclusion that the new religious zealots (read: Progressives) are descendants of Old line Protestant Liberals in new clothes. This conclusion is possible because Bottum continues two popular misconceptions: (1) Victorian characteristics are falsely attributed to Puritans, (2) that Protestantism is essentially secularism, also seen in Weber.”

    Nothing in this country has changed. The progressives are still progressive and they originate in the same place that progressives originated, they just have more sway over the opposite political party, likewise for White Catholics. Throughout most of the late 19th and early 20th Century, progressives had more sway over the Republican Party than the Democratic Party and Catholics had more sway over the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. This really did not ebb until well into the 40s. The Republican Party was dominant back then, elevating pro-eugenic figures like Robert LaFollete. Similarly, the Democrat Party is dominant today, elevating pro-aborts like Barack Obama. The Supreme Court was conservative back then, but that was etched away by Massachusetts WASP appointments like Oliver Wendell Holmes (T.R.) Butler was the only justice who dissented over eugenics. Holmes derided Butler for it, deriding Butler for obedience to Catholicism. I didn’t know that opposition to eugenics is obedience as opposed to Christian. FDR was only distantly related to T.R. He was a cousin, 8 times removed. As governor of New York, he balanced budgets! He ran on this platform in 1932. His wife, however, was T.R.’s niece and the socialist greatly contributed to FDR’s folly.

  5. Comment by yolo on January 7, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    The first big event that precipitated the switch of both parties was the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education case that was clearly an anti-Catholic WASP decision that would later impact all Christians. It wouldn’t be for another generation until the Democrat party fully embraced Everson, after 1968. Democrat delegates after 1968, the ones that voted McGovern, were not working class whites but a progressive liberal elite. A whole bunch of them were the children of upper-middle income WASPS, like Obama’s friend Ayers.

  6. Comment by yolo on January 7, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    McGovern himself was the son of a Methodist minister and was training to be one, as a social gospel believer!

  7. Comment by Kyle on January 7, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    Glad that the article acknowledges that politicians do tend to be “joiners,” and for most of them their church membership is purely a social thing. Christianity for so many Americans is barely a millimeter deep, and for politicians it’s even less than that.

  8. Comment by Jeremy on January 9, 2015 at 6:09 am

    Christians are suppose to be of one faith, one Lord, one baptism. And we are suppose to believe the same gospel. The social gospel is not the same gospel.

  9. Comment by DirtyHarry1 on January 9, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Mainline protestantism first gave up an inerrant and infallible Bible, and replaced it with the belief that the Bible is just a book of fables So they are not sure when God speaks – if ever. Then they gave up Jesus the God-man who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, the Savior of the world, the redeemer, and replaced Him with Jesus, a moral teacher or a political figure. Then He became just a deluded and tragic figure. Of course they replaced the evangelical faith with faith in their own superiority. Finally, the logical conclusion is that held by consistent atheists: there is no God! So why bother? But God says in Jeremiah 23:29 “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”

    “Hammer away, ye hostile hands; your hammer breaks; God’s anvil stands.”

  10. Comment by Jennifer Prestash on January 9, 2015 at 9:45 am

    I don’t think that anyone is celebrating the disintegration of mainline Protestantism. It is a sad thing to see. But since mainline Protestantism has moved from embracing Jesus Christ to embracing social liberalism, it is better for America that Evangelicals and Catholic Christian representation takes its place.

    I pray for another great awakening in America.

  11. Comment by thorntme on January 20, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    I “retreated” from mainline Protestantism, actually Congregationalism, in 1968 when, on attending a worship service, I was admonished in a sermon to go down to the “center city” and take care of the ills to be found there. My overriding thought at the time was that we as Protestants and Christians have pastoral needs within our “communion” that need to be attended to before we presume to go down to the “center city” to treat and deal with other peoples problems. My Minister and I differed greatly on this topic and I quit the church I had attended since 1950. Quitting or voluntarily secularizing yourself seems to be the option of last resort to protest this sort of thing.

  12. Comment by zeitgeist2012 on October 28, 2016 at 10:36 am

    Protestantism actually has been hijacked or infiltrated by the posterity of its dire enemies from the old Spanish inquisition and Islamic invasion days when Jews fought side by side with them against white christian knights who now are using a nefarious forms of secular paganism and relativistic heathenism straight from the Jewish Frankfurt school and its sister the Jewish founded Freudian Tavistock mental warfare institute of multicultural Marxism who both swore to destroy white christian western civilization. We now have bogus crap like Chrislam and christian Zionism with crypto-Jew Jesuit trained catholics and subversive Kabbalist Jews on our white protestant built supreme court working to destroy white protestants, white catholics, and Christendom. Leftist Jesuit liberation theology, Jewish critical theory, and Zionist cultural Marxism is the backbone of the Zionist/Jesuit/Islamic unholy trinity behind this new age white christian genocidal inquisition taking place today globally. After all, the Latin universal church, kabbala Judaism, and Islam are basically one and the same Babylonian based religion the reason for reformation. All white christian nations today have crypto-Jew/Sephardi Jesuits and straight up known Talmudic Ashkenazi Jews working within all our white national institutions to multiculturally rob and destroy us through mass dark heathen enemy coreligionist immigration and dark hedonistic race mixing = self-eradication theology or leftist social justice. As a result of this global Jihad or inquisition against whites they now only represent about 8% of global population and declining. Has little to do with low white birth rate and more to do with a Marxist led invasion and dark miscegenation of western civilization.

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