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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The End Times Are Upon Us

For the first time, Protestants are now a minority in the United States.  We will expect our affirmative action programs to begin shortly.

This is development not surprising; the demographic trends have been evident for decades. Roman Catholics may not make babies the way they used to, but they practically own the world of mass immigration.  And we're a more pluralistic nation than we used to be, what with all those Buddhist temples and kundalini meditation groups that Diana Eck has spent her life documenting.  Why, this year's presidential campaign comes down to the choice between a Gnostic and Muslim.  (Joking, for pity's sake.) 

"Christendom is dead" is as hackneyed as "paradigm shift," and the next person to use either one in our presence will get smacked. Still, the role of the various Protestant churches in American life has been so important for so long that it is worth pausing to think about what the future may look like without them.  We're eager to learn whether atheists and Wiccans may eventually take to founding hospitals and operating food pantries.

However, we hope that this reflection, when it comes, will run deeper than the LA Times blog post linked above.  It is a brief piece, which recounts the Pew Forum findings, provides some simple demographic breakdowns, and then throws in a few remarks by Southern Baptist spokesman Richard Land.  This is a strange choice -- Land is one of the more polarizing figures in American religious life.  There's some logic to it; the SBC is large, old, and manages to straddle the worlds of both mainline and soi-disant "evangelical" Protestantism.  Still, Land is noted neither as a sociologist nor as an historian; he is by and large a political player.  Why choose him?

The answer seems to come in the very bad final graf:
In a counterweight to evangelical Christians who tend to back Republicans, the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans — who number 46 million — vote Democratic and are politically liberal. Two-thirds support President Obama, compared with 27% for Republican nominee Mitt Romney the study found. Nearly three-fourths support legal abortion and same-sex marriage.
Ah, so that's it.  This is a political story, at least in the eyes of the Times reporter.  In which case, we have to point out, the story is far more complicated.

To begin with, of course, there is the mainline:  the Lutheran, Anglican (including Methodist), Reformed and Baptist families.  In decline for decades, this group nonetheless represents what "Protestantism" means to most informed people.  (Indeed, as we've mentioned before, Romanian sociologists have a salutary custom of using another word, "neo-Protestant," for most of the movements that developed after the 16th century -- basically, they make "mainline" and "Protestant" synonymous.)  It is still a substantial group of people, numbering in the tens of millions nationwide and the hundreds of millions worldwide.  Pew, working with a somewhat different definition than we would use, calls the mainline 18.1% of all Americans.  Because we treat some socially and theologically conservative denominations from the major families as part of the mainline, we'd put the number closer to 30%.

And many, many of its members vote Democratic. President Obama is part of a mainline Christian denomination -- indeed, of one of the most severely challenged of them all.

What the reporters don't get (and neither, apparently, does Pew) is that "mainline Protestantism" is properly divided roughly into a liberal and a conservative wing (ELCA/LCMS, SBC/ABC, etc.).  The paired churches in these two wings each share a common history and doctrinal positions which would look very close to outsiders.  They are separated by a combination of history (often the Civil War), doctrinal minutia (e.g., views on predestination, ordination, or marriage) and social teaching.  But they are, in each case, divided brethren.

Over against these two wings stands a truly different form of Christianity, distinguished by a brief and largely American history, a shallow but intensely-argued body of doctrine, and denominational structures which run the gamut from weak to nonexistent.  This,if you must oppose the word to "mainline," is "evangelical" Protestantism.

By no means do all members of "liberal" church bodies have liberal politics, nor "conservatives" conservative politics.  But it is wildly irresponsible to write as though the decline of Protestantism were a matter of fussy old religious Republicans giving way to modern, forward-thinking unaffiliateds.

The thing we hope that journalists will pick up about this story is that it is not, really, a political one.  Nor is it a religious one, strictly speaking.  It is instead a story about the growing pluralism of American society, and the concomitant loss of a commonly-agreed-upon set of values.  Call it the End of the Midcentury Synthesis. Religious communities are one reflection of this change, but so too are labor unions (in decline, except for the public ones), universities (soon to be dominated by women and Asians) and broadcast television networks.

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