No mainline Protestants in GOP field?

Despite my best intentions to avoid the Internet last week, news of Sarah Palin’s bus tour and her Star of David pendant still somehow seeped into my vacation. Speculation over the 2012 presidential candidates takes up much of the media’s excitement as you can imagine reporters preparing to either flock to Palin’s campaign or write the campaign obits.

Even in the “who’s running for president” speculation, there seems to be fewer religion and politics stories than there were in 2008. Over the past few years, I’ve helped run the politics blog at Christianity Today, where we’ve been tracking news, trends, surveys, etc., and I have seen less religion coverage than during the previous election. You’ll see some exceptions, like this weekend’s coverage of Ralph Reed’s conference, but other stories seem to take priority over religion.

Few reporters have noted religion in the Republican field other than Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. Just before Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said he would not run for president, I wrote a column on how he would be the only leading candidate who is a mainline Protestant. Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times has a new column out noting that (with Daniels out of the race), we probably will not see any mainline Protestants running for the Republican nomination.

But among the leading candidates for this year’s Republican presidential nomination, not one is a member of the Protestant denominations that for so long have dominated American political culture.

Two of the potential candidates are Mormons (former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.); one is a member of an interdenominational evangelical church (former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty); two others are Catholics (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum). Rep. Michele Bachmann, who says she’s considering the race, worships at an evangelical Lutheran church; if elected, she’d be the first Lutheran president.

But no matter who wins from this list, it won’t be an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian or a Methodist.

McManus notes that the dearth of mainline Protestants generally reflects the news we covered last year that no mainline Protestants serve on the Supreme Court anymore. “On election day, conservative Protestants have more in common with conservative Catholics than with liberal Presbyterians,” McManus writes. The whole column, which notes some trends that few reporters have acknowledged, is worth a read.

Perhaps religion and politics coverage will ramp up as reporters consider candidates’ church attendance, religious advisers, etc., but I see at least two reasons for the change in coverage: Reporters didn’t seem to see “values voters” as significant after 2008 the same way they did in 2004 and there’s the confusion over whether the tea party (the hot new group to cover) includes those “values voters.” Maybe it will just take reporters a few months to get over the “OMG a Mormon is running” idea before they can move on to more ground-breaking coverage.

Image: Remember that Newsweek cover on Palin as the leader of the religious right? Yeah, that was funny.

Print Friendly

  • M

    Gary Johnson is Lutheran. Isn’t that mainline Protestant? He does seem like the candidate the media wants to keep everyone from knowing about (e.g. he was excluded from the first GOP debate, sponsored by CNN), so it isn’t surprising that the LAT forgot to mention him.

  • Julia

    Methodism and Presbyterianism both came out of splits with the Church of England, right? Isn’t that what makes the three mainline?

  • Dale


    No. Believe it or not, the term “mainline” comes from the nickname of a commuter railroad running from Philadelphia to its more affluent suburbs. The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant residents of those suburbs attended a number of Protestant denominations, and so became known as “mainline” Protestants.

    “Mainline” really began as a signification of social class, rather than doctrine.

    And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is one of the “Seven Sisters”, the big mainline denominations. Obviously, ELCA came from German roots.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    M, good point – he hasn’t been in most lists of major contenders, but I’d still be interested in knowing more. Do you know what Lutheran congregation he attends?

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Trying to keep this thread about journalism, thanks.

  • Matt

    I think this is another example of the troublesomeness of the term “mainline”. Bachmann attends a congregation of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which is similar in many respects to the larger Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Both date from the mid-19th century but are not considered “mainline” because they’re more or less conservative.

    So the question is: Does “mainline” have to do with historical continuity? If so, then why don’t WELS and LCMS qualify, to say nothing of the Southern Baptist Convention? Or is it just code for “liberal”? If so, then why not just say “liberal”?

  • H. E. Baber

    Does “mainline” have to do with historical continuity? If so, then why don’t WELS and LCMS qualify, to say nothing of the Southern Baptist Convention? Or is it just code for “liberal”? If so, then why not just say “liberal”?

    Fantastic question. But an empirical question–one of what it is that most members of the public mean, and maybe even more importantly what the media mean. I’d have thought that historical continuity and global size were what mattered. Also proper churches, in stone or brick, with organs, pews and stained glass.

    So on this account megachurches that meet in preaching-halls with theater seats are out. And Uniterians are also out in virtue of lack of historical continuity and inadequate churchiness. But Baptists are ok, however conservative they may be, since they do have a history going back to the Reformation Anabaptists–so long as they do organs, pews and other accouterments of traditional churchiness.

  • Matt

    Rep. Michele Bachmann, who says she’s considering the race, worships at an evangelical Lutheran church

    The words “evangelical Lutheran” are in the WELS name for the same reason they’re in the ELCA’s name, which is that it’s a reference to the Christian gospel (in Greek, “evangel”). There’s no question that ELCA is “mainline” rather than “evangelical”, name notwithstanding, yet McManus seems to be implying here that the name indicates WELS is “evangelical” in the modern American sense. I’m not sure that’s accurate. Sure, it’s theologically conservative, as are modern American evangelicals, but there are some differences in emphasis. I think WELS and LCMS and similar groups might prefer to be called “confessional” rather than “evangelical”. But I’m sure Mollie knows more.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Since the term mainline [Protestant] appears to be giving us trouble, I wanted to link to a pretty good post from a few weeks ago that gives some good background on mainline Protestantism. Is mainline just a synonym for ‘liberal’? Not necessarily, but most of the mainline church bodies tend toward liberal theology and attitudes toward human sexuality.

    Also, in the context of Lutherans, it is worth noting that ‘evangelical’ (German: evangelisches) was effectively synonymous with ‘Protestant’ during and after the Reformation. It was a term used by Luther and other reformers to distinguish their followers from the Roman Catholic Church. Obvious confusion notwithstanding, ‘evangelical Lutheran’ does not mean the same thing as ‘that evangelical megachurch downtown’.

  • Dan S.

    Recently, author Stephen Mansfield said in a Podcast that Rep. Bauchman is a Charismatic (or has Charismatic leanings). Just for the record.

  • Michael C.

    Palin my have worn her Star of David around the city of NY, but she wore a cross in D.C. on that “thunderous” motorcycle ride!

  • Hector_St_Clare


    Methodism has roots in the church of England (Wesley split away from the Anglican church in the 19th century), but Presbyterianism derives from Calvinism and the church of Scotland, not from Anglicanism.

    FTR, I really dislike the term ‘mainline’: it was never a really descriptive or meaningful term, and it’s even much less so today then it was in the 19th century. I think the negative term, ‘non-evangelical’, is probably more meaningful then ‘mainline Protestant’. (Leaving aside that some Anglicans object to the Protestant label anyway).

    The ‘mainline’ churches might have something in common sociologically (though much less so today), but not doctrinally.

  • Dan Arnold

    I’m surprised tmatt or Miss Mollie haven’t pointed this out, but shouldn’t “evangelical Lutheran” really be “Evanfelical Lutheran” ? Or maybe not?There’s a significant difference and I’m curious which is meant.

    As for what it means to be mainline, Wikipedia has an interesting historical take.

  • Dave

    HE Baber, Unitarians (note spelling) have historical continuity by way of the Congregational church, but of course that kicks the can down the road, ie, why aren’t Congregationalists “mainline?” Unitarian churchiness varies from church to church, but the real reason we aren’t mainline is that we tolerate the likes of me.

  • betty boop

    This was my last read of this blog…you didn’t mention all of the presidential hopefuls: Ron Paul Stop pretending he is non-existant. He has been right all along and now people know it whether the state news admits it or not.

  • Dan Arnold

    Oops, that should read “Evangelical Lutheran” not “Evanfelical.”. Double drat typing on an IPad.

  • tmatt


    Yes, that is a major issue — big or small E.

    For better and for worse, “mainline” has been used to describe a specific list of denominations. The Seven Sisters. You’re either on it or not.

    The question is to what degree the list still has meaning. Should journalists stop using it, since they clearly need to DEFINE it for readers?

  • Passing By

    I wonder if the concept of “mainline protestantism” isn’t itself a media invention, stemming from the 50s when white suburban young (heavily spending)families flocked to churches for the sake of their kids. These were the public image of America at the time – mainline society, even in rejection – and you can still see the Methodist, Presbyterian, and E. Lutheran Churches from that era.

    Just a notion…

  • Matt

    Tmatt, that’s a tidy definition, but I don’t think everybody agrees on it. The Pew survey on Religion in America divided all Protestants into “mainline” and “evangelical” (or a third category, “historically black”), and their “mainline” grouping clearly goes beyond the Seven Sisters narrowly defined. Never mind that some people may be both “mainline” and “evangelical” (think conservative individuals within the Seven Sisters) and some may be neither (think confessional churches or fundamentalists). What are we to make of this?

  • Robert Harmon

    Please…If you aren’t Catholic, you are a Protestant. Your denomination started no earlier than the early 1500′s. They are all basically the same…”let’s do what we feel is right in our minds”.

  • Will

    As a Cherokee posted in my Magicknet days when he objected to being called “pagan”, “If I wanted to define myself by what I am NOT, I might as well call myself ‘Not Tom Mix’.”
    Sola fide, sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers have nothing to do with being Protestant? Mormons are “Protestants”? The Eastern churches are “Protestants”?

    My own church largely represents a repudiation of the last four centuries of Protestant theology, and I find it ludicrous to say all that matters is “Wedontbelieveinthepope”.

  • Adrianne Hanson

    As a “mainline Protestant” (Episcopalian) and moderate Republican, I find this article interesting, and I lament the fact that we have such a large assortment of candidates who are wearing their conservative evangelicalism openly on their sleeves. While a candidate’s faith is important and obviously influences his/her political views, lifestyle, and overall perspective, I don’t like the fact that a candidate has to use “God speak” to be considered a serious contender by conservative Republicans. I prefer the admonition to “share the Gospel, use words only if necessary.” If the Republican party wants a chance of taking back the White House and shaping the general direction of the country, it is going to have to appeal to the middle way.

  • Leslie Wolf

    I just wanted to echo the sentiment that conservative Presbyterians have more in common with conservative Catholics than they do with liberal Presbyterians. I was confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church, and I still consider myself Catholic, but I have been attending a fairly conservative Presbyterian church with my wife for the last two years. Conservative Presbyterians tend to inerrantists about Scripture, they tend to reject universalism (i.e., the doctrine that everyone will eventually be saved), and they tend to be socially conservative. Conservative Catholics exhibit the same tendencies. Compare liberal Presbyterians, such as the PCUSA. Many people who attend PCUSA churchs reject inerrantism, at least entertain universalism, and are socially liberal. I have met a number of PCUSA Presbyterians who do not regard acceptance of the Apostles’ Creed as a benchmark of orthodoxy. That is very far from the orthodoxy of conservative Catholics and Presbyterians. And much of what I said here about conservative Presbyterians also applies, of course, to conservative Protestants who are not Presbyterians, and also to Orthodox Christians. There are numerous theological and ecclesiological differences between Catholicism and Presbyterianism, and these differences are important. However, the differences are often less severe than is commonly understood. For example, the Catholic doctrine of salvation, both before and after Trent, is actually fairly close to that of Calvin. At any rate, it seems to me that conservative Christians, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, should be united by their committment to the Apostles’ Creed and the authority of Scripture. I do not mean to imply that they should not view themselves as members of the same church as liberal Christians – they certainly should, I believe. But I do think that the things that unite conservative Christians run deeper than the things that divide them.

  • Passing By

    If you aren’t Catholic, you are a Protestant.

    Unless you are Orthodox (Eastern or Oriental).

  • fbadams

    Please folks, all Christians are of the catholic faith even when they are “Protestant” or “Catholic”. Therefore, to perpetuate a division based upon the word “catholic”, or alternatively “Catholic” does a disservice to Christ (for which there will be an accounting). But as far as “mainline” Protestants, the fewer in government the better. They have not done our country much good over the past few decades, especially the Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. If you want to experience a scriptural, historical, and Christ-centered worship experience try Corpus Christi, Christians living CORE (Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed [or "Protestant"] and Evangelical) principles.

  • UCC Member

    Given that our current President belongs to the United Church of Christ (as I do), I’m not convinced that mainline Protestantism necessarily leads to good government. It certainly hasn’t in President Obama’s case!

  • Joel

    Conspicuously absent is Herman Cain. Anybody seen any indication of his religion in the news?

  • Jonathan

    Passing By,
    Your comment is foolishly simplistic. It’s like saying if your not s fish your a mammal. But there are dogs and cats, horses and mice. Within the protestant world there is a spectrum, from universalist and other’s that deny scripture, push a liberal agenda, and think jesus was a nice chap that accidentally got himself killed, to believers who fight for authority of scripture, quote Augustine and the creeds, and know that we are saved because of the cross alone. Does that sound like we’re one homogeneous lump? And by the way, you Catholics have some creed denyers

  • northcoast

    “If you aren’t Catholic, you are a Protestant.” You are neglecting the Anglican via media here. Some decades ago the Archbishop of Canterbury stirred the pot by announcing a connection to Catholicism (without Rome), and some time afterward the Protestant Episcopal Church in USA dropped the word “Protestant.”

    The discussion of “Mainline” reminds me that usage unfortunately changes the popular meaning of words we use such as “fundamentalism.”

  • Jonathan

    Deniers. iPhone malfunction.

    The point is…. Don’t be so overly simplistic.

  • Bowman

    What difference does it make if there’s no “mainline protestants” in the republican field? Are they superior in some way to other brands of christians or do mainline protestants block vote only for candidates who are mainline protestants themselves?

    For those who’ve expressed an interest, Herman Cain is a member in a church that is part of the National Baptist Convention, USA.

    Ron Paul’s religion is confused. He grew up a Lutheran. His children were baptized Episcopalian. He was attending a Baptist church at the beginning of the Iraq war but claims to be uncomfortable with “evangelicals’ being so supportive of pre-emptive war” and began reading St. Augustine (who isn’t exactly the most Baptist of the Catholic saints).

    Gary Johnson is Lutheran.

  • Matt

    Bowman, it’s news because it is a historically recent development. Mainline Protestants have dominated American political life from the beginning. Their absence from the gathering GOP field is, if nothing else, a significant sign of the times.

  • Matt

    By the way, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is hinting at a presidential run. He is reportedly Methodist, though I have not confirmed whether that means UMC.

  • Joel

    Thanks, Bowman. I went and looked it up right after posting that. His campaign Website doesn’t mention his church, but his Wikipedia page does.

    It also describes him as an assistant minister. I’m not sure what that means, but if he’s got some sort of ordination, I would think that would be news. It’s a stronger religious angle than Romney’s Mormonism, that’s for certain. So why hasn’t it been mentioned?

  • Alan

    “no mainline Protestants serve on the Supreme Court anymore.”

    Just a minor clarification: no Protestants of any kind serve on the Supreme Court today. The court is currently comprised of six Catholics and three Jews.

  • Bowman

    “Assistant minister”, in Baptist terms which I am familiar with, means that he would fill the pulpit in the normal pastor’s unexpected absence when there wasn’t time (or money) to find another minister. There’s not a requirement to be ordained or hold some other office like deacon. An assistant minister might also do other work such as dealing with someone coming forward during the altar call at the end of the sermon when the pastor might be already busy dealing with the needs of someone else.

    In larger churches, an assistant minister might be on the church’s payroll and have regularly assigned duties such as running the “children’s church” or the bus ministry. In those cases, its more likely the man would be ordained or perhaps a young man just entering the ministry in an informal apprenticeship but who had not yet progressed far enough in his studies for ordination.

    My impression, formed from how Herman Cain has dealt with questions about his beliefs, is that he’s not been ordained.

    After looking into Cain’s church today, where he’s been a member since age 10, I’m less open to Cain for president. On his church’s website it quotes his pastor as saying

    “It’s not enough to talk about what black folks ought to do. We have to also look at what government is not doing to ensure fairness and equal opportunity.”


    “The core of the gospel teaches that the church must heal the brokenness of our society.”

    The first quote is fine if it was said in the context of the civil rights struggle in the 50′s and 60′s. I don’t think those sentiments are appropriate for today. If you’ll remember, one of the issues which derailed Cain’s senate campaign was his support for affirmative action.

    Speaking as someone who was born as poor white trash and who got running water and indoor plumbing in 1967-68, and a party line telephone in 1979, I don’t think the color of my skin gave me advantages to the point that someone else needs to be given preference over me due to his skin color. Your mileage may vary.

    The second quote from his pastor offends me not politically but as a student of the Bible (college student). The gospel doesn’t teach “healing society” in any shape, form, or fashion. Nor does the Bible teach enforcing Christian morality upon non-believers by force of law (which seems to be the political force which drives most evangelicals).

  • Rev, Robert Waters

    First, “evangelical Lutheran” has nothing to do with “Evangelical.” We Lutherans had the term five hundred years before conservative Reformed types usurped it, and the meaning is very different. One prominent feature of the original kind of “Evangelicalism” is the stressing of “Christ for us” rather than “Christ in us,” in the conviction, among other things, that it is only through the primacy of the former that the latter becomes manifest.

    By the way, we confessional Lutherans don’t consider ourselves “Protestant,” either- for pretty much the same reason we’re uneasy about the way the word “evangelical” is used these days. We were the original Protestants, too. But s a liturgical, sacramental church, we just don’t fit.

    “Mainline,” on the other term, is pretty much a synonym for “liberal.” In fact, I would almost consider its use in most contexts a piece of propaganda, since its implication is that churches which identify with historical Christian teaching are idiosyncratic.

    And by the way, while we Lutherans would certainly claim the adjective “catholic” (note the small “c”), we are certainly not Reformed- that being the historic “Protestant” antithesis to “Lutheran.” “COLE,” perhaps?

    I truly wish it were true, btw, that all Christians belong to the “catholic” faith. The problem these days is precisely that, for the most part, “mainline Protestants-” or at least their denominations- often do not.

    BTW, Bowman, while (to lapse into Lutheranese) the Gospel in the proper sense is the good news of justification by grace,for Christ’s sake, through faith, the Gospel in the broad sense continues to include a concern for social justice- and the United States is a society which continues to suffer from enough social injustice to make that statement by Cain’s pastor completely appropriate today. And as long as we live in this fallen world, and in the kind of society sinners constitute, it will continue to be appropriate.

  • Passing By

    Excuse me, Jonathan, but “If you aren’t Catholic, you are a Protestant.” was not my statement. Robert Harmon wrote it in #20. Re-read my 24, which originally included a comment that at least some Baptists don’t consider themselves “protestants”. I deleted that part, thinking the whole thing not journalism-related and best kept brief.

    Actually, there is a journalism link in the meaning of “Catholic”. My Episcopalian Church History professor, teaching from a text by a Baptist, taught me that “Catholic” was a term originated to denote those local Churches in Communion with the bishop of Rome. That’s all. This matters in stories like the one about the so-called Roman Catholic Women Priests. It is my understanding that women presenting themselves as priests are excommunicate, but are, in fact, Catholics. Bad Catholics, you might say, but all of us are at one point or another. That’s what Confession is for.

    By the way, I don’t think I identified myself as a Catholic; from my #24, I would have assumed me to be an Eastern (or Oriental) Orthodox, but I am, indeed, a mackeral-snapper, a veritable raving papist.

  • Joel

    Bowman, thanks again. I was raised in an American Baptist church, but terms like “assistant minister” seem like they could mean almost anything. Besides which, I was never a very knowledgeable Baptist. :)

    Still, if I’m that clueless about his ordination or lack, I would expect the press to be too. Given that most of his political platform seems to be very conservative, I would expect to hear a lot of talk about how his religion would affect his presidency. As I say, if Romney’s mere membership is such a hot topic, it’s strange that Cain’s ministry has slipped right on past.

    Of course, it’s possible that Cain just isn’t showing up on their radar very much. He is kind of a dark horse (no pun intended). But there was a flurry of coverage when he announced, none of which had any religious angle at all.

  • Bram

    Hector St. Clare’s post is incorrect. John Wesley did *not* “split away from” The Church of England “in the 19th Century.” Wesley died in the Eighteenth Century (in 1791) and famously declared that he “had lived and would die a member of The Church of England,” as indeed he did. The Wesleyans or Methodists were more or less *pushed out* of The Church of England in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, as many Anglo-Catholics would be in the second half and beyond — in both cases to The Church of England’s detriment on down to today.

  • Will

    But the AMERICAN Methodists perforce split from the Church of England with Wesley’s support, when he ordained Coke and Asbury. “Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid/But who hath laid hands on him?” brother Charles wrote.

  • Bram


    Well, yes, because The American Revolution had intervened, making it, shall we say, awkward for American Methodists to remain members of the established church of the British state. In point of fact, Wesley’s ordination of Coke and Asbury should be seen — paradoxically or ironically — as Wesley’s attempt to *maintain* the Methodist stream of Anglicanism in the new United States, as opposed to some “split away” from Anglicanism that Wesley never undertook — contra Hector St. Clare — in the Nineteenth or any other century.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for weighing in on this thread on all things mainline Protestant. Please keep focused on what this means for journalism, thanks. As for those who wondered why Herman Cain, Gary Johnson and Ron Paul were not mentioned, since they are not among the leaders in the polls, it’s difficult for journalists to mention everyone running. That said, I hope reporters find these angles among those candidates.

  • Matt

    FWIW, I read here that Perry is a longtime UMC member, but recently has more frequently attended a megachuch with loose Baptist connections.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    More on Rick Perry and religion:

    If memory serves, Don Wildmon was a Methodist, but the American Family Association is not a Methodist organization (to say the least).

  • Hector_St_Clare


    Apologies, I was vaguely aware that Wesley himself didn’t originate the Methodist split, so it would be fairer to say, ‘the intellectual disciples of Wesley split from the church of England’. Or were pushed out, as the case may be. In any case, my point was that while Wesley and the Methodist tradition had roots in the Church of England, the Presbyterians did not.

    With respect to whether conservative evangelicals have a lot in common with the Roman Catholic church, I’d just make two points.

    1) Many evangelicals completely trash tradition, which for Anglicans, Catholics, and the Orthodox is a source of truth complementary to scripture.
    2) Tune into, say, Family Life Radio one day when they’re talking about Mary, listen to them completely trash the Marian doctrines, and then think about whether they have a lot in common with the RC church. I’d say you’d find more acceptance of the RC ideas about Mary among Anglicans then among the FLR set.
    3) Most Anglicans and ‘mainline’ Protestants (boy, do I hate that phrase) accept the historic creeds and what’s in them.