Progressive Protestant Churches See Increase In Attendance After Trump’s Election

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

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

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.”

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SOURCE: The Atlantic
Emma Green