COMMENTARY | Protestants aren’t just disappearing from the pews, according to the Pew Research Center. They are vanishing from politics as well, in a field once defined by which denomination you were in.
Years ago, I left the Catholic Church to become a member of the United Methodist Church. I had no idea what an outlier I had become. Not only was I joining a group generally in decline, but was also teaching about a field no longer dominated by Protestants.
Back in 1976, Jimmy Carter (Baptist) was elected, along with Walter Mondale (Presbyterian). They defeated Gerald Ford (Episcopal) and Bob Dole (Presbyterian), while the sitting vice president was Nelson Rockefeller (Baptist). John Rhodes (Methodist) was the House Minority Leader. Over in the U.S. Senate, the new Senate Majority Leader was Robert Byrd (Baptist). The new Senate Minority Leader was Howard Baker (Presbyterian).
There were two Catholics (“Tip” O’Neill stepped in as House Speaker in 1977, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield stepped down in 1976), but not at the same time. It was a Protestant world.
In the Supreme Court, there was Chief Justice Warren Burger (Presbyterian), Potter Stewart (Episcopalian), Byron White (Episcopalian), Thurgood Marshall (Episcopalian), Harry Blackmun (Methodist), William Rehnquist (Lutheran), Lewis F. Powell (Presbyterian), and John P. Stevens (Protestantism). Only William Brennan (Catholic) wasn’t a Protestant.
Now we have Mitt Romney (Mormon) and Paul Ryan (Catholic) running as presidential and vice-presidential nominees of the Republican Party. The Speaker of the House is John Boehner (Catholic) and his deputy is Eric Cantor (Jewish). On the Democrat side, the House Minority Leader is Nancy Pelosi (Catholic) and the Senate Majority Leader is Harry Reid (Mormon). Even our vice president is Catholic (Joe Biden). All nine Supreme Court Justices are non-Protestants.
So is there any Protestant in politics? Only Barack Obama is Protestant. It’s a far cry from the bitter elections of 1928 and 1960, where being a non-Protestant did or almost cost you the Presidency.
Some would be quick to point out the general population trend toward secularism and the overall decline of Protestantism as a political force. But this doesn’t mean that folks are all becoming atheistic. In fact, the Pew survey found a number of people who believe in God and pray, but will not join a church.
But one need look no further than the recent politicization of Protestant churches from the pulpit, where pastors use their position of power to endorse a political candidate. If you’re not on the same page as the church leader, then you probably aren’t welcome. And this goes for conservative and liberal religious evangelicals.
In the New Testament, I don’t see many cases of Jesus taking sides on whether King Herod should be the political ruler, or comment on whether Tiberius or Caligula was a better Roman Emperor. In fact, he seemed to wash his hands of earthly secular politics with the “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s” avoiding the trap set by political and religious leaders in his region.
Over the weekend, our church chose not to celebrate “pulpit freedom” Sunday by taping a speech and rubbing it in the noses of the IRS, daring them to revoke their tax-exempt status. Instead, we celebrated World Communion Day, and our pastor talked about how Christ’s sacrifice meant so much. I can guess the political preferences of our pastor, but that just wasn’t as important to him as a lesson on the redeeming power of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
And as our church’s membership rebounds as nationwide declines continue, I’m not so sure that’s an accident. Perhaps we may return to a day where Protestants are in the majority, and religion isn’t used as a political football.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.