Who are the “Mainline” Protestants today?
DOUGLAS LIKEWISE ASKS:
(Paraphrasing) What do we make of proposals for “Mainline” Protestants to drop that label for themselves? And where does that leave me, an “evangelical” who remains in the Episcopal Church “as a grain of sand in the oyster”?
The dictionary definition of “mainline” signals mainstream prestige, so “Mainline” Protestantism’s decline over recent decades could mean this designation has long since outlived its usefulness. In his email, Douglas considers it “adjectival mayhem.”
The discussion has been renewed by the Christian Century magazine, often considered the bible of the Mainline or at least of the Mainline Left, such that Elesha Coffman’s new history is titled “The Christian Century and the Rise of Mainline Protestantism” (from the excellent Oxford University Press). The book provoked a piece for the “Century” by Carol Howard Merritt urging fellow “progressives” to rebrand: “It’s time to discard that tired label that ties us too closely with a particular race and class. It’s time to call forth another name.” Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary agreed via the First Things journal that the Mainline was “unfortunately named” and “liberal” or “ecumenical” would be “slightly better” adjectives.
Some context: The inexorable shrinkage among Mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s — and simultaneous growth among non-Mainliners, though lately plateauing in some cases — is a sweeping trend that has reshaped American religion. It ranks in significance with the large influx of immigrant Asians and Hispanics. The origins of the commonly used Mainline label are obscure (anyone have information on that?). But it certainly raises thoughts of suburban Philadelphia and “Establishment” standing.
The Guy’s definition: The predominantly white, long-existing, and relatively affluent U.S. Protestant denominations with pluralistic theology, which are easily categorized by ecumenical affiliations with the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches (alongside major African-American and Orthodox denominations).
We’re talking about (in order of size) the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church, American Baptist Churches, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and several smaller bodies often called the “Seven Sisters.” Together they remain an important bloc with 20 million adherents, but that compares with 30 million at the end of the 1960s, an unprecedented slump as memberships both declined and aged.
Meanwhile, these groups generally floated leftward, in doctrine, politics and culture.