Since the first Protestants rowed to shore in Jamestown, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, they’ve been in charge. As recently as the 1950s, the president as well as seven of the nine members of the Supreme Court were Protestant Christians. Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal and other so-called mainline Protestant leaders called many of the shots on civil rights, school prayer, immigration, education and other key issues of the day. Then, in the late ’60s, their numbers began to dwindle.
Today, only one member of the high court is Protestant (John Paul Stevens), and President Obama appears to have stopped attending church altogether at least outside of Camp David. Instead of dominating public debate, mainline Protestants find themselves struggling to reach a quorum. Half of their churches have fewer than a hundred members, and in nearly six of 10 congregations, it’s the Church of the Blue Hair. Or No Hair. A quarter or more of their congregants are 65 or older. That’s three times the number for their more conservative Evangelical cousins.
So what happened? How did America’s most influential religious group become so marginal?
The conventional wisdom has been that the more conservative Catholic and Evangelical churches simply won over the hearts and minds of the American people. And, if there is a culture war, these more liberal Protestant groups surely must have lost.
But not so fast.