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.