Mainline Protestants: Hidden in plain sight

Mainline Protestants: Hidden in plain sight March 22, 2017

Happily, I’ve been thinking about mainline Protestants again lately.

When I started studying religion as a political scientist — and then again when I began dabbling in opinion journalism — many people advised me to become an expert on Catholics and evangelicals. Mainline Protestants, I was told, just weren’t interesting or important anymore.

I have always thought that was wrong, and have been pleased to include mainline Protestants in my published writing.

A United Methodist bishop I like and respect a great deal tweeted last night:

A great debate rages about the causes and effects of mainline decline. I enjoy observing and occasionally engaging in that debate. But I’m less convinced than many that it’s principally about politics.

But politics must be part of the story. Consider these thoughts from Dr. Diana Butler Bass:

Though the classic Protestant denominations — what became to be known as the mainline — certainly sided with the modernists over the fundamentalists a century ago, few mainliners comfortably aligned with secularism or with the political and cultural left. The ones that did have by now stopped identifying as Christian anyway.

At the same time, the mainline “lost” as cultural Christians became increasingly comfortable disclaiming their nominal religious affiliations and identifying as non-religious.

This has shifted patterns of affiliation, belief, and practice among evangelicals as well, as the Reverend Dr. Ed Stetzer has been pointing out for a long time.

Wary of tired, ideological, and empirically unproven arguments about how theological liberalism killed the mainline, I often point to sociological factors that may be correlated with liberalism, but are in fact distinct from it.

After studying demographic patters among the world’s faith traditions, I became convinced that we could explain “market share” in American religion sociologically.

  • Birthrates — Fact: Mainline Protestants have fewer children, and they have them later in life. It’s true that the Catholic fertility rate is now even with Protestants’, but there remains a significant difference between “mainline” and “evangelical” Protestants, and certainly between theologically liberal and theologically conservative Protestants.
  • Intra-marriage — Fact: Mainliners are less likely to marry within their denominational family or religious tradition. They also marry somewhat later. Not many generations ago, a Methodist boy and a Lutheran girl may have been considered something of a “mixed marriage” in certain circles. But almost without exception, it is no big deal for a mainline Protestant young person to marry outside the faith altogether. In fact, mainliners are likely to think that’s pretty cool and progressive. Whereas if an evangelical girl married an atheist or a Muslim man, it would not go over so well. I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that growing sects almost always have high rates of intra-marriage (see: Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, etc).
  • Adult retention — Fact: Mainline churches are much better at producing future “nones” than evangelicals. Sure, the Catholic Church is now also great at creating ex-Catholics, but Mainliners are especially prone to poor retention. With less family and social pressure to remain in the fold, less belief in Hell, and more acceptance of doubt and questioning, it is no surprise that so many of today’s young Nones are the children and grandchildren of mainline Protestants, who themselves have likely also lapsed!

Demography, they say, is destiny…

I’m going to start talking more about mainline political engagement and the relationship between progressive politics and liberal Christianity. I recently spoke with the Reverend Aurelia Alexander, Esq. of the National Council of Churches and the Reverend Jennifer Butler of Faith in Public Life about mainline Protestants and politics. They are hopeful and have well-formed views on mainline political engagement. And yet we talked about so much besides politics.

My argument here is more modest:

  1. Mainline Protestantism still matters. This tradition, such as it is, claims the devotion and identity of millions of Americans. They are, on average, more educated, wealthy, and civically engaged.
  2. I’m not high on the prospects for “Emerging Christianity,” but it remains possible that either new manifestations of Christian community or an influx of ex-evangelicals (Hi, Rachel Held Evans!) could be part of a mainline revival.
  3. Before you blame mainline decline on theology or politics, look at demographics.
Mainline Protestant politics
E.J. Dionne, the Rev. Aurelia Alexander, and the Rev. Jennifer Butler speak to Georgetown University students about mainline Protestant political engagement, March 13, 2017.
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