Protestant Presence

By Witham, Larry | Insight on the News, April 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

Protestant Presence


Witham, Larry, Insight on the News


Mainline Protestantism's role in the political arena may have diminished, but its quiet approach continues to have a widespread impact on society.

The six largest Protestant denominations have the highest rates of involvement in social issues, and they work with community groups more than any other American Christian tradition, according to a study of 5,600 adults titled The Public Role of Mainline Protestants. Still, members of the six denominations -- United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian (USA), Evangelical Lutheran, American Baptist and United Church of Christ churches -- are the least willing to take their churches into political activism.

"Mainline churches have been doing a reasonably good job of working quietly behind the scenes, out of the public eye," said Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow during a recent conference examining the waxing-and-waning influence of Christians on Washington policymaking. Despite an aging population and a well-reported loss of millions of members from 1970 to 1990, "the mood in American mainline churches is decidedly optimistic," Wuthnow told conferees. These denominations now number about 22 million people.

"Mainline" traditionally refers to Protestant churches that have higher social rank, a more educated constituency and an interest in ecumenism. They towered over U.S. culture through the 1950s and produced the activist/liberal clergy of the 1960s who joined the civil-rights, antiwar and social-welfare movements, only to be eclipsed by the conservative evangelical resurgence in the 1980s.

One-third of the churchgoers surveyed believe their denominations' influence on society is stronger than in the past, and another third believe it still is "fairly strong." But with the increasing expansion of government into every sector of life, mainline Protestant leaders have been less active in state and national policymaking. "Many churches turned inward," said Wuthnow, noting that only a very small percentage of the $11 billion these six denominations receive in contributions each year goes to advocacy in Washington.

According to the Rev. James Wind, a Lutheran who is president of the Alban Institute, the mainline's influence traditionally is greater than its numbers for reasons that "had to do with political establishment." While he agreed that mainline churchgoers have taken a quiet approach, they try to guide society by talking with top civic leaders -- many in their own congregations -- and by cooperating with secular civic enterprises.

"Interest in high-level confrontations has diminished," said Wind. …

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