Balancing act at election time

Balancing act at election time

Mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. are under stress. More conservative members migrate to evangelicals. Divisions loom.

After the shooting of Jacob Blake, a black man, by police officers in Kenosha, Lutherans took the initiative: they invited people to a prayer service in the politically divided city in the U.S. state of Wisconsin.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America saw it as its mission to bring together people from all parts of society.

"A poison that harms us all"

But Bishop Paul Erickson of the Greater Milwaukee Synod also took a clear stand. "Racism is a poison that harms us all," Erickson preached to the 200-strong audience wearing masks and keeping a physical distance at the 2. September to Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha to pray for Blake, his family and the city.

What is remarkable about the initiative by the second-largest Protestant "mainline" church is that its membership of about 3.5 million is 94 percent white. Bishop Elizabeth Eaton then puts the commitment in historical perspective. She hopes Lutherans have made a statement of social justice in doing so after long periods "when we did nothing."

Traditional Protestant churches in the U.S. have undergone significant changes in recent years. This has much to do with an exodus of members to evangelical congregations or resignations. Lutherans, Reformed, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and black AME churches together now make up only 15 percent of U.S. society – ten percent less than evangelicals.

Conflict lines across congregations

Because they are popular churches, the lines of conflict, as with American Catholics, not infrequently run directly through congregations. Especially when it comes to perennial American culture wars like marriage for same-sex couples, ordination of clergy with different sexual orientations and abortion.

The largest "mainline" church in the U.S., the United Methodist, with seven million members, will therefore split next year. It failed to bridge its disagreements on sexuality ies. As with the Episcopal Church, it is the more conservative members who are leaving.

John Dorhauer, who founded the 800.Presiding over 000 Reformed United Church of Christ congregations, Blake says his church makes a point of welcoming people with different worldviews. "Our pastors need to create a framework in which everyone can freely express themselves in prayer."

In fact, most mainline Protestant churches are also home to very different political stances – i.e., Republicans, Democrats and Independents. The prime example so far has been the Methodists, who have been accused by politicians as diverse as Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush's affiliation. However, due to the migration of more conservative members to the congregations of the free churches, the center has shifted further to the left here as well.

It is rare for pastors to preach political sermons. Popular church congregations tend to distinguish themselves through active charity, social services and neutral political activities such as voter registration. "These Protestants are often more circumspect in their public rhetoric," says Conference of Methodist Bishops President Kenneth Carter.

United for moral "principles and values"

On one point, all the national churches have taken a clear position: in the struggle to end discrimination on the basis of skin color, religion and origin. Just as after the violent evacuation of the "Lafayette Square" in front of the White House, when President Donald Trump appeared before the st. John's Episcopal Church moved to be pictured there with Bible.

"He didn't come to worship, he came to play partisan politics," First Black Episcopal Church USA President Michael Curry objects to the misuse of one of his denomination's houses of worship as a backdrop. "We do not support or oppose any particular candidate," Curry clarifies. "But we defend our moral principles and values, which are key to our faith."

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Christina Cherry
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