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October 15, 2008

The Surge of the Whitebread Protestants to Obama

With 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 WSJ.com (Originally posted at Steve Waldman's blog at Beliefnet.)

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Comments

While conservatives are always bleating about "Tax and Spend Liberals," they've become the "Borrow and Squander Conservatives," haven't they?

Quibbles:
That "end times theology" definition is loose enough to include nearly all Christians.
Calling the UCC mainline needs more justification or at least explanation, IMHO.
It would be pertinent to note Mara Vanderslice is working for Obama's campaign also.

Whitebread Christians sound like a derogatory term to me. It is beneath you.

I am a conservative fundamental Christian who has voted for Obama. Why? Because I do not like what our country has become under the present administration.

We torture people, we lock people up without due process of law, we ignore the Geneva Convention, we alienate our allies, we have started a war with a country that could do us no harm and made them a breeding place for terrorist and have borrowed so much money to pay for this illegal war that we will never get out.

So Obama gets my vote.
mjs

I urge M.J. Spaulding to think of what the Supreme Court will look like if a Democrat chooses the next Justice or two. While abortion is not the only issue, it is very signficant when you talk about the moral condition and culture of this country.

It is also important to know that the root of the financial crisis we are now in was planted when Pres. Clinton insisted that Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac offer sub-prime loans to people who cannot afford them. The money-grubbers who took advantage of that policy bear responsibility for their own moral choices (I wonder how many of them identify with the Democratic party), but the door was opened by the leader of Obama's party and was not shut by elected people of either party.

Wealth has been concentrating to an excessive degree as the conservatives have waged class warfare. Everyone else's incomes have been stagnating, at best. I am not better off than I was when conservatives took over Congress, and then the White House. What were we thinking in voting for them?

That's a collective "We." I stopped voting a split ticket in the Reagan years. What a disgusting, smarmy racist; and among the the worst presidents for working poor Americans of every ethnicity. Then there was his cowardly and completely reprehensible mishandling of the AIDS epidemic. Quite unforgivable, quite lethal in fact.

I think that the Black community, in general, hasn't forgiven him either. With the Black community, I'm fairly confident in saying, though I'm not Black, that he ranks way down there among 20th Century presidents, with Woodrow Wilson.

To Opal:
What fraction of the current crisis do you believe is attributable to subprime loans to minorities and the working poor, and which fraction do you assign to rich, irresponsible speculators?

It is hard to imagine equating on the one hand
1) legislation to help economically disadvantaged families become homeowners, and
2) reckless speculation, financed by overextended credit, and undertaken by the wealthiest investors and financial institutions in the land

On June 28, 2006, Barack Obama mocked the Bible including Jesus Christ's teachings on the Sermon on the Mount. Obama stated, "Should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount, a passage that is so radical that it is doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application." Putting campaign issues aside, as Christians, do we want a President who is willing to mock the words of our Lord? I think not. The video is on YouTube if you choose to watch. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnmS_vULPxw

It is also important to know that the root of the financial crisis we are now in was planted when Pres. Clinton insisted that Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac offer sub-prime loans to people who cannot afford them.

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Not true. Fanny Mae / Freddie Mac loans account for less than 20% of the "bad loans" in this mess. The vast majority of the loans involved in this mess were from the private lenders taking advantage of the deregulation that has been occurring for the last eight years. Fanny and Freddie couldn't get near the subprime borrowers, the plethora of mortgage brokers that sprung up in the midst of the deregulation practically took over that market.

M J Spaulding.....Guess what, the democrat's have been in control of Congress for a lot of Bush's administration, maybe you should check that out.
Also, Obama received the most money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, only one other person recieved more money, Senator Dodd(another winner).