Are evangelicals the new mainline Protestants? The Pew Forum's huge US Religious Landscape Survey polled 35,000 Americans to discover the demographics and size of key religious groups in the US. It found evangelical Protestants forming the biggest religious group and pulling over a quarter (26.3%) of the US population.
Of course Protestants as a whole make up only 51% of the population since the number of mainline Protestants has shriveled to 18.1%. The survey quotes other analysis finding that mainline denominations decreased as evangelical denominations increased. Pew Research fellow Greg Smith told the Washington Times this makes evangelical churches "the mainline of American Protestantism."
What's the evangelical appeal? Stock answers include "a desire for a closer experience of God" (Pew forum director Luis Lugo in the Washington Times), a trend towards "more personal religion" (Boston University's Stephen Prothero in the New York Times), a "sense of ownership of their church" (Notre Dame's Christian Smith in Wall Street Journal), and practicality (Boston College's Alan Wolfe in Wall Street Journal).
Evangelical popularity may be fickle, however, since the survey found waning denominational loyalty. If evangelicals are going to grow American Protestantism, they should learn from two mainline Protestant mistakes:
Departure from doctrine. GetReligion.org's Terry Mattingly hints at the problem of mainline churches:
People may flee one pew - in a splitting church - and try to find a pew in another church that is defending the doctrines that the old denomination used to defend. … You may have people who are exiting a church because they have lost their faith or radically changed it. Then again, it may be the faith of their old church that has radically changed.
Mainline denominations shrank when they drifted into doctrinal liberalism, and they can blame some empty pews on the fact that they gutted the Christian faith of its substance.
Pursuit of politics. Andrew Sullivan says neither liberals nor conservatives should turn Christianity into a political ideology: "'My kingdom is not of this world,' Jesus insisted. What part of that do we not understand?"
Evangelical growth means political clout, but will evangelicals make the mainline mistake of over-politicizing Christianity? Evangelicals were so politically splintered they couldn't rally behind one GOP candidate this election. Liberal ministers like Jim Wallis are trumpeting the end of the Religious Right, and young evangelicals identify less with the Republicans and Religious Right. This diversity may prevent evangelicals from forming a political monolith, but the diversity may also divide evangelicals if conservatives and liberals start proof-texting for their pet political projects.