Resulting losses hit hardest at the seven major “Mainline” denominations, known for openness to liberal religious, moral and social thinking. They have suffered unprecedented membership losses since the 1960s. See, for instance, Ryan Burge’s Substack column last week about Mainline Presbyterians’ huge shrinkage and this analysis claiming that the Episcopal Church is “dying.”
The United Methodists, also slumping Mainliners, dramatize a key change in Protestantism the news media have thus far neglected.
Think this over. As the distinction between “Mainline” and “Evangelical” Protestant groups gradually sharpened since World War II, the Mainline denominations still contained important Evangelical minorities with thriving local congregations and an impressive brain trust of strategists. The large Methodist walkout dramatizes as never before that those days are fading.
The Guy proposes that reporters dig into the numbers on this outward migration and then consider whether (a la U.S. politics) the decline of Mainline Evangelicals’ influence is pulling Mainline churches from the collapsing center toward a more extreme left, even as an Evangelicalism without Mainline influence drifts further toward the extreme right.
Also, we can assume Southern Baptist losses reflect the increasing prominence of those nondenominational Evangelicals. Journalists could assess the independents’ rising control of the Evangelical movement, and also whether lack of old-fashioned denominational constraints fosters sexual and financial scandals and bullying by all-powerful pastors.
Finally, this brings us to one of the year’s most intriguing essays, posted last week by leading Methodist conservative Mark Tooley. He argues that the devastating “demographic and spiritual collapse” of the Mainline is partly responsible for the “Christian Nationalism” that so alarms liberal critics these days.
Like so. Through most of American history, Mainline Protestant churches were culturally “paramount,” and unified the country around the American democracy they had helped create. That undergirded a broadly biblical yet religiously “generic” consensus on social reforms and mediated political and regional differences.
Starting in the 1960s, however, ”Mainline elites” became more hostile to “the American experiment,” alienating many weekly worshippers. Without the former unity that the Mainline had offered, America became spiritually polarized even as nominal Christians evolved into unaffiliated “nones.”
Yet large numbers embrace the older Mainline concept of “a broadly Christian America that is fair and welcoming” to all faiths. Due to the vacuum left by disappearing institutional grounding for the old societal glue, a new nationalism has developed that often employs “harsh and combative rhetoric.”
With the Mainline’s collapse, “there are no obvious religious institutions to replace it as a force for national cohesion.” Any news in that? What think?
FIRST IMAGE: Uncredited art with the feature “400th Anniversary: The Pilgrims Arrive in New England” feature at TheGenevanFoundation.com