The Christian right's shocking conquest: Why religious moderates have disappeared from America

While the number of religious Americans is in decline, evangelical membership is growing. Here's what it means

Published May 22, 2015 5:01PM (EDT)

  (Jeff Malet,
(Jeff Malet,

I belong to a struggling Presbyterian church. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we give away clothing to the needy. Once a month, we serve meals at a food pantry. We hold a summer day camp for inner-city children, and we’re politically active: We’ve pestered our alderman about building more affordable housing in the ward, and lobbied our state senator to exempt churches from the state’s conceal-carry law. Some of us are so supportive of same-sex marriage that when it was made legal in our state, we encouraged our pastor to marry her partner.

Like so many Mainline Protestant churches, though, our congregation is dwindling. I sometimes study a photo of the choir taken in the 1940s: they outnumber the current membership, which consists of 50 or so African-Americans, Ghanaian immigrants, and middle-aged or older Scots-Irish, all trying to keep a century-old brick church alive. (One reason I joined: I couldn’t imagine any other institution that could bring together those three groups in a common cause.) We’re going broke, because the cost of paying a staff far exceeds what we can contribute to the collection plate.

The Pew Research Center’s recent study, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” found that the percentage of Americans who call themselves Christians has declined from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent between 2007 and 2014. The deeper story, though, is which types of Christianity are in decline, and what that says about America’s religious and political polarization.

What’s disappearing is the Religious Middle -- Catholics and Mainline Protestants, which includes Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, and the Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism, which "The Simpsons’" Rev. Timothy Lovejoy espouses. Since 2007, the number of evangelical Christians has increased from 59.8 million to 62.2 million. The number of Mainline Protestants has decreased from 41.1 million to 36 million. Meanwhile, “Unaffiliated” boomed from 36.6 million to 55.8 million. Moderation, formerly the default setting of American religion, is being squeezed out by fundamentalists on the right and secularists on the left.

Presbyterians do not do moderation in moderation. It’s a fundamental tenet of our faith. The number one rule for the service is “no hoo-hah”: no bells, no smells, no “say it, preacher!,” no chanting, no snake handling, no bloody crucifixes, no kneeling. The only guilt comes when the pastor asks for donations. (“Earn all you can, save all you can, give away all you can.”) Jimmy Stewart, Fred MacMurray and Mister Rogers -- three of the most wholesome entertainers of the 20th Century -- were Presbyterians. Mister Rogers was even a minister. When Siskel and Ebert ranted that Protestants “have Reader’s Digest as a prayer book” and only "get on their knees to adjust the TV set,” they were talking about us. Megachurches, with their rock combos and video screens, are modern in their liturgy and traditional in their beliefs. We’re just the opposite.

The contemporary political figure who best represents the Religious Middle is Hillary Clinton, who grew up in a Methodist Church in Park Ridge, Ill. The church’s youth pastor, Don Jones, was a pretty hip guy for early ’60s suburbia: fresh out of seminary, he drove a red Chevy Impala and turned his pupils on to Bob Dylan, French cinema and civil rights. In 1962, he took a group of young people to downtown Chicago, where they listened to Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a sermon accusing people who ignore social change of “sleeping through a revolution.” Afterward, the students went backstage to shake King’s hand, an experience that would begin Clinton’s transformation from Goldwater Girl to New Left Democrat.

Clinton still takes her Methodism seriously. In a speech last year to the United Methodist Women Assembly -- for which she waived her usual $300,000 fee -- she said,

“I have always cherished the Methodist Church because it gave us the great gift of personal salvation but also the great obligation of Social Gospel. And I took that very seriously and have tried, tried to be guided in my own life ever since as an advocate for children and families, for women and men around the world who are oppressed and persecuted, denied their human rights and human dignity.”

Clinton’s reference to the Social Gospel hearkens back to the early 20th century, when Protestants appalled by the poverty and labor violence associated with urbanization and industrialization agitated for some of the most progressive reforms in American history: the abolition of child labor, the income tax, women’s suffrage, recognition of labor unions. (They also agitated for Prohibition, the reform that failed.) In 1907, the Methodists were the first denomination to ratify the Social Creed. Here are a few highlights:

  • Health Services. We stand for the provision of adequate medical care for all people, with special attention to the aging, the young and low-income individuals and groups.
  • Wages and Working Conditions. Free collective bargaining has proved its values in our free society whenever the parties engaged in collective bargaining have acted in good faith to reach equitable and moral solutions of problems dealing with wages and working conditions. We do not support the opinion voiced in some quarters that strikes should be made illegal.
  • Poverty and Unemployment. We believe that the economic development which makes possible material plenty for all imposes upon us great moral responsibility, since physical, emotional and spiritual development of millions of people throughout the world is hindered by poverty. We therefore stand for the eradication of poverty everywhere.

That’s Bernie Sanders’s platform, only a century before he ran for president. The Social Gospel motivated some of the Progressive Era’s most celebrated do-gooders, including Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House. The German Baptist preacher Walter Rauschenbusch, author of "Christianity and the Social Crisis," was converted to social activism while pastoring a church in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, and went on to counsel presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. (Roosevelt called his office a “bully pulpit” for enacting the Social Gospel.) The movement still had some steam as late as the 1960s: Mainline Protestants were strong supporters of the civil rights movement, as evidenced by Clinton’s meeting with Martin Luther King. King himself wrote that Rauschenbusch “gave to American Protestantism a sense of social responsibility that it should never lose.”

Mainline Protestantism was perfectly suited for the optimism and social consensus of the 1950s. But the Culture Wars that began fracturing American society in the 1960s left it in a bind. The Social Creed also condemned alcohol and sex outside marriage, so the big-steeple churches held little appeal to the counterculture, despite the efforts of guitar-strumming pastors like "Doonesbury’s" Rev. Scot Sloan, “the fighting young priest who can talk to the young.” (The character was a parody of Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin, a liberal clergyman who counseled Vietnam War draft resisters.)

The Religious Right that began emerging in the 1970s was a reaction to the liberal reforms championed by the Social Gospel: It emerged as a political movement after the Supreme Court stripped tax-exempt status to the “Christian Academies” springing up throughout the South as a way for whites to escape the consequences of Brown v. Board of Education. Conservatives also began to embrace Christianity as a counter-counterculture, a bulwark against the libertinism and licentiousness on display in the mass media.

Christians “didn’t want their churches to be ‘relevant’ to the outside world,” wrote Rick Perlstein in "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan," a social and political history of the early 1970s. “The reason they went to church in the first place was to escape the world outside church walls – a world that liberals had turned into a madhouse.”

So Mainline Protestantism appealed to that dwindling portion of the population that was liberal in its social views but conservative in its personal habits. In 1965, the mid-century heyday of the American Middle, the Presbyterian Church had 4.25 million members. We now have half that many.

The 1980 presidential election was a watershed not just for American politics, but for American religion, which played a larger role than in any election year since 1928, when evangelical Protestants rallied against Catholic Democrat Al Smith. This time, though, evangelical Protestants rallied against evangelical Protestant Democrat Jimmy Carter, who was seen as compromising with the secularists on abortion, women’s rights, and America’s God-given role as defender of Israel and scourge of Islam.

With that triumph, right-wing evangelical Protestantism became the public face of American Christianity. Confoundingly, this ended up hurting moderate churches more than conservative churches. Billy Graham, the most prominent American clergyman of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, was a bipartisan figure who sucked up to whoever was in the White House. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell sucked up only to Republicans, and their television programs, along with those of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, portrayed a specifically Southern brand of Christianity that didn’t play in the Mainline Protestant heartlands of New England and the Upper Midwest. The result was that conservatives flocked to the new megachurches, which were offering exactly the message they wanted to hear; as a result, liberals -- culminating with today's Millennials -- began avoiding religion altogether, because they perceived it as an instrument of right-wing politics.

“Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of 5 to 6 times the historic rate (30-40 percent have no religion today versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago),” sociologists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell reported to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2009. “But youth’s religious disaffection is largely due to discomfort with religiosity having been tied to conservative politics….We find that the increase was not connected to a loss of religious piety, and that it was connected to politics. In the 1990s many people who had weak attachments to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by renouncing their weak attachment to organized religion.”

(In their subsequent book, "American Grace: How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us," Putnam and Campbell wrote that, “we have seen how, over time, political conservatives become more religious -- the same sorting process, but in reverse.”)

Those Millennials are the great-great grandchildren of suffragettes and the grandchildren of Freedom Riders. The Social Gospel is still a cornerstone of American liberalism, but it has become a secular movement, unbound from its Christian origins. The political elements of the Social Gospel have become mainstream opinion. Mainline Protestantism keeps up with liberal beliefs -- the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and United Church of Christ all allow same-sex marriage -- but does not provide the same source of energy to the Democratic Party that evangelicalism does to the Republicans. Hillary Clinton’s politics are as rooted in her faith as Mike Huckabee’s, but she rarely presents them that way, because doing so might turn off the secular wing of her party.

All those Millennials who were turned off by the Religious Right will someday have children, and begin contemplating their mortality, life events which lead people toward religion. In an article entitled “Why Millennials are leaving the church,” Rachel Held Evans had this to say about her faith journey as a young woman:

“Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions -- Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. -- precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.

“What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

“We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.”

This new generation may yet offer hope for the Religious Middle -- if we can keep our churches open long enough.

By Edward McClelland

Edward McClelland is the author of "Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland." Follow him on Twitter at @tedmcclelland.

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Billy Graham History Jerry Falwell Moderates Pat Robertson Religion Ronald Reagan The Christian Right