By Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy
This year is an ignominious anniversary for Mainline Protestantism, commemorating a half century of continuous decline since their membership peaks in the early 1960s. Fifty years ago one of every six Americans belonged to the Seven Sisters of Mainline Protestantism. Today it’s one of every 16 and plunging. Membership has dropped from 30 million to 20 million during a time when Americas population has nearly doubled. And it did so despite Gallup Poll’s insistence that overall church attendance has remained essentially the same for about the last 80 years.
In our current post denominational age, many question why this decline matters. Who cares about the Mainline except the dwindling and increasingly aged members who remain? After all, haven’t evangelical churches, especially nondenominationals, plus Catholicism, more than filled the void? Wasn’t it time for the Mainline to leave the stage, having more than played its part in American and Christian history across 4 centuries? And in the end, didn’t they deserve their own demise?
The answers are yes and no. The decline is indeed deserved and self precipitated, but nonetheless very sad for America and the Body of Christ, leaving a spiritual and cultural void that Evangelicals and Catholics, even with their increased numbers, have not been able to fill.
Mainliners literally founded America, from Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, generated its founding principles, which have become universal, and were the spiritual and cultural flagships for our nation for over 350 years. They shaped how we publicly lived out faith and applied it to our democratic process. They created civil religion, which uniquely in the world protected and integrated religion into every aspect of public life without legally establishing any particular religion.
The Mainline’s implosion in part facilitated the culture wars and polarization since the 1960s. With three centuries of experience, the Mainline knew how to lead, to unify and to challenge all at the same time. It offered continuity. It was thoroughly American yet also rooted in the European Reformation. Evangelicalism and Catholicism can’t replace it. One is maybe too much an American creation, and the other is perhaps not American enough.
Mainline Protestantism lost its way when it forgot how to balance being American and being Christian, choosing American individualism and self made spirituality over classical Christianity.
Related article: Evangelicals must resist Mainline Protestant trajectory