Blame Trump and Sanders on Waning Old School Protestantism

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Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pauses as she speaks at a campaign rally in Rochester, Minnesota, on February 27. Sanders, who stands out as a nonreligious Jewish candidate, represents the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, the author writes Brian Snyder/Reuters

Does the popularity of unconventional presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders evince America's dramatically shifting religious demographic?

Recently, an outspokenly liberal United Methodist bishop in The Hill chastised Christians, especially Evangelicals, for supporting Trump despite his "xenophobic zeal" on immigration.

The bishop likely did not appreciate that the implosion of once pervasively influential Mainline Protestant denominations like her own facilitated Trump's rise. During the campaign, he has stressed his Presbyterian background but elicited derision for his public unease with religious practice.

Parallel to Trump's popularity among many Republicans is enthusiasm among Democrats for Sanders, the first self-professed socialist to seriously seek a major party presidential nomination.

Sanders is also unusual politically as a non-religious Jew sometimes described as agnostic. He contrasts with the only Jew ever to serve on a major party's national ticket, 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, who was actively and outspokenly religious.

But Sanders, whose Vermont is among America's least religious states, represents the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, now 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. population.

Neither Sanders nor Trump would have been possible or even conceivable as serious presidential candidates during the decades of Mainline Protestant hegemony in American public life.

Excluding JFK, all presidents (including Unitarians) have had ties to Mainline Protestants, who shaped America's political ethos for most of four centuries. Mainline Protestantism helped create American civil religion, a broad vaguely Protestant view of God that permitted all religious groups, including Catholics and Jews, to fully participate in public life without having to minimize their own religious convictions.

American democracy consequently remained very religious but also non-theocratic, tolerant and diverse, with all sects invested in America's affirmation of religious liberty.

Through the mid-20th century, Mainline Protestantism provided the political language and ethical tools for governance and accommodation, especially for the great reform movements that expanded human equality. The Civil Rights Movement was perhaps Mainline Protestantism's last great moral crusade, redeeming its earlier failures to address slavery and segregation.

But the great Mainline Protestant membership and wider cultural collapse began in the early 1960s. Then, one of six Americans belonged to the seven largest Mainline denominations. Today, fewer than one of 16 do.

Most of America's great historic universities trace to Mainline Protestantism. Today they are nearly all secular. Mainline Protestants still have disproportionate numbers in Congress. But remarkably, not a single Protestant serves on the Supreme Court. Mainline clergy, whose quotes once commonly adorned newspaper front pages, now are mostly ignored.

Among religious Americans, Evangelicals, now the largest religious demographic, have displaced Mainliners. Polls show the actively religiously devout retaining the same overall share of population, while many formerly mildly practicing religious believers, who were often Mainliners, have become "nones." The middle ground once owned by Mainline Protestantism, which specialized in national cohesion, has receded.

Evangelicalism has replaced declining Mainliners with a new form of spiritual vitality. But as a modern movement it lacks the traditions and gravitas of historic denominations that dated to the Reformation and which helped birth modern democracy and religious liberty.

Evangelicalism, lacking that magisterial heritage, is less self-confident, often uncomfortable with political power, is prone to extremes and often highly individualistic, impatient with human institutions.

These same handicaps plague even more the world of the religiously unaffiliated, who often lack the traditions, formal human communities, ethical tools and moral vocabulary for governance. They are especially vulnerable to the impulse of the moment.

Some polls show Millennials are indifferent or hostile to free speech and religious liberty, central premises of American democracy that Mainline Protestants carefully developed and nurtured for centuries of struggle. The Mainline historical memory is fast being erased in the American mind.

And among the results are Sanders and Trump. Sanders unabashedly extols socialism even after a century of socialist calamities around the world that had left free markets, until relatively recently, the unchallenged post–Cold War global paradigm. Young people with no historical memory are especially attracted to the retro-chic of Sanders's secular jeremiad against capitalism. Yet in the end Sanders seems unlikely to gain the Democratic nomination.

Trump is the current Republican frontrunner. Yet he sounds like no Republican nominee ever, all of whom since Lincoln have stressed the Constitution, law and God as the transcendent authority ultimately over American democracy. Trump instead emphasizes himself as the undefeated strong man who operates outside the normal limitations of law and God that apply to lesser mortals.

Republicans and nearly all presidential candidates have sought historical continuity with their predecessors. Trump implies he would be a Caesar launching a new Promethean epoch.

Although Trump awkwardly cites his Bible ownership, he seems a stranger to the comforting and inclusive language and stagecraft of civil religion, at which Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan were expert.

Reputedly many Evangelicals support Trump, despite the pleas of many Evangelical elites. These Trump-supporting Evangelicals, like the less religious who support him, seem more attuned to reality television, through which perhaps they first encountered Trump, than the moral architecture bequeathed by the political theology of historic Protestantism.

Liberal shepherds of shrinking Mainline Protestant flocks might bewail Trump's "xenophobia." But his appeal and success are possible only thanks to the moral vacuum left by their collapse.

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Blame Trump and Sanders on Waning Old School Protestantism | Opinion