Pulpits vs. pews: Thinking about choices that mainline Protestants make on Election Day

Anyone listing turning points in American politics would have to include that day in 1980 when candidate Ronald Reagan went to Dallas and faced a crowd of 15,000 evangelical, Pentecostal and fundamentalist Christian leaders.

Reagan told them, “I know you can’t endorse me. But ... I want you to know that I endorse you.”

The mainstream press grasped the importance of that declaration.

However, a recent symbolic move by leaders on the left didn’t get anywhere near as much ink (analog or digital). I am referring to that resolution (.pdf here) by the Democratic National Committee stating, in part:

WHEREAS, religiously unaffiliated Americans overwhelmingly share the Democratic Party’svalues, with 70% voting for Democrats in 2018, 80% supporting same-sex marriage, and 61% saying immigrants make American society stronger; and

WHEREAS, the religiously unaffiliated demographic represents the largest religious group within the Democratic Party, growing from 19% in 2007 to one in three today. …

Therefore, the party saluted “religiously unaffiliated Americans” because of their advocacy for “rational public policy based on sound science and universal humanistic values. …”

This really isn’t news, for religion-beat pros who have been paying attention. After all political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron connected these dots in 2012, when the Pew Forum released its “Nones on the Rise” report. Here is a chunk of an “On Religion” column that I wrote at that time:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters — with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."

At that time, Green noted that a party led by atheists, agnostics and Nones might have trouble making peace with several key flocks in the Democratic Part’s historic base — such as African-American Protestants, Latino Catholics and blue-collar believers in the American heartland.

This brings me to this weekend’s “think piece” by progressive Baptist pastor and scholar Ryan Burge, whose work with @Religion_Public has made him a must-follow voice in Twitter (@ryanburge). Here is a key part of that Religion News Service commentary, which ran with this headline: “Democratic Party is at an inflection point when it comes to courting religious voters.”

The question: Would the DNC’s “Nones” resolution offend lots of white Protestants, perhaps even drive away people in pews among the more progressive “Seven Sisters” churches? Burge replies:

Almost every predominantly white Protestant denomination — from Southern Baptists and United Methodists to Missouri Synod Lutherans and the Assemblies of God — is solidly Republican, according to data from the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

Of the 20 largest majority white Protestant denominations (which represent nearly 85% of all white Protestants), only six have more Democrats than Republicans.

No one will be surprised to learn that, for example, just over half of all Episcopalians and members of the edgy United Church of Christ are Democrats.

What is surprising is that significant numbers of laypeople in many progressive churches — majorities even — continue to back the GOP, even though they are active in churches in which the clergy and national leaders lean to left.

Check out the complex signals — paradoxes even — in this Burge passage:

… Some of the largest predominantly white Protestant denominations, including the 14.8 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, all lean Republican. So do nondenominational evangelical churches.

Say what? United Methodists and folks in the liberal ELCA lean Republican?

Remember, we are talking about the laypeople in the pews, not the leaders in the pulpits. Back to Burge’s essay:

What may be even more troublesome for any Democrat who is trying to court white Protestants in 2020 is that every year, more and more of them are slipping away. Of the top 20 denominations previously discussed, just two became less Republican in a statistically significant way in the last 10 years, according to the data from the 2008 and 2018 CCES.  

On the other hand, 16 of these denominations have larger shares of Republicans today than they did when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. This includes the United Church of Christ, which was one of the first denominations to affirm LGBT people; it became 4% more Republican in the last decade. Buttigieg’s tradition, the Episcopal Church, also saw 4.7% more of its members identify as Republicans.

Say what? Even in the Donald Trump era?

Here’s Burge again:

Among the 25 largest predominantly white Protestant denominations, the majority of people in 20 of them approve of Trump. Five have an approval rating for the president of less than 50%, while only two of those have a rating of below 40%. By contrast, an aggregation of national polls by the website fivethirtyeight.com shows that only 40% of the general public approves of Trump. 

Of all the people surveyed in 2018 who attended a predominantly white Protestant denomination, 85% affiliated with a church where Trump’s approval rating was above 50%, according to the CCES.

Just 6.7% align with a church where approval was below the national average of 40%.

Read it all. And if you haven’t done so already, follow Burge on Twitter. He has a knack for making people on both sides of church aisles (left and right, in other words) nervous.

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