As the political temperature continues to rise this summer as the elections approach, sociologist Robert Wuthnow points to the little known but increasing strength of mainline Protestants in the political arena.
Writing in the American Prospect magazine (May 22), Wuthnow writes that such social causes as ministries for AIDS victims, alcoholics, the homeless, low income workers, and gay/lesbian programs are galvanizing many of the 22 million members of the mainline who find through inter-faith, and interdenominational coalitions the organized means of implementing their agenda. Rather than emulate the religious right’s aggressive vote getting, the mainline continues to work through local agencies and congregational based outreach. Acknowledging that the mainline lost enormous numbers of members and resources since the l960s, Wuthnow adds that their losses were largely demographic, not from ideological dissent.
The members had smaller families, married later in life, and pursued college degree programs. Their “quiet influence” as the author calls it, demonstrates a significant feature of today’s religious landscape. For mainliners the more active a person is in church, the more likely that person is to be in related community programs; church membership in the mainline is positively associated with filling leadership roles in other community programs and in volunteering for service agencies.
Choosing to eschew the religious right penchant for electoral campaigning, the mainline members pursue programs promoting serious discourse over major social and economic issues/ For all their quiet active work, mainliners face serious challenges.
They encounter localistic orientation in their congregations, meaning many members choose not to be involved in national issues; they encounter parishioner distrust of governmental involvement in social reform; their activities are at times poorly packaged, lacking in public relations know-how. Yet, Wuthnow concludes, the mainliners continue to be optimistic about their pursuits. They realize they are in public policy for the long haul as they continue to pursue their quiet activism headed towards the November elections.
(American Prospect, 5 Broad St., Boston, MA 02109)
— By Erling Jorstad