Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church

Some mainline congregations have seen a bump in attendance since the election. But the most powerful changes to come may be theological.

Worshippers pray while Hillary Clinton sits in the background during a campaign stop in October. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some conservative Christians have been reckoning with feelings of alienation from their peers, who generally voted for Trump in strong numbers. But at least some progressive Protestant churches are experiencing the opposite effect: People have been returning to the pews.

“The Sunday after the election was the size of an average Palm Sunday,” wrote Eric Folkerth, the senior pastor at Dallas’s Northaven United Methodist Church, in an email. More than 30 first-time visitors signed in that day, “which is more than double the average [across] three weeks of a typical year,” he added. “I sincerely don’t recall another time when it feels like there has been a sustained desire on people’s part to be together with other progressive Christians.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect—including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics.

For progressives who expected Hillary Clinton to win, Trump’s victory was a shock. “I expected that I would be talking about reaching out to the people who lost,” said Debra Haffner, the minister at the non-creedal Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, Virginia, in an interview. “My music director and I had talked about playing ‘Girl on Fire’ as our last song. Most of the people in our congregation supported the progressive candidate.” Instead, she said, “people walked in here like they were going to a funeral. They were grieving, they were scared, and they needed hope. They needed community.”

Other pastors said they’ve heard similar themes in the past few weeks. In a small group discussion at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta, “many said that they felt personally threatened—especially our LGBTQ folks,” said Trey Lyon, the pastor for communication and engagement. “Most of our folks are fugitives and refugees from the brand of ‘evangelicalism’ that elected Trump—so for our folks it was mostly grieving and trying to figure out how the hell the people they grew up with could call themselves Christians and support Trump after all that he has unapologetically said and done.”

While a number of pastors spoke about their parishioners’ feelings of pain, they also spoke of a newfound sense of mission. “I am finding the coming Trump presidency … to be clarifying,” wrote Timothy Tutt, the senior minister at Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ in Bethesda, Maryland, in an email. “As a liberal Christian preacher it helps me find my voice. It helps me know who I am called to be. And helps our congregation know who we are—and who we aren’t.”

“I think it is a time of true testing of our faith.”

Many progressive pastors are also trying to figure out the right political stance to take—it’s difficult to determine how to stand up for their convictions while not alienating politically diverse congregations or their broader communities. “I believe Trump is the antithesis of everything Christian,” wrote Tricia Templeton, the rector at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, in an email. “In the aftermath of this election, and with this administration, we are going to be called on to put our faith in action in ways we may not have done before. I think it is a time of true testing of our faith.”

People’s involvement in church is not neatly associated with the latest happenings in electoral politics. “Church attendance can be affected more by internal church factors than external events,” wrote Ben Hicks, the business manager and historian at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in an email. “There are too many variables that affect attendance to isolate one—weather, summer vacations, a baptism on a Sunday, an interim period, [or] Christmas [and] Easter, where you get people that attend once or twice a year.”

Some pastors said their congregations have seen temporarily higher levels of interest after big moments of crisis: The night after 9/11, when she was serving at a church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Templeton said, she held a special service. “I thought maybe 40 or 50 people would come,” she said. “There were 400.” Others mentioned Hurricane Katrina; the 2012 elementary-school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut; the 2015 Emanuel A.M.E. Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina; and last spring’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, as events that seemed to inspire people to show up in big numbers.

After a while, though, attendance levels have typically returned to normal after such events. “My experience is that it doesn’t translate into long-term commitments,” Haffner said. She thinks their numbers could go up modestly in the coming months, but she’s more focused on making sure people found the home they were looking for after November 8, no matter how temporary. “My hope is that people who have been thinking about coming to a Unitarian Universalist church for a long time came and found a place for meaning and community,” she said.

“If the state will not provide rations, then we will learn anew how to plant our own seeds.”

Even if Trump doesn’t bring about a membership revolution in the American mainline, which has been steadily shrinking for years, some of the conversations these Protestant pastors reported were fascinating—and suggest that this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions. Lyon sent me an excerpt from a post-election sermon he gave, which argued that Christians cannot depend on the government for moral leadership:

If the state will not provide rations, then we will learn anew how to plant our own seeds. If the state questions the covenant of marriage, the church will say, “What God has joined together let no one cast asunder.” If the state says, “There isn’t enough to go around,” we will say, “Evidently you aren’t managing it right, because in God’s economy there is enough for everyone to have their fill and enough left over to take some home with you.”

Others have recently made arguments along these lines as well. “Most churches are either silent about social justice or have replaced the Gospel with the basic tenets of a progressive platform,” wrote the poet Alysia Harris in the magazine Scalawag after the election. “But the election of Trump shows that we need to reimagine how we go about seeking justice, and I believe the Gospel presents an approach that will be highly effective under a Trump presidency. The truth is: Our liberation cannot and never will be delivered by the hand of the state.”

More people may be making their way into progressive churches right now, feeling lost and alone and seeking moral guidance. While new bodies are often taken as the most telling sign of revitalization, though, that may not be the case here. The preaching, and the new directions it may take, could end up being just as important.