For reasons that we do not understand, America's religious mainline, conceived of as a single unity, has attracted more media attention in the past week than in the past decade. (Atlantic Monthly, New York Times); debate at Patheos [here and here] and GetReligion). What's next -- a re-issue of Protestant, Catholic, Jew?
The gist of the publicity seems to be that the traditional Protestant churches, particularly their white and liberal-leaning wings, are not entirely dead, and that they may still have some continuing role in shaping public debate around moral issues.
This is a surprising claim only because, for so many years, the widespread assumptions have been otherwise. The story, told so often it has almost ceased to be questioned, is that the church bodies which defined US religious life in the first half of the 20th century -- Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, non-SBC Baptist and a variety of smaller ones of largely Reformed heritage -- spent the second half of the century squandering their inheritance, chasing after trendy leftist causes which drove their members into the arms of the burgeoning Religious Right. (Weirdly, an alternative history argues that the same churches have dwindled because of their failure to chase trendy causes fast enough.) Today, gray-haired and directionless, saddled with property they cannot maintain, these churches are a hollow shell, their implosion imminent.
There is some truth to the story, of course. Membership is down, in some cases marginally and in others dramatically. The American religious scene is far more complex than it was just after World War II. Pentecostalism, non-denominational Christianity, Islam, even atheism -- these movements are hardly new, but they have carved out far more prominent niches for themselves in the past few generations.
Despite its more modest contemporary position, though, it should not be quite so surprising that the mainline continues to play a role in America's spiritual, and therefore public, affairs. These churches are where tens of millions of Americans gather to worship, study, pray and -- often passionately -- talk about the difference between right and wrong. They are, in sharp contrast to the churches associated with the Religious Right, broadly tolerant of different opinions, not only on hot-button political issues (Israel, homosexuality, abortion) but also theological ones (theories of the atonement, styles of worship, ecumenicla and interfaith relationships).
Beyond that, the mainline churches have, as a group, an unsurpassed collection of denominational colleges and seminaries, although many of the former could do with a strengthening of their confessional ties. This is closely related to the fact that these churches, especially those of the Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican traditions, have a treasure absent from many of the newer so-called "Evangelical" churches: a long history of complex and many-sided theological scholarship. While this makes them seem stuffy or undecided to those seeking easy, because-the-Bible-says-it answers to hard questions, it gives them an enormous advantage when speaking to those who seek to really understand a question. (This, of course, is something that they share with Judaism and Roman Catholicism, the other standard-bearers of the post-war religious establishment.)
Obviously the mainline still has a role in public discourse. How could it fail to?
So why the show of surprise?
Frankly, we believe that journalists have, somewhat gullibly, accepted a narrative spread by identifiable organizations with an institutional investment in the diminution of the mainline. We are thinking of the Scaife family foundations and some of their various projects, from the IRD to the conservative "renewal" groups inside the old denominations. (As well as independents in their orbit, such as the Wall Street Journal). Because it has been their desire to re-create American Christianity in a new form, one which is more amenable to their political program, they have found it expedient to make the old form appear more entirely passe.
This would be hard to prove, if the IRD didn't make it so easy.
To paint with the broadest possible strokes: the political right was so troubled by Christian opposition to Viet Nam and segregation that it decided, decades ago, to destroy the old churches and create new ones. It has succeeded, but not as completely as it had hoped -- and to the people it had hornswaggled with its triumphal narrative, that final clause, that "not completely," is news.