How did certain Protestant denominations become associated with conservative politics and other Protestant denominations with liberal politics?

It is my impression that certain Protestant denominations have become over time associated with conservative political ideology (Southern Baptist, for example, although Bill Moyers has denied that, Presbyterianism, and Pentecostal), whereas other denominations have conformed to liberal political ideology, such as Methodism, Quakerism (if viewed as Protestant), and Episcopalian, although the latter has been and is currently divided. (I’m not sure where Lutheranism fits.) How did this link originate: from the religion and its leader, or elsewhere?

My completely uneducated guess: Any large group of people will have a bias in some way and given the way most protestant denominations have a method of voting, it’s only natural that at one point the large group will vote in a way to drive out the minority side.

Today, we’re seeing this in the ELCA Lutheran Synod: the secularists are driving the traditionalist into other synods.

A lot of it has roots in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the early 20th century (especially for Presbyterians). At that time, the mainline churches embraced theological modernism and the Fundamentalists left the mainline. So then you get Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism being theologically conservative, while the mainline becomes theologically liberal.

Now when we get to political ideology it becomes more complicated. A lot of churches that are considered politically conservative today started out as pretty radical. For example, Pentecostals began as pacifists and challenged the Jim Crow. Today, white Pentecostals basically share the same views on war and peace as other white evangelicals. Today, the Pentecostal church is about as segregated/integrated as other churches in America. So its complicated.

While the example of early Pentecostalism shows, theological conservatism or liberalism doesn’t always translate to political conservatism or liberalism. However, I do think there is a connection between those churches who have embraced a liberal theology embracing a more leftist political ideology and vice versa. I don’t know why this has happened, but it has.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the roots for such a division didn’t begin with the debate over slavery in this country.

It didn’t. The abolitionist movement occurred at a time when most American Protestants were of the evangelical variety. So, both north and south Protestants were largely evangelical Christians.

Denominations split on geographical basis, northern Baptists versus Southern Baptists, northern Presbyterians versus southern Presbyterians, northern Methodists versus southern Methodists, etc. However, most of these geographical splits have already healed. And in the case of the Baptists, they are irrelevant now since the both northern and Southern Baptists have expanded nationally.

It’s just the nature of things. In both instances you tend to find the leadership is either a good deal more conservative or a good deal more liberal than the laity, and it gets worse as you go up the hierarchy - I’d be surprised if half our bishops believed in God, but I certainly do.

I’m not sure I have an answer for how. But I do have some observations.

Within any denomination you can find a wide variety of beliefs. The leadership may lean harder in one direction than the laity. It seems the leadership really has been leading. I would say not always to a good place. But in the more liberal denominations they have grown more liberal due to leadership more than laity. And in conservative denominations they have held to conservative views more because of leadership than the laity. Conservative, as a political position, strictly speaking can only hold to its current position.

I think geography plays a big role. Urban areas tend to be more liberal. Churches that have more rural folks will tend to be more conservative. Certain areas of the country tend to be more rural and more conservative. Churches with a larger percentage of southerners will be more conservative. The same seems true, to some extent, for midwestern influence.

Geography matters on an international level. In many cases a liberal church’s movement is retarded by having a significant group of pagan converts. I’d point to the Methodist and Anglican Communion as examples.

It seems the older churches have drifted towards liberalism. The conservative churches are often newer movements or organizations. They often come out as a reaction against liberal drift within another group. As others pointed out this is not a new issue. Fundamentalism was a reaction against liberalism from a century ago.

I think you are right. I tend to think about that with regards to the liberal churches but as you point out it is also true for the conservative ones.

Thank you all for your interesting and informative responses and observations on this topic.

Well you ARE asking in a catholic forum! Keep in mind that many, perhaps most of us know little of the history of the various protestant factions.

The population of catholic Americans is sure deeply politically divided as can be seen in any given election. Perhaps the more interesting question is how did THAT come to be?

I don’t know that Catholics are divided politically. I think prior to the 1960s you could be a devout Catholic or Protestant, and also choose to be liberal or conservative. Since around 1970 liberalism has aligned with secularism; anyone who opposes secularism gets labelled “conservative”. I suspect that the great majority of Catholics who are guided by the Church social principles are voting one way. The bishops, in their policy statements, appear more united now than they have been since the 1960s.
Baptized Catholics who are guided by the media, and not responding to the Church, are voting the other way. So it doesn’t mean Catholics are divided, it means there are fewer Catholics.

It seems in the Lutheran church the division is: some think that Jesus is Savior, and others think that Jesus is a social justice leader.

Correction: No there are not fewer Catholics if you follow the teaching of your church that Baptized Catholics are Catholics. Assuming you do not pick and choose which teachings to follow, what you meant to say then is there are perhaps fewer practicing or fully faithful Catholics…

I think the political views of religions have something to do with the interpretation of Scripture. Some of the more liberal denominations have come over the course of time to understand a variety of topics, homosexuality, the role government can play in serving the poor and the sick, to name just two, in a different light than conservatives.

I don’t see politics limited to Protestant faiths however. In regard to Catholics, there was a time when faithful Catholics in the US being Democrats was very commonplace. Once the Catholic hierarchy and leadership began emphasizing abortion and gays to the extent they do today, the Catholic religion is more Republican in the US or politically conservative than I’ve ever known it to be in my lifetime. Conservative politics in the Catholic religion has even spilled over into things such as taxation and budgetary policy, health care, and guns. One only has to spend a small amount of time on this forum’s news subforum to see this.

I don’t see this phenomenon limited even to Christians. The majority of US Jews are often thought to be Democratic voters.

Understanding changes. Once upon a time slavery was practiced in Scripture and women could not speak in churches. To name just 2 of many things found in Scripture which for the most part Christians do not adhere to today. People of faith simply can come to different understandings on things.

This is a really interesting question, and even though I grew up evangelical Protestant, and did not convert to Catholicism until I was 47 years old (8 years ago), I honestly don’t know the answer.

I would suggest that the OP get hold of the classic work by Francis Schaeffer, How Shall We Then Live?"

I remember when I was a teenager, that our pastors and teachers warned us about the “liberal theology” being taught in the mainline Protestant churches. That would have been in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I believe it was in the 1970s that the first women pastors showed up in the United Church of Christ, and this denomination was also the first to ordain openly homosexual men to the pastorate and proudly announce it to the public media.

We also observed that several of the mainline denominations stopped teaching the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, and began teaching a symbolic resurrection of the “principles” taught by a loving Jesus (who was probably gay, according to these churches).

The Virgin Birth also was jettisoned, along with all the other Biblical miracles.

OTOH, these older mainline churches began extensive social gospel outreach. Many of the churches were located in downtown (urban) areas, and so were in a prime position to start up food pantries, soup kitchens, thrift shops, free clinics, after-school care, low-cost pre-schools and day cares, etc. Many good people, especially wealthy people, were attracted to these churches because of their work among the poor, although for the most part, these theologically-liberal churches lost hundreds of members beginning in the 1970s.

Meanwhile the evangelical churches, which were theologically-conservative, were located in the “burbs,” so we weren’t in a position to do much hands-on work to help the poor. Sadly, this became a point of contention between “us” and “them,” and many of us came to be suspicious of social gospel because all too often, the churches who practiced it did not teach a true Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified, risen, and coming again.

Tony Campolo came along at this time and started chastising the evangelical churches for avoiding the social gospel out of fear of theological liberalism. He’s still around, and he’s still a force to be reckoned with. I happen to like him, but I know that a lot of evangelical Protestants are suspicious of him.

However, beginning in the 1970s, the evangelical Protestant churches began to grow in leaps and bounds. I remember attending conferences in which the phrase “exponential growth” was described. This means that a church would double, then double again, and again, etc. We saw this happen at the church we attended in college, which grew from about 100 members to well over 500 members in three years.

Many of the people who were joining evangelical Protestant churches were refugees from the mainline churches who were fleeing the liberal theology. Often these refugees were breaking ties with churches that their family had attended for several generations, and it was tough for them.

I see this same thing happening now in Catholic parishes–former Protestants are fleeing to the Catholic Church because we want to escape from the simplistic sola Scriptura praise and worship fellowships that many of our evangelical Protestant churches have become. Or people who stuck it out in the mainline Protestant churches back in the 1970s and 1980s are now finally realizing that their churches are lost in liberal and even heretical theology, and so these families are breaking ties and becoming Catholic, where the teachings are still conservative (theologically) and orthodox.

I think we need to be careful to differentiate ECONOMIC conservatism/liberalism from SOCIAL conservatism/liberalism from THEOLOGICAL conservatism/liberalism. So far in this thread, I think that sometimes these three are being blurred.

I personally do not think that a church can be theologically-liberal and still be called “Christian.” When a church teaches such things as “Mary was not a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus” and “Jesus did not really die on the cross, therefore he did not rise from the dead,” and “the Bible is just a book written by men,” and “there is no sin,” or even, “God is not a person, God is within us”–these teachings are not consistent with the Christian teachings passed down from the apostles, and I don’t see how a group that teaches these things can be called Christian. This group may do many good things in the community, and be a beacon of hope to the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised, etc.–but it’s not Christian!

Also, there are churches that are theologically conservative, but economically-liberal–they are suspicious of capitalism and open to the re-distribution of wealth. Many of these fellowships believe that communal living is THE Biblical way of life for Christians, and argue that capitalism is opposed to the teachings of Christianity. Here on CAF, and also in real-life in my parish, I meet up with Catholics who seem to lean this way.

I don’t know of any churches that are theologically-liberal but socially conservative–usually churches that teach that “Jesus was just a really good teacher” are also supportive of abortion, homosexual marriage, etc. because they don’t have any guideline for morals, and have rejected traditional moral teachings. But I suppose it’s possible. Anything’s possible.

So the conclusion that I would make from my own musings above would be that the churches that became THEOLOGICALLY-liberal back in the 1970s have become SOCIALY and ECONOMICALLY-liberal in the 2000s. But I would not want to commit myself to that answer until I read what others have to say, and also check out Schaeffer’s book.

The views of the church leadership are often at odds with the views of those who fill the pews. In our denomination, the controversy over gay clergy had led to a loss of many congregations. In my particular congregation, we have had members leave because of it. One man left because the leadership did not go far enough, but many more left because the leadership approved gay clergy. Many Catholic women use birth control, though the US Conference of Bishops has come out strongly against it. Liberal churches may have many conservative members, and conservative churches liberal members.

That’s true. And now, anyone who doesn’t want to participate in abortions or so-called “same-sex marriage” ceremonies is labeled “conservative”.

And this is nothing new in the ELCA, or its predecessor body, the LCA. In about 1980, my dad wrote an op-ed which was published in “The Lutheran”, opining that the LCA was a conservative church with a liberal leadership. All the moreso today. :frowning:

I don’t believe the issue is simply “gay clergy”. Obviously there has always been gay clergy. The issue is gay clergy who now have the permission of the synod to be openly practicing in a “committed relationship”. (If I’ve misunderstood the church-wide assembly’s decision, please correct me.)


Part of the problem is that denominations are bureaucracies.While most Protestant churches have some form of democratic representative process, the representative bodies only meet at most once a year if that. The Episcopal Church’s General Convention only meets once every 3 years, for example.

In between, you have paid bureaucrats working at the denominational headquarters running things. They are often able to exercise undo influence over what is supposed to be a democratic process decided by the entire church. Over time, people in the right places with strong agendas can do a lot of damage.

Personally, I’m not willing to let Presiding Bishops Hanson, Anderson, and Chilstrom off the hook quite so easily, in terms of the leftward, secularist march of the ELCA in the footsteps of the TEC. That’s not to say that there aren’t truly confessional Lutherans remaining in the ELCA. There are, I know some. And pray for them and all our siblings in the ELCA.


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