RIP: The Death of Protestant Politics

Political power and devout faith are a potent and sometimes oft-putting blend. It is all-too-easy to gain the world but lose the soul.
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On April 25, the Washington Post ran side-by-side obituaries of Howard Phillips and Robert Edgar in its print edition. The two men, one 72 and the other 69, died within three days of each other.

Those obituary notices, however, are the only time the two were on the same page. In life, they were opposites in faith and politics. Howard Phillips, a layman, helped establish the new Christian Right. Bob Edgar, a United Methodist minister, was a liberal seminary president and former head of the National Council of Churches.

Reading the twinned death notices was a like reviewing a history of twentieth century Protestantism. Over the last century, conflict rent American Protestantism in two: Protestant fundamentalism found mostly in evangelical and non-denominational churches; Protestant liberalism preached and practiced primarily in mainline churches. Phillips, a fundamentalist, and Edgar, a liberal, represented and embodied these two parties in American religion. And their lives - as well as their passing - points to both the successes and the erosion of what was once the America's majority religious tradition.

In the last years of the 20th century, both fundamentalist and liberal Protestantism underwent huge transformations. A key player in the ascendency of political fundamentalism, Howard Phillips helped move conservative theology to the center of the Republican Party, forging links between economic and social conservatives. According to Julie Ingersoll, religious studies professor at University of North Florida and expert on the Religious Right, "It's hard to overstate Phillips' influence in the transformation of the more secular mid-century conservatism of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley into today's religiously-inflected conservatism." Although Phillips would later reject the Republicans to found the Constitution Party, his influence remains strong among various conservative political interest groups, Christian home-schooling movements, and Tea-Party evangelicals.

Robert "Bob" Edgar was not as historically lucky. By the time he came into national religious leadership, the mainline Protestant religious community was in decline. Although the institutions he inherited had once been significant players in both religion and politics, by the late 20th century they were plagued by membership loss and identity crises and burdened by unresponsive institutional bureaucracies. Amid the decline, however, Edgar spoke powerfully for Protestant social justice, served in Congress, saved an important seminary from closure, and injected new life into the National Council of Churches. His life and ministry demonstrated the best of his tradition, reminding Americans that liberal Protestantism, while numerically smaller than it once had been, still played a significant social role to defend the poor and marginalized

As leaders of their respective communities of conservative and liberal Protestants, Phillips and Edgar excelled. Whatever their theology and politics, however, and with whomever one happens to agree, they also were contributing - somewhat unwittingly - to the overall decline of American Protestantism.

In 1960, when Phillips and Edgar were young men, Protestants made up 66% of the population and were a strong religious majority in a nation of diverse faiths. By 2012, the percentage of Protestants in the United States slipped to 48%, making American Protestantism for the first time ever in the nation's history a minority faith (a large minority, to be sure, but still a minority). To be sure, the decline hit liberal mainline churches first. Since 1995, however, large declines have happened in both liberal and conservative Protestant churches. Although both fundamentalism and liberalism show some local strength, and the religious right demonstrates continued political influence, American Protestantism as a whole is becoming a shadow of its historic self.

So, where have all the Protestants gone? They are swelling the ranks of America's fastest growing religious group: the "nones," also called the "unaffiliateds." And why are they leaving church? According to a recent Pew survey, 67% of the "nones" report that they are angry that religious institutions are "too involved with politics." Evidently, a large number of Americans see religion as contributing to the nation's partisan divide instead of being part of the solution. For whatever meaningful work either Phillips or Edgar did, their legacies remain with us: a fractured and declining Protestant community, one with little patience for faith and partisanship, a theologically thinned understanding of politics, and increasing attention on institutional survival and personal piety rather than the common good.

I am a liberal, mainline Protestant and have always admired and largely agreed with Bob Edgar. And I have long criticized the Religious Right. But the odd coincidence of their passing gives pause, inviting reflection on the relationship between faith and politics in our society. What has this long century of Protestant conflict and division cost us a nation, whether one is a Protestant or not, in terms of our moral, ethical, and theological resources? Might there be a better way for Protestant politics in the future, a way that heals instead of wounds? Or, is this the final RIP to the old Protestant political culture? Whether one is a conservative or a liberal, a Protestant, Catholic, Jew or Muslim, Phillips' and Edgar's last gift may be to remind us that political power and devout faith are a potent and sometimes oft-putting blend. As the recent history of American Protestantism proves, when faith becomes the servant of partisan politics, even a great religious tradition can lose its soul.

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