Untapped potential?: The role of the mainline churches in a new political era

March 13, 2009, 3:45 pm | Posted by

A few items of late have set me to thinking about mainline Protestants’ role in politics in the new administration. This week, our friends at Public Religion Research released a survey of 2,658 thousand mainline clergy, which revealed a solidly progressive strain in church leadership among the mainline denominations–United Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians (PCUSA), Lutherans (ELCA), American Baptists, United Church of Christ, and Disciples of Christ. For instance, more than three-quarters of these mainline Protestant clergy think the federal government should do more to solve social problems and more than two-thirds think the government should guarantee health care for all its citizens, even if it means higher taxes. While political differences exist (the UCC and Episcopal churches leaning left, the ELCA and UMC holding the middle, and the American Baptists skewing right), the broad picture is of center-left leaders presiding over centrist congregations– the sort of untapped leaders with whom progressive politicians may well want to work.

While the Public Religion Research poll unearthed the progressive and politically-oriented nature of many mainline clergy, another poll released this week, the American Religious Identification Survey provided new data to back up a commonly-accepted fact about mainliners–their numbers are shrinking. Survey estimates of the percentage of the population that is mainline range from 12-18%– making the mainline still at least 30 million strong, if not significantly bigger. (ARIS and the Religious Landscape Survey, recent surveys of similarly large scope, had some variations in definition of mainline– hence the range.) Also, PRR’s survey refers to them as “the most neglected religious group.” From a campaign vantage point, they can be critical in some key regions and are often a bloc of swing voters. Mainline denominations also have staff in Washington who work on many common good issues such as healthcare reform that are taking center stage on Capitol Hill.

Furthermore, some mainline leaders — Maureen Shea of the Episcopal Church and Jim Winkler of the United Methodist Church — were on hand at the White House when President Obama rescinded the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. This suggests that the administration’s effort to build common ground with evangelicals, important as it is, isn’t the whole story of the White House’s religious engagement.

The mainline denominations have thoughtful, theologically-grounded, progressive positions on a host of issues. In 2007, we teamed up with mainliners to lobby for the Farm Bill and they’ve consistently weighed in on issues affecting families and vulnerable populations ranging from climate change to immigration reform to ending the suffering in Darfur and more.

As the administration continues to put into place new policies on a range of compassion and common good issues, it’ll be exciting to see the ways they engage mainline denominations and leaders and how these often-overlooked people of faith can help bring a moral and religious perspective to our dialogues about public policy.

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