Religion: Those Mainline Blues

America's Old Guard Protestant churches confront an unprecedented decline

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In the beginning was mainline Protestantism. At Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, and for 3 1/2 centuries thereafter, the denominations known today by that label defined the spiritual and moral ethos of the U.S. These prominent Wasp bastions nurtured the founders, imparting to them notions of republican government and individual freedom. Dominating American Protestantism, these churches shaped virtually every aspect of an evolving nation: its pioneering colleges, its 19th century novels of sin and rectitude, its capitalist ethic of striving and saving, and a world-conquering spirit that was shared by missionaries and entrepreneurs alike. Mainliners were at the forefront of social crusades from independence to abolition, women's suffrage to Prohibition, civil rights to Viet Nam protests.

During the past two decades, however, that center has dropped away. The central fact about mainline Protestantism in the U.S. today is that it is in deep trouble. This stunning turnabout is apparent in the unprecedented hemorrhaging of memberships in the three major faiths that date from colonial times. The United Church of Christ (which includes most Congregationalists) has shrunk 20% since 1965, the Presbyterian Church 25%, and the Episcopal Church 28%. As for two related denominations that mushroomed in the 19th century, the United Methodist Church has dropped 18%, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) 43% after a de facto schism. Together, these five groups suffered a net loss of 5.2 million souls during years when the U.S. population rose 47 million. (In addition to these five denominations, "mainline" generally refers to the old, culturally established, predominantly white Protestant groups belonging to the National Council of Churches.)

Nor is any upswing in sight. Mainline congregations, says Isabel Rogers, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), are "no longer the primary shapers of values in American society." What, then, does their decline portend for a society that has been so largely built upon their values and precepts? That is hardly a trivial matter. How the nation defines itself spiritually will have much to do with its future political directions and with the strength of its moral foundations, which are increasingly under siege by drugs, violence and pervasive greed.

The mainline plight might be understandable if all of U.S. Christendom were reeling under the shocks of secularism and the inroads of new, alien faiths. But that is not the case. During the past two decades, black Protestant groups have gained, Roman Catholic membership has grown a solid 16%, and the boom in the conservative evangelical churches (including Fundamentalists, Pentecostals and charismatics) has caused some to envision a religious revival.

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