The new “2020 Census of American Religion” from the Public Religion Research Institute is out, and while it has a number of interesting findings, the most surprising is that among white Christians, mainline Protestants have reversed a long-standing decline in membership and have now surged past Evangelical Protestants.
The survey measured self-identification among white Christians as “evangelical”/“born-again” Protestant or “other” Protestant, so it is not correlated to institutional membership in this or that denomination. But generally speaking, “mainline” Protestants are the relatively liberal denominations that belong to the World Council of Churches, including United Methodists, Episcopalians, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and other old-school, WASP-y “brands.” Meanwhile “Evangelical” Protestants include Southern Baptists, Churches of Christ, conservative Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Anglican split-off sects, and various Pentecostal and nondenominational but conservative groups.
According to PRRI, mainline Protestants now account for 27 percent of white Christians, while Evangelicals make up 23 percent. While white Christians as a whole have been steadily declining as a portion of the population for decades, the most recent number shows a reversal of trends between mainliners, who are experiencing an uptick in affiliation (from 13 percent of Americans in 2016 to 16 percent now), and Evangelicals, who continue to decline (they were 23 percent of the population as recently as 2006, but now stand at 14 percent).
There was a bit of a harbinger of this development in 2013, when a Brookings/PRRI study of millennials showed a significantly larger share identifying as “liberal” or “moderate” Christians as opposed to “conservative” Christians. As I observed at the time: “The idea that non-conservative Christianity is outmoded is itself outmoded.”
Still, the news that mainliners are growing as Evangelicals decline will be shocking to those who have been told for many years — by gloating Evangelicals as well as by secular conservatives and many nonreligious observers — that liberal Protestantism is “dead” or “dying,” condemned by lax theology and too much tolerance of sinfulness (you know, women having nonmarital sex, using birth control, and having abortions; divorced people remarrying; and LGBTQ people coming out of the closet in defiance of God’s plan). The idea that “real” Christianity is by definition conservative has been built into the worldviews of many opinion leaders of every persuasion. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (a traditionalist Catholic) wrote an entire book in which the folly and uselessness of the once-mighty mainliners was a major premise.
Are the PRRI findings just a blip that will be forgotten when the long-standing decline of liberal Protestants and the triumphant rise of conservatives resumes? Possibly, but maybe not. Another PRRI data point was noted in a write-up by Religion News Service: “White evangelicals are now the oldest religious group, with a median age of 56. White mainliners and Black Protestants share the same median age — 50 — with white Catholics skewing closer to evangelicals at 54.” This is particularly bad news for the largest and most politically powerful conservative Evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, whose membership has declined for 13 consecutive years, and which is fighting off a strong takeover bid from those who would make the SBC more rigorously and exclusively conservative at the expense of its life-giving efforts to diversify. And it should be actively frightening to Trump-style Republicans, for whom white Evangelicals are critically important.
The PRRI census will also get attention for showing that the steady rise in the percentage of Americans who have no religious identification has slowed and even reversed. It’s possible this trend and the intra-Christian dynamics are connected, as RNS notes:
PRRI CEO Robert Jones said in an email the survey doesn’t provide precise explanations regarding the shift among white Christians. But he pointed to “circumstantial evidence” that suggests “over the last two years in particular, white mainline Protestants seem to have absorbed at least some folks leaving white evangelical and other churches who may have otherwise landed in the religiously unaffiliated camp.”
The idea of liberal Protestants securing “converts” is alien to the conventional wisdom, to put it mildly. But I can attest that in my own small Disciples of Christ congregation in California, we have a rich assortment of ex-Evangelicals, ex-Catholics, and even ex-LDS members. Politically minded conservative Evangelicals and their conservative Catholic allies often cite the the importance of “religious liberty” when discussing their efforts to legally discriminate against feminists and LGBTQ folks in the name of Jesus Christ. But there is also religious liberty to move from one group of believers to another, and for the first time in living memory, the conservatives are no longer confidently triumphant in that spiritual competition.