Mainline church activism reviving mission or risking its base?

While mainline churches in the Trump era see a new opening to renew their social activist mission, the results of this engagement so far have often been as much conflict and congregational divisions as vitality and growth, writes Ian Lovett in the Wall Street Journal (May 5). “Political activism is reshaping what it means to go to mainline Protestant churches in the Trump era, with tensions bubbling between parishioners who believe the church should be a force for political change, and those who believe it should be a haven for spiritual renewal.” As some congregations have turned themselves into hubs of activism on issues ranging from immigration to anti-racism, they have seen their numbers increase, especially among young people—once the most alienated segment of the church. Clergy are also seeing a more prominent role for themselves in public life—something they had not witnessed since the 1960s. The resulting mood of alienation and fear of politicizing the churches among more conservative members is acknowledged by the clergy, yet they believe this may be their last chance to have influence and be a force for change.

Lovett adds that the many denominations haven’t yet released membership figures but that there are anecdotal reports of increased church attendance. The United Church of Christ reported a decline in 2017, but at a slower pace than in recent years. Lovett notes that a number of individual congregations in the UCC—including 14 of 18 that were surveyed in the Southwest—said that attendance had increased during the first year of the Trump presidency. Mainline churches in the South are still seeing the fallout from the clash in Charlottesville last summer as well as the ongoing conflict over displaying confederate statues and symbols. Activist clergy say such efforts of resistance are worth the prospect of further decline. Diane Butler-Bass, an Episcopalian author, said that “fights over how and whether to engage politically are ‘taking place in every congregation at this moment.’” Citing the waffling of mainline white churches in the civil-rights era, she said that those churches that took a stand for civil rights often shrank or closed.

But there is the persisting question of whether mainline congregations can draw many committed members who share these liberal activist views in the way that more conservative churches have drawn the politically active. In the Religion in Public blog (May 29), political scientist Ryan Burge looks at figures on frequent attenders across the conservative-moderate-liberal church spectrum and their social and political preferences. Overall, Trump won 83.2 percent of frequent attenders (attending multiple times a week) among white church members. Evangelicals, who voted for Trump in large numbers, have the largest share of frequent attenders, but even frequent attenders identifying themselves as liberal tended to vote for Trump at 14.5 percent, as opposed to six percent for liberal adherents in general. Looking at two fairly typical mainline denominations, Burge finds that frequent attenders in the United Methodist Church were clearly in Trump’s camp, while in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America there was no statistical difference in voting preference between frequent attenders and members as a whole. Burge could find “NO instance where the most frequent church attenders were more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton than those who attended at all levels. This is true across racial and educational lines.”

(Religion in Public,