What is mainline Protestantism?

Who are Mainline Protestants?

About one in five American Christians identifies as a mainline Protestant. Despite the popularity of the phrase, the exact meaning of the term “mainline Protestant” can be unclear.  There are many ways to define the term, but the most useful definitions refer to theological emphases and denominational heritage.


What do Mainline Protestants Believe?

Mainline Protestant churches share many common theological beliefs.  First among these is a belief that Jesus Christ is the heart of the gospel message.  Many mainline Protestants affirm the so-called “Reformation Principles”: Christ alone, grace alone, and scripture alone.  Christ alone means that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are sufficient for salvation.  Grace alone means that we receive God’s grace apart from our own works and efforts.  Scripture alone means that scripture is the guiding norm for church practice and theology.  Scripture alone is not the same as fundamentalism (see below), but claims that the biblical witness is the primary source of Christian teaching.  Because of dialogue with other Christians, the Reformation Principles are no longer as distinctive as they once were for mainline Protestants.

Another common feature among mainline Protestants is an openness to modernity.  While many Mainline Protestants affirm that the Bible is the Word of God, most would likely add that the scriptures need to be seen in light of their historical context and interpreted for today’s situation.  The mainline tradition has encouraged people to read the Bible for themselves and come to their own conclusions about its claim on their lives.

Another chief characteristic of the mainline is a commitment to ecumenism – work between and among church denominations.  Recent decades have seen a number of ecumenical statements seeking to reconcile theological disagreements that were once seen as church dividing.  These ecumenical agreements have enabled many mainline churches to form partnerships that allow for shared ministries and clergy.

Despite these areas of theological agreement, there remains a great deal of diversity among mainline Protestant churches, most noticeably over liturgical practices.


What Denominations Make Up the Mainline?

Defining the mainline by denominations leaves some ambiguity as well.  There is, however, consensus around a core of church bodies, the so-called “Seven Sisters,” that compromise the mainline.  These include the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and American Baptist Churches (U.S.A.).  There are other church bodies that some consider to be within the mainline as well, including the Reformed Church in America and the Society of Friends.


Where Did Protestants Come From?

Protestant churches are often believed to be those churches that were born out of the Reformation in the early sixteenth century.  The exact history is more complex.  There was not one but many reformations in Europe in the early sixteenth century.  The word “Protestant” originally referred only to the German evangelicals who were heirs of Martin Luther’s reformation.  The Genevan Reformation, started by John Calvin, gave rise to the “Reformed” churches.  These churches include the Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Church.  The English Reformation, begun by King Henry VIII in 1533, gave rise to the Church of England.  Both the Episcopal Church and the Methodist Church trace their roots to this English Reformation.  Over time, these distinctions were lost and “Protestant” became an umbrella term for many church bodies.


Protestants in a Changing World

To understand the mainline Protestant tradition today, one has to return to the nineteenth century.  In the nineteenth century, theologians began to wrestle with the claims of the Enlightenment, which seemed to throw long-held Christian beliefs into question.  Theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher began to try to build new theologies that could be reconciled with modern worldviews.  Meanwhile, America began to experience rapid urbanization, immigration, and industrialization.  Many Protestants began to seek a “social Gospel” that emphasized Jesus’s ministry among the poor, the sick, and the suffering, seeking to bring the kingdom of God into existence.  While Protestants were able to put aside theological differences for the sake of social reform, fissures began to emerge below the surface.

By the early 20th century, both theological traditionalists and liberals were struggling to adapt to this new context.  Darwin’s theory of natural selection called the traditionalists’ interpretation of the Bible into question, while World War I showed liberals’ hope of progress towards the kingdom of God to be naïve.

The differences between the two groups exploded in 1920s in what became known as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.  Traditionalists rallied around five “fundamentals” they claimed they would not compromise on.  These included the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the authenticity of Jesus’ miracles, Jesus’ substitutionary atonement, and Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Fundamentalism, often thought of as the traditional way of reading the Bible, is actually a product of the early twentieth century.  While fundamentalists doubled down on their commitment to biblical inerrancy, liberals opted for a more accommodating stance.  Differences between the two views gained national attention at the 1925 Scopes Trial, during which a Tennessee teacher was tried for teaching evolution.  The controversy resulted in a hardening of the division between fundamentalists and modernists, many of whom came to be mainline Protestants.


How Do Mainliners Vote?

Though mainline Protestants are often referred to as “liberal,” efforts to define mainline Protestants in terms of political views often obscure more than they illuminate.  A 2011 Pew Forum study found that just over half of mainline Protestants lean Republican, with only forty percent leaning Democratic. Another study suggests the numbers are nearly reversed among mainline clergy.  Political views vary widely across and within denominations.  When defining mainline Protestantism, it is more helpful to look at core theological beliefs and denominational heritage than political views.


Mainline Protestants and Same-Sex Marriage

Views on same-sex marriage vary widely across the mainline.  While sixty percent of mainline Protestants support same-sex marriage, actual practices vary from congregation to congregation.  Same-sex marriages are sanctioned in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and the Episcopal Church. Same-sex marriages are currently not blessed by the American Baptist Churches or the United Methodist Church.

Even within church bodies, there may be diversity of practice. For example, though Lutheran and Episcopalian pastors are able to perform same-sex marriages, they may refuse to on personal grounds or in deference to their church council.


Mainline Protestants and LGBTQ Ordination

There is also significant diversity on ordination of LGBTQ individuals. Since 1994, the Episcopal Church has viewed rejecting LGBTQ candidates as a form of discrimination.  In 2009, the Episcopal Church allowed LGBTQ individuals to become bishops (an openly gay bishop had been installed six years prior).  The United Church of Christ has also been on the forefront of ordaining LGBTQ individuals, ordaining its first openly gay pastor in 1972.

Other church bodies vary from congregation to congregation. In 2010, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America affirmed that same-sex partnered candidates can be ordained, yet many individuals face obstacles when seeking a job; pastors are called by individual congregations, which may or may not be affirming of LGBTQ persons.  Because of its localized polity, practices vary on the ordination of same-sex-partnered or otherwise openly LGBTQ people within the Presbyterian Church (USA) as well. As in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, LGBTQ individuals can be ordained, but some churches may not want to hire an LGBTQ pastor.

The United Methodist Church (UMC) does not allow for “self-avowed, practicing” LGBTQ people to be ordained.  LGBTQ candidates may be ordained, however, by taking a vow of celibacy.  Some conferences have claimed they will not discriminate against LGBTQ individuals, but contradict the church’s Book of Discipline in doing so. The ordination of same-sex-partnered persons will be debated again at the UMC’s next General Conference in 2016. Since the UMC (unlike other mainline Protestant churches) is a global denomination, addressing LGBTQ ordination has been particularly complex.


The Future of the Mainline

The future of the mainline remains unclear.  Affiliation with mainline churches has declined in recent years, especially among young people.  Yet mainline churches still maintain outsized influence in other areas of public life.  For example, nearly a third of congresspersons identify as mainline Protestants, while nearly half of American Presidents have come from Episcopalian or Presbyterian churches alone.  While fewer Americans identify as mainline Protestants today, the mainline’s openness to modernity, reliance on personal experience, and tolerance towards diverse beliefs have become normative for many Americans.


Related Entries

What is the Lutheran church, and what do they believe?

What is the Episcopal church, and what do they believe?


Further Reading

Elesha J. Coffman, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline

Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day

David A. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History

Jennifer Schuessler, “A Religious Legacy, With Its Leftward Tilt, Is Reconsidered,” The New York Times, July 23, 2013.

Patheos Religion Library, “Protestantism

Sylvia Bull and Joseph Schattauer Paillé

SYLVIA BULL is a 2015 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div/M.A.) and a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She currently works as a graduate research assistant for the Confirmation Project, a Lilly-funded grant to study confirmation in five Protestant denominations in the United States. In 2015-2016, she will serve as the vicar of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Boone, NC. JOSEPH SCHATTAUER PAILLE is a 2014 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find his writing at OnBeing.org and in The Cresset. He lives in the Bronx.