Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

The Surge of the Whitebread Protestants to Obama

white bread.jpgWith all the attention showered on evangelical Christians and Catholics, we’ve neglected the religious group partly driving Barack Obama‘s recent surge in the polls: mainline Protestants.
This bucket includes the historic American churches that once dominated the spiritual landscape but have been losing members in recent years: United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church in the USA, American Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ. Their members represent 18% of the population.
This used to be a solidly Republican group. In 2004, they went for President George W. Bush 54%-46%. This summer, John McCain was leading Sen. Obama among these voters 43% to 40%, according to a study by John Green of the University of Akron.
But an ABCNews/Washington Post poll released Monday showed Sen. Obama now leading among Mainliners 53%-44%, indicating that the undecided voters are breaking heavily for the Democratic candidate.
Why? The superficial answer is, as with so many other questions, the economy. In Beliefnet’s Twelve Tribes study, 68% of centrist Mainliners (what we called “White Bread Protestants”) said the economy was the No. 1 issue compared with just 4% who said social issues.
Growing More Conservative
But that only gets at part of the riddle.


For one thing, Mainliners are traditionally conservative on economics – and surveys indicate that if anything they’ve become more skeptical of big government since 2004. Slightly more than four in 10 “white bread Protestants” call themselves conservative compared with 16% who say they’re liberal. In some ways, Sen. McCain is actually an ideal candidate to appeal to this group – a mainline Christian himself (raised Episcopalian), he talks about fiscal discipline and earmarks.
The Mainline shift to Sen. Obama may be partly an unintended consequence of Sen. McCain’s efforts to energize evangelical Christians, including through the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Though fiscally conservative, mainline Protestants are socially liberal – so they would be unimpressed by the Republican Party adopting the most antiabortion platform ever. Mainliners may be irritated or scared by Gov. Palin’s religious language and beliefs – including her attendance at a Pentecostal church espousing “End Times” theology (that we’re approaching the end of the world and Christ’s return).
In general, Mainliners have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the role the “religious right” has played in the Republican Party. According to a new survey by a progressive group called Faith in Public Life, Mainliners – by a margin of two to one — believe public officials are too close to religious leaders. Evangelicals, by a two to one margin, think politicians should pay more attention to religion.
If you view the campaign as a chess game, Sen. McCain made a bold and successful gambit to shore up evangelicals by picking Gov. Palin – but thereby left several other pieces on the board vulnerable.
Targeting Mainliners, Moderate Evangelicals
Sen. Obama has skillfully capitalized on this. The campaign’s religious outreach arm has initiated 950 “American values” house parties, about 65% of which have been among mainline Protestants. His campaign recently sent out a massive faith mailing targeted at mainline Protestants and moderate evangelicals.
The electoral map makers have insured that these groups get special attention. A list of states with higher-than-average concentrations of Mainliners is also a list of the key electoral battlegrounds: Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
There’s the simple fact that Sen. Obama himself is a Midwestern mainline Protestant. Though thought of as a “black liberation” enclave, Sen. Obama’s church in Chicago was part of the United Church of Christ, a mostly white mainline denomination – and Sen. Obama’s faith rhetoric is more traditional Protestant than Black liberationist.
Sen. Obama’s frequent discussion of his personal faith seemed targeted at evangelicals but may have given comfort instead to traditional Mainliners. “Obama planting seeds in the evangelical garden has borne fruit in the mainline garden,” says Mara Vanderslice, founder of a progressive religious group Matthew25 and religious outreach director for John Kerry’s 2004 campaign.
All in all, the economy is still the driving force in the mainline shift. But these other noneconomic factors help explain why the campaign has seen — as of now — more improvement with mainline Protestants than with other groups.
Reprinted from Steven Waldman’s Political Perceptions column at

Comments read comments(35)
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posted October 15, 2008 at 12:37 am

Many Mainliners spoke out against the Iraq war and torture. One of the most vocal was Pres Bush and Dick Cheney’s United Methodist Church (UMC).
Top Methodist leader wants Bush – a Methodist – impeached
Tell President Bush United Methodists Do Not Torture!
“The Faith of Barack Obama,” by Stephen Mansfield
Mansfield is a pro-life conservative Republican that demonstrates a true Christian attitude of not demonizing people that have different views. Mansfield states in the following video: (not 100% word for word)
“What really disappointments me in the church today is the level of hatred about politics. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am not allowed to hate someone that kills my wife, steal my property. Hatred in the church about politics is sin and it’s got to go.”
The book is educational, easy to read book, and especially good for people unfamiliar with black churches. I learned about Black Liberation Theology, which is much different from what I heard on TV. The author is objective and helps answer why Obama stated in Rev Wright’s church for 20 years. He discusses what really shaped Obama’s religious views, how they will inform the way he governs and why he may be a compelling leader not just to liberal Democrats but also to some conservative evangelicals.
The book also has a very interesting chapter about the religious faith of John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and George W Bush.

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Charles Cosimano

posted October 15, 2008 at 2:56 am

I said that Palin was a mistake the day McCain picked her. Mainline Protestants can’t stand her and there are still a lot more of them than there are Evangelicals.

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posted October 15, 2008 at 6:55 pm

White bread protestants? Joe six pack? What is it with conservatives and commodity crop products?
Rod, comments?

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Prematurely Grey

posted October 15, 2008 at 8:46 pm

As a member of this tribe, I’d like to note that there are many Mainline Protestants who also consider themselves the Religious Left. I’m a life-long Episcopalian. Not sure if there’s a more stereotypical Rockefeller Republican denomination. However, we are also the vanguard of an extremely public discussion about homosexuality and the church. Are you double counting me? Or does my being “left,” with my religious beliefs strongly affecting my political actions take me out of the mainstream?

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posted October 16, 2008 at 1:17 am

Not to mention that John McCain left the Episcopal Church to so-called “join” the Southern Baptist Church. Even though he has not undergone adult Baptism, he calls himself a ‘Baptist’
That offends me deeply as an Episcopalian from baptism.

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posted October 24, 2008 at 9:15 pm

With the economy the way it is, and folks (including myself) losing money in their various savings, how could anyone, no matter what their religious leanings,vote once again for any Republican? McCain is another GWB, no matter what he tries to say, and Palin? She is a joke. If that pair got elected, and the worst should happen and Palin actually entered the Oval Office…just hang it up folks. That is one reality I’d never want to see.

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posted April 29, 2009 at 12:21 pm

The Bible does say the entire world will be deceived by anti Christ all but the elect…We are witnessing it today…
The great falling away from Christ’s gospel are in part those who believe the lying words of Barack Obama over the words of Jesus..
The tares are being removed..They are leaving the truth of the Gospel and following liars like Barack Obama..His path will lead them soon to Islam and hell

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posted April 29, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Obama is not a Christian. He believes all paths lead to god.. This is the antithesis of Christianity. He also believes all men are children of god…Jesus said all men are not children of god unless born again..He spoke of satans children many times..
Barack Obama is a liar especially about Scripture and he is a killer, (abortion)…
The so called Christians who are in his pocket are like those who said “crucify Jesus, give us Barabbas”.
It reality Barack is binding the tares into bundles to be burned..The burning is ultimately Islam the road gate that leads to hell…
The Bible says the daily sacrifice shall be taken away.. This daily sacrifice is Jesus i.e. our daily bread…(Jesus is the sacrifice and he is the bread of life..Give us this day our daily bread.).
The next event is the abomination that makes desolate will be set up…
This abomination can be likened to Eves sin that caused the Adams to become desolate and naked.It is lies of satan… As I see it today’s abomination that maketh desolate wil be the koran lie forced on the masses after the daily bread(christ’s gospel) is removed.

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