Was religion an important issue in this election? Or was Barack Obama’s election a matter of economics?
Exit polls reveal that white Protestants voted in large numbers for John McCain for president–thus making them the primary religious group left in the old conservative coalition.
However, exit polls did not break down “white Protestants” into smaller constituencies of “evangelical Protestants” and “mainline Protestants.” Evangelicals continued to deliver large numbers for Republicans. But the numbers for mainline Protestants may be a different story when the final count comes in.
Historically, mainline Protestants have been Republicans and have not in any modern election backed a Democratic candidate. In 2000 and 2004, however, Democrats began to garner more votes from the mainline fold, moving in a more liberal direction. John Kerry received more mainline votes (somewhere between 45-48%) than any other presidential candidate in history. A late October ABC/Washington Post poll indicated that mainliners were trending toward Barack Obama by a 53%-46% margin. This may not have been the final tally, but if Obama even achieved a 50/50 split, it would mark an historic change in the mainline Protestant community.
This may seem minor, but for the fact that mainline Protestant churches are strongest in the “new battleground” states of the upper Midwest and the mid-Atlantic where even a small shift makes a big difference. Economic issues–the dominant concern of this campaign–are tailor-made for mainline Protestants, for whom money is the faith-based issue.
Unlike evangelicals, mainline Protestants are accustomed to living with divided opinions regarding the “hot button” concerns like abortion and gay-marriage. Despite media hype, those issues do not motivate them spiritually to vote in any particular direction. But money is another matter. If you want to start a good fight in a mainline congregation, bring up the yearly stewardship campaign or the mission budget.
Mainline Protestants donate much money to charitable causes, are concerned with stewardship in paying their pastors, and struggle to responsibly grow their endowments in order to maintain their historic buildings and their ministries. They possess strong theological ideas about balanced budgets, responsible spending, and caring for the common good through fairness in our economic life. Mainline Protestants, motivated by ideals of responsibility, charity, and stewardship, naturally identify economics as part of their moral framework. In this particular constituency, religion and economics are intimately connected.
In recent weeks, one mid-western mainline pastor told me that Republican leadership on economic issues was like “a bunch of drunken sailors on ship heading for hell.” His colleagues laughed in agreement. Mainliners used to be Republicans because they trusted the GOP with their cash. If Democrats gain their trust on economic concerns, they will speak to the spiritual heart of these mainstream churches’ vision of faith. And, as a result, the old mainline may yet find itself part of a new progressive religious coalition.