When dyed-in-the-wool United Methodist Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016, her religion—was clearly (I thought) evident in her public positions. Yet her religion seemed irrelevant to voters, many of which dismissed her as not religious. She ran against one of the most non-religious presidents in modern times. And some of the most church-going, fervently-believing religious people imparted righteousness to him and compared him to biblical figures who did great things.
In 1960, John Kennedy received a halo from Catholic laity and hierarchy, despite his known-but-not-reported womanizing. Joe Biden is, in so many ways, the exemplar of a blue-collar Catholic layperson from yesteryear. Devout, family-oriented, motherhood-admiring, mass-attending, hard-working, no-baloney tolerating. Mixed with a strong dose of social justice from the deep Catholic tradition often taught and embodied by women religious (nuns). The man’s DNA includes a Catholic gene. But Biden is not celebrated as the second Catholic president nor as the more Catholic of the two. JFK lived before Roe v. Wade. He did not have to incur the disdain from his bishops of opposing abortion personally but not believing that position ought to be the only legal one in the nation.
A recent, massive (500,000 interviews) survey by one of my favorite research organizations, the Public Religion Research Institute, presents data on religious identity (not church-going, just self-identified identity) that held surprises. Namely, self-identifying as an evangelical Christian dropped nearly 50 percent in the last several years, and identifying as a mainline Christian now peeks up over evangelicalism. I’m not celebrating for my people, the mainline. We are simply not shrinking in public support as quickly. Perhaps Christian nationalists’ fealty to the former president and embrace of QAnon repelled legions of evangelicals away from that identity—especially younger people.
Speaking of the mainline. With the flux of American religious life, with the category of “the nones” the largest single category of religious identification, with less than half the nation affiliated with any religious congregation, it is important to remember that the mainline was never the mainline in terms of numbers.
The denominations that comprised the mainline (Presbyterians, Congregationalists [later United Church of Christ], Methodists [later United Methodist], Disciples, American Baptists, some forms of Lutheran, Episcopalians, and sometimes the three Black-founded/split from white Methodist denominations) were not, in the 20th century, larger than the Catholic Church, on the one hand, and the evangelical, fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and charismatic churches on the other hand. The mainline was always about cultural location. The mainline did not choose to become the mainline. They may have lobbied for the statuses of counselors to power and consciences of the nation, but the culture chose them.
How does a religion become chosen by the culture? There are many agents. But, in the case of the erstwhile mainline: I suspect the major newspapers and TV networks were populated with executives, editors, and anchors who were raised in, if not adult adherents of, mainline churches. And those networks were clearly dominated by the coastal and Northern norms and mores. Southerners were required to lose their accents and adopt Northern habits of the heart.
I suspect that print and TV media were an important factor in selecting the mainline as the mainline. And the spread of cable TV and multiple local networks were factors in the mainline being sidelined, culturally. The upstarts allowed previously unnoticed, by Northern and Eastern cultural agents, claimed the spotlights. Martin Marty said that, when Jimmy Carter was running for president and called himself “born again,” Marty’s phone rang repeated with calls from reporters asking him what Carter was talking about.
An example of mainline being more about cultural power and a matter of who is paying attention than about demographic dominance: on a recent podcast I heard that Oral Roberts’ annual televised Thanksgiving celebration was viewed by more people than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Who knew? Not this kid raised in a Chicago-area, Methodist, three-network watching home.
Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.