America was Methodist, once upon a time—Methodist, or Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Congregationalist, or Episcopalian. A little light Unitarianism on one side, a lot of stern Calvinism on the other, and the Easter Parade running right down the middle: our annual Spring epiphany, crowned in bright new bonnets.
The average American these days would have trouble recalling the dogmas that once defined all the jarring sects, but their names remain at least half alive: a kind of verbal remembrance of the nation’s religious history, a taste on the tongue of native speakers. Think, for instance, of the old Anabaptist congregations—how a residual memory of America’s social geography still lingers in the words: the Hutterites, Mennonites, and Amish, set here and there on the checkerboard of the nation’s farmland. The Quakers in their quiet meetinghouses, the Shakers in their tiny communes, and the Pentecostals, born in the Azusa Street revivals, like blooms forced in the hothouse of the inner city.
And yet, even while we may remember the names of the old denominations, we tend to forget that it all made a kind of sense, back in the day, and it came with a kind of order. The genteel Episcopalians, high on the hill, and the all-over Baptists, down by the river. Oh, and the innumerable independent Bible churches, tangled out across the prairie like brambles: Through most of the nation’s history, these endless divisions and revisions of Protestantism renounced one another and sermonized against one another. They squabbled, sneered, and fought. But they had something in common, for all that. Together they formed a vague but vast unity. Together they formed America.
In truth, all the talk, from the eighteenth century on, of the United States as a religious nation was really just a make-nice way of saying it was a Christian nation—and even to call it a Christian nation was usually just a soft and ecumenical attempt to gloss over the obvious fact that the United States was, at its root, a Protestant nation. Catholics and Jews were tolerated, off and on, but “the destiny of America,” as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835, was “embodied in the first Puritan who landed on those shores, just as the whole human race was represented by the first man.”
Even America’s much vaunted religious liberty was essentially a Protestant idea. However deistical and enlightened some of the Founding Fathers may have been, Deism and the Enlightenment provided little of the religious liberty they put in the Bill of Rights. The real cause was the rivalry of the Protestant churches: No denomination achieved victory as the nation’s legally established church, mostly because the Baptists fought it where they feared it would be the Episcopalians, and the Episcopalians fought it where they feared it would be the Congregationalists. The oddity of American religion produced the oddity of American religious freedom.
The greatest oddity, however, may be the fact that the United States nonetheless ended up with something very similar to the establishment of religion in the public life of the nation. The effect often proved little more than an agreement about morals: The endlessly proliferating American churches, Tocqueville concluded, “all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man.” The agreement was sometimes merely an establishment of manners: “The clergy of all the different sects hold the same language,” he added. “Their opinions are in agreement with the laws, and the human mind flows onward, so to speak, in one undivided current.”
Morals and manners, however, count for a great deal in the public square, and, beyond all their differences, the diverse Protestant churches merged to give a general form and a general tone to the culture. Protestantism helped define the nation, operating as simultaneously the happy enabler and the unhappy conscience of the American republic—a single source for both national comfort and national unease.
We tend to remember the Mainline as the strong, unified denominations that emerged from the 1910s through the 1950s: Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and so on; their churches gently jostling one another along the pleasant, tree-lined streets of the typical American town. But the madly splintering sects that Tocqueville saw in the 1830s—they, too, are what we might stretch to call the Mainline, for even at its greatest, the undivided current of Protestantism never reached the ecclesial unity of a single church. It achieved, instead, a vocabulary: a way we had to understand ourselves outside our political struggles and economic exchanges.
Think of the American experiment as a three-legged stool, its stability found in each leg’s relation to the other legs. Democracy grants some participation in national identity, an outlet for the anxious desire of citizens to take part in history, but it always leans toward vulgarity and short-sightedness. Capitalism gives us other freedoms and outlets for ambition, but it, too, always threatens to topple over, eroding the virtues it needed for its own flourishing. Meanwhile, religion provides meaning and narrative, a channel for the hunger of human beings to reach beyond the vanities of the world, but it tilts, in turn, toward hegemony and conformity.
Through most of American history, these three legs of democracy, capitalism, and religion accommodated one another and, at the same time, pushed hard against one another. There’s a temptation to call Protestant Christianity the most accommodating religion ever known, but, again and again, the churches managed to withstand the politics and the economics of the age. Indeed, what made them good at accommodation was also what made them good at opposition: In the multiplicity of its denominations, Protestantism could influence the nation in churchly ways without actually being a church—without being a single source of religious authority constantly tempted to assume a central political and economic role.
The great fight to abolish slavery, or women’s suffrage, or the temperance struggle against the Demon Rum, or the civil-rights movement: Every so often, there would explode from the churches a moral and prophetic demand on the nation. But, looking back, we can now see that these showy campaigns were mostly a secondary effect of religion’s influence on America. Each was a check written on a bank account filled by the ordinary practice and belief of the Protestant denominations.
As it happens, the denominations were often engaged in what later generations would scorn as narrow sectarian debates: infant baptism, the consequences of the Fall, the saving significance of good works, the real presence of the Eucharist, the role of bishops. And yet, somehow, the more their concerns were narrow, the more their effects were broad. Perhaps precisely because they were aimed inward, the Protestant churches were able to radiate outward, giving a characteristic shape to the nation: the centrality of families, the pattern of marriages and funerals, the vague but widespread patriotism, the strong localism, and the ongoing sense of some providential purpose at work in the existence of the United States.
Which makes it all the stranger that, somewhere around 1975, the main stream of Protestantism ran dry. In truth, there are still plenty of Methodists around. Baptists and Presbyterians, too—Lutherans, Episcopalians, and all the rest; millions of believing Christians who remain serious and devout. For that matter, you can still find, soldiering on, some of the institutions they established in their Mainline glory days: the National Council of Churches, for instance, in its God Box up on New York City’s Riverside Drive, with the cornerstone laid, in a grand ceremony, by President Eisenhower in 1958. But those institutions are corpses, even if they don’t quite realize that they’re dead. The great confluence of Protestantism has dwindled to a trickle over the past thirty years, and the Great Church of America has come to an end.
And that leaves us in an odd situation, unlike any before. The death of the Mainline is the central historical fact of our time: the event that distinguishes the past several decades from every other period in American history. Almost every one of our current political and cultural oddities, our contradictions and obscurities, derives from this fact: The Mainline has lost the capacity to set, or even significantly influence, the national vocabulary or the national self-understanding.
The nation has passed through even harsher periods, of course. In 1843, for instance, the Antislavery Society adopted a resolution that famously read, “The compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” But since the 1970s, we have faced a unique kind of political dilemma, in which no agreement can be reached even on the terms by which we will disagree with one another.
Notice, for instance, how quickly these days any attempt to speak in the old-fashioned voice of moral criticism turns sour and bitter—segueing into anti-Americanism, regardless of its intentions. Many Americans are profoundly patriotic, no doubt, and many Americans are profoundly critical of their country. We are left, however, with a great problem in combining the two, and that problem was bequeathed to us by the death of Protestant America—by the collapse of the churches that were once both the accommodating help and the criticizing prophet of the American experiment.
Membership in American denominations has always been hard to measure. Even today, the numbers are uncertain—with, oddly, the smaller groups harder to count than the larger.
Historical data is worse yet, for the pressure from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth was often toward division into ever smaller versions of those difficult-to-quantify sects. By 1800, as the historian Gordon Wood points out, “There were not just Presbyterians, but Old and New School Presbyterians, Cumberland Presbyterians, Springfield Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, and Associated Presbyterians; not just Baptists, but General Baptists, Regular Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Separate Baptists, Dutch River Baptists, Permanent Baptists, and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Baptists.”
Early in the twentieth century, a trend toward consolidation began to take hold. Several things facilitated the trend. Those years saw, for instance, the peak of a great missionary movement in which, for two or three generations, the Protestant churches creamed off their best and brightest young people and sent them off to convert the heathen. (It is said that, as late as the 1970s, the most commonly shared characteristic among Americans in Who’s Who was “child of missionaries to the Far East.”) And out in the mission fields, a kind of practical common cause was forced on the Christians, an “ecumenism of the trenches,” which—because of the prestige of the missionaries—increasingly influenced their home churches.
Then, too, there was the fight between the fundamentalists and the modernists. Building for some time, that fight would come to a head when the powerful liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick delivered his famous 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” at New York’s First Presbyterian Church, and Princeton’s conservative John Gresham Machen published his defining 1923 book, Christianity and Liberalism.
Part of the result was new fissures: Machen, probably the great American theological mind of his generation, would flee Princeton, moving to Philadelphia to found the more conservative Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. But another part of the result was increased agreement about what was, and what wasn’t, the American Mainline. The liberal churches all felt they were under assault from a fundamentalist offensive that detested both their social-gospel theology and their ecumenically minded church organization. And so, gradually, those churches came to hold a kind of horizontal unity that cut across denominational divides: a fellow feeling that made liberal Baptists, for instance, think themselves closer to liberal Congregationalists than to the fundamentalists of their own denomination.
“Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was not universally applauded at the time, even by the congregants at First Presbyterian. The local presbytery investigated Fosdick for heresy in 1923 (his defense counsel was the future secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, father of the Catholic convert Avery Cardinal Dulles), and he resigned his pulpit—only to have John D. Rockefeller Jr. build for him New York’s Riverside Church, an avowedly inter denominational church, the flagship of Mainline Protestantism in America.
Riverside opened in 1930, and by that point a fairly small and manageable set of liberal churches had come to be understood as the Mainline: the Baptists (at least in their Northern churches), the Disciples of Christ, the Congregationalists (later merging with a set of German Reformed churches to create the United Church of Christ), the Episcopalians, the Lutherans (in some of their forms), the Methodists, and the Presbyterians.
The high-water mark came around 1965, when members of the various churches broadly within these denominations constituted well over 50 percent of the American population. Their numbers, although not their percentages, maintained a little growth through 1975. But, as Kenneth Woodward pointed out in a much discussed 1993 Newsweek feature, they have been “running out of money and members and meaning” ever since.
Every survey produces different results, but all of them report a Mainline Protestantism in rapid decline. According to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, only three Mainline denominations still have enough members to be included among the ten largest churches: the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
All three have suffered serious losses: the Presbyterians down 1.6 percent over the previous year, the Lutherans down 1.09, and the Methodists down 0.79. The other Mainline churches show the same pattern: The Episcopalians, for instance, lost 1.55 percent of their members in 2005. By 2025, runs a bitter joke among conservative Anglicans, the Episcopal Church will have one priest for every congregant. And these recent numbers are actually a slight improvement. The greatest damage was done from 1990 to 2000—a decade in which the United Church of Christ declined 14.8 percent, for example, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 11.6 percent.
Another way to parse the data is to consider the average age of church membership. The 1998 to 2002 sets of the General Social Survey show that the Mainline Protestant denominations have the oldest average age of any religious group in America, at almost fifty-two years. And they will get older yet. In 2005, the Baylor Religion Survey found that 28.1 percent of believers aged sixty-five and over—but only 17.6 percent of those thirty-one to forty-four—identify themselves as members of the Mainline.
Strength of belief is usually taken to indicate future stability: a measure of the likelihood that a denomination’s members will pass their faith on to their children. When the Baylor study asked about doubts of the existence of God, 100 percent of the members of historically black Protestant churches reported no doubts, 86.5 percent of evangelical Protestants had no doubts, and only 63.6 percent of the Mainline had no doubts. Asked about Jesus, 95.1 percent of black Protestants, 94.4 percent of evangelicals, and 72.2 percent of the Mainline responded that they believed him to be the son of God.
In the practices of piety—another measure of the likelihood of passing on the fait—67.1 percent of evangelicals pray every day, while only 44.1 percent of the Mainline Protestants do. Reading the Bible regularly? The Baylor study has evangelicals at 42.1 percent, and the Mainline at 16 percent. A recent report from the Pew Forum gives numbers generally higher than previous studies, but the decline of the Mainline is still apparent. Pew reports, for instance, that 58 percent of evangelicals attend religious services at least once a week, while just 34 percent of Mainline Protestants do.
Various somewhat-affiliated denominations, together with the historically black churches, raise the numbers considerably. But the actual organizations at the center—the defining churches in each of the denominations that make up the Mainline—have fallen to insignificance. The Disciples of Christ with 750,000 members, the United Church of Christ with 1.2 million, the American Baptist Churches with 1.5 million, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with 2.3 million, the Episcopalians with 2.3 million, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with 5 million, and the United Methodist Church with 8.1 million: That’s around 21 million people, in a nation of more than 300 million. The conservative Southern Baptist Convention alone has 16 million members in the United States. The Catholic Church has 67 million.
In other words, less than 8 percent of Americans today belong to the central churches of the Protestant Mainline.
From the beginning, Protestants in America felt some interdenominational unity simply because they were all Protestants—named by their protest against Rome. The United States never experienced a state-sponsored Catholic Church, capable of oppressing dissenters. Still, even in this country, the Protestant imagination was formed by works such as John Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs, and it retained a collective image of the Reformation as a time when Protestants of every stripe were martyred for their faith by the Jesuitical priests of the Roman Antichrist.
“Universal anti-Catholic bias was brought to Jamestown in 1607 and vigorously cultivated in all the thirteen colonies,” as John Tracy Ellis wrote in his groundbreaking 1956 history, American Catholicism. Inflamed by immigration worries in the nineteenth century, that bias would break out in forms such as the Boston mob’s burning of an Ursuline convent in 1834 and the Blaine Amendments of the 1870s, which wrote into state constitutions a ban on the use of public funds by religious institutions. Even in calmer periods, the anti-Catholic foundation of Protestantism, the essential protest against Rome, helped form the peculiar national institution of mutually antagonistic churches somehow operating socially as a unity.
Social class fits in somewhere here, as well: the old cultural remnants of Mainline wealth, breeding, and assurance. The established upper classes in Protestant America—the Boston Brahmins, the Upper Tenth of New York, the inhabitants of Philadelphia’s Mainline: all the Social Register types up and down the Eastern seaboard—hardly welcomed the waves of emigrants from Catholic Europe during the nineteenth century.
The twentieth century would bring its own examples. Take, for instance, the peculiar case of James Pike, the Episcopal bishop of California in the 1960s. His fame seems to have declined in recent years. Who now remembers much about the man? Still, he deserves not to fade entirely away, for he was an all-American . . . well, an all-American something, though what, exactly, remains unclear. A churchman, certainly, and a public celebrity—but perhaps, beyond all that, a genuine cultural symbol: his moment’s perfect type and figure.
As it happens, Pike’s family was Catholic when he was born in 1913. He didn’t become an Episcopalian until after his second marriage, in 1942, while he was a government lawyer in Washington—and he didn’t enter the seminary until after his service in the Second World War, when he was already in his thirties. From that moment on, however, his rise was meteoric. By 1949 he was chair of the religion department at Columbia University and chaplain of the school. In 1952 he became dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and in 1958 he was elevated to bishop of California—all this as a convert in a church that prided itself on its old-fashioned composure and careful discernment.
Many in the denomination mistrusted him, but Pike was the irresistible man, the torchbearer of the time: his face in every photograph, his signature on every petition, and his blessing on every cause. He first achieved fame in the early 1950s (as fame is measured, at least, by praise from the New York Times ) with his attacks on the Catholic Church and its opposition to contraception. In the later 1950s, he burnished his image in the fight against segregation. And by the mid-1960s, he seemed constantly in the news—Bishop Pike denies the virginity of Mary! Bishop Pike rejects the dogma of hell! Bishop Pike denies the Trinity!—all while announcing publicly his embrace of Gnostic mysticism and appearing on a televised séance to contact the ghost of his dead son.
In 1969 he and his third wife drove off into the wadis of the Israeli desert, where he died, dehydrated and alone, as his wife hiked ten hours back from their stranded rental car. “It was our first time in the desert,” Mrs. Pike later told the press. “We didn’t take a guide. We were very stupid about that.”
But, in truth, there was something stupid from the beginning about the charismatic and charming James Pike. Oh, he was smart enough to sound intelligent, and he was extremely savvy about the star-making power of the press. In another sense, however, he was merely riding his unconscious awareness of the age, discarding doctrine in the name of ethics, and he was always feckless: dangerously irresponsible, refusing to think his way through causes and consequences.
“Practically every churchgoer you meet in our level of society is Episcopalian,” he wrote in a letter to his mother, urging her to join him in his move away from Catholicism. It is an astonishingly revealing line: unselfconscious, lacking any reference to faith, openly rolling together class and anti-Catholicism to form the great motive for conversion. From there to an Episcopal bishop’s throne was only a few small steps—“barely twelve years,” as Time magazine pointed out in a fawning 1958 story about Pike’s arrival at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
The path doesn’t seem much different today. The Episcopal Church used to be “larger percentagewise,” the current presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, admitted to the New York Times at the end of 2006. “But Episcopalians tend to be better educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.” Episcopalians, she said, aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children”indeed, “it’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.” Applauding her parents’ decision to leave the Catholic Church and become Episcopalians when she was nine, Bishop Schori added, “I think my parents were looking for a place where wrestling with questions was encouraged rather than discouraged.”
Schori is by no means a radical, as such things are counted these days in the Episcopal Church—the home, after all, of V. Gene Robinson, the openly homosexual bishop of New Hampshire, and John Shelby Spong, the retired bishop of Newark, who has denied even the possibility of meaningful prayer. She seems, rather, a fairly typical liberal Protestant: a rentier, really, living off the income from the property her predecessors purchased, strolling at sunset along the strand as the great tide of the Mainline ebbs further out to sea.
To be saved, we need only to realize that God already loves us, just the way we are, Schori wrote in her 2006 book, A Wing and a Prayer. She’s not exactly wrong about God’s love, but, in Schori’s happy soteriology, such love demands from us no personal reformation, no individual guilt, no particular penance, and no precise dogma. All we have to do, to prove the redemption we already have, is support the political causes she approves. The mission of the church is to show forth God’s love by demanding inclusion and social justice. She often points to the United Nations as an example of God’s work in the world, and when she talks about the mission of the Episcopal Church, she typically identifies it with the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals.
Her Yahweh, in other words, is a blend of Norman Vincent Peale and Dag Hammarskjöld. And through it all you can hear the notes of Bishop Pike—not the lyrics, perhaps, but always the melody. There’s the same cringe-making assumption of social superiority: “Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates” than the lower classes of Catholics and Mormons. For that matter, there’s the same unselfconscious declaration of superiority even to faith: We’re theologically more advanced precisely because we don’t have a theology—we have “a place where wrestling with questions” is “encouraged rather than discouraged.”
The Mainline, however, shifted to a surprising degree in the fifty years between Bishop Pike in 1958 and Bishop Schori in 2008. Pike was newsworthy precisely because he seemed contrary to type: a chaplain to the establishment who campaigned against that establishment. Schori seems instead a solid, unexceptionable instance of her type: a representative of the moods and politics of the establishment Episcopalians who elected her their presiding bishop.
Early in 1953, Pike refused an honorary degree from the Episcopalians’ seminary in Sewanee, Tennessee, because of the school’s segregation. “The Church has never regarded the civil law as the final norm for the Christian conscience,” he wrote in the noble peroration of his letter of rejection. (Although, in characteristic Pike fashion, he sent the letter to the New York Times before he sent it to Sewanee.) As it happens, the man was not far out of step with his church; even in the South, Episcopalians were moving quickly toward support for integration, and, just a few months later, the school began admitting black students. Still, it seemed—and was widely reported as—a new thing when the dean of St. John’s Cathedral denounced one of his own church’s seminaries. To create a parallel instance of apparent class betrayal, Bishop Schori would have to do something like take to the pages of Human Life Review to attack her congregants’ support of legalized abortion.
She’s not likely to do that, perhaps mostly because abortion offers a key measure of the changes in the social class of liberal Protestants over the past fifty years. The role of abortion, and of feminism generally, deserves its own chapter in any telling of the Mainline story. But here’s a small case study: After the attacks of September 11, 2001, I was at the Episcopalians’ National Cathedral in Washington, on a panel to discuss violence and religion. The evening began with a prayer from Jane Dixon, the cathedral’s temporary bishop, and her invocation was as revealing as any short speech could be of the concerns of the contemporary Episcopal Church.
While asking the divine gifts of wisdom for the speakers and understanding for the listeners, Bishop Dixon was vague—not merely failing to name the name of Jesus but straining to phrase all her requests in a passive voice to avoid even naming God: “May we be given . . . may it be granted to us . . . ” When her prayer unexpectedly swerved toward abortion, however, her language suddenly snapped into hard specificity as she reminded God that “America at its best stands for the spread of rights around the world, especially the right of women to choose.” The discussion that evening, she prayed, would not turn vindictive, for we could not condemn the destruction of the World Trade Center until we remembered that “even in the United States, people have bombed abortion clinics.”
The important thing to understand here is the social shape of these issues and their uniform acceptance by a certain class. Bishop Dixon was speaking the language of Bishop Pike, and yet, at the same time, she was not shocking her listeners. She was, rather, confirming them in their settled views. Sometime after the 1960s, everyone in the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church became Bishop Pike—with the perverse effect that Pike’s ostensible rebellion turned, at last, into the norm. Formed in the victory of civil-rights activism, a new version of the social-gospel movement became the default theology of church bureaucrats in the Mainline. The churches “increasingly turned their attention to the drafting of social statements on a variety of contemporary problems,” as the religious historian Peter J. Thuesen has noted, and their statements “revealed a shared opinion among Mainline executives that the churches’ primary public role was social advocacy.”
The result is an ethical consensus unfailingly consistent with the political views and cultural mores of a particular social class—in fact, the class of professional women in the United States since the 1970s. Certainly on the question of abortion, and probably on the question of homosexuality, such bishops as Jane Dixon and Katharine Jefferts Schori face no serious opposition among the elite of their denomination in the United States. The Episcopal Church remains the chaplaincy of an establishment, but it is an establishment much diminished—in class, numbers, and influence—for only Pike’s heirs have stayed in the church bureaucracy, and they have no one to speak to except themselves.
H.L. Mencken is usually credited with dubbing the Episcopal Church of the 1920s “the Republican Party at prayer.” The Episcopal Church today seems hardly distinguishable from the small portion of America that is the National Organization for Women at prayer.
The Episcopalians are hardly alone. Many commentators, analyzing the decline of liberal denominations in recent decades, have pointed to the gains of conservative churches. Dean Kelley, a legal advisor at the National Council of Churches, was one of the first to notice the phenomenon, predicting in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion (1972) that the trend would accelerate.
His prediction found strong confirmation just over twenty years later, when the pollsters Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge, and Donald A. Luidens published in First Things their important 1993 analysis, “Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline.” “In our study,” they wrote, “the single best predictor of church participation turned out to be belief—orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ . . . . Amazingly enough, fully 68 percent of those who are still active Presbyterians don’t believe it.”
The economist Laurence Iannaccone filled in more of the puzzle with a fascinating 1994 essay, “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” Iannaccone insisted that the stricter forms of religious life have benefits that looser and more liberal churches do not. Considered purely in economic terms, he wrote, religion is “a ‘commodity’ that people produce collectively.” Precisely because the personal costs are so high, a strict church soon loses “free riders,” the people who take more than they give. And the remaining members find a genuine social community: a tightly knit congregation of people who are deeply concerned with one another’s lives and willing to help in time of need. They gain something like intellectual community, as well—a culture of people who speak the same vocabulary, understand the same concepts, and study the same texts.
More recent research, following Iannaccone’s path, has added demonstrations that the best way for, say, a poor woman to improve her social and economic class is to join an active and strict church. The chances of forming stable marriages will be increased for both herself and her children, the probabilities of being drawn into crime and drugs will be decreased, and even her opportunities for employment will be raised.
Intellectual community may be even more decisive. Over the past thirty years, Mainline Protestantism has crumbled at the base, as its ordinary congregants slip away to evangelicalism, on one side, or disbelief, on the other. But it has weakened at the head, too, as its most serious theologians increasingly seek community—that longed-for intellectual culture of people who speak the same vocabulary, understand the same concepts, and study the same texts—in other, stricter denominations.
All these themes appear in the open letter the elderly Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten wrote in 2005 to Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop of the Mainline branch of Lutheranism, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is, in its way, a terribly sad document, as he notes how the Lutheran Church in which he was brought up “has become just another” Mainline church. “I must tell you,” he explains to Bishop Hanson, “that I read all your episcopal letters that come across my desk. But I must also tell you that your stated convictions, punctuated by many pious sentiments, are not significantly distinguishable from those that come from the liberal Protestant leaders of other American denominations.”
There used to be a distinct Lutheranism that he understood, Braaten writes. He learned it “from Nygren, Aulen, Bring, Pinomaa, Schlink, P. Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Pannenberg, Piepkorn, Quanbeck, Preus, and Lindbeck”—a roll-call of once famous Lutheran thinkers—“not to mention the pious missionary teachers from whom I learned the Bible, the Catechism, and the Christian faith.” All that “is now marginalized to the point of near extinction.”
Indeed, Braaten insists, the church’s “brain drain”—the parade of contemporary Lutheran theologians, one after another, joining other denominations—is caused by this loss of any unique Lutheranism: “While the individuals involved have provided a variety of reasons, there is one thread that runs throughout the stories they tell. It is not merely the pull of Orthodoxy or Catholicism that enchants them, but also the push from the ELCA . . . . They are convinced that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has become just another liberal Protestant denomination . . . . They are saying that the Roman Catholic Church is now more hospitable to confessional Lutheran teaching than the church in which they were baptized and confirmed.”
The letter is, in fact, a long litany of loss: disjointed, heartfelt, flailing; a bewildered catalogue of all the things Braaten thought mattered. He carefully lists his antique political credentials (“I am a life-long political liberal . . . . My wife and I opposed the unjust war against Vietnam”)—as though that would give him standing. Educated at Harvard and Heidelberg, he records his contributions to the high theological controversies of Lutheran days gone by—as though that would save him from irrelevance. He names the long generations of his family’s missionary work in Madagascar, Cameroon, and China—as though Bishop Hanson would suddenly remember the 1920s world of prestigious mission boards and halt the tumble of Lutheranism down into the miniature melting pot that is Mainline Protestantism in twenty-first-century America.
The influence of the Lutheran Church was bigger back when its ambitions were smaller. While the denomination was growing from a set of German and Scandinavian immigrants’ churches to a full member of the American Mainline, Lutherans typically wanted only to hold their faith, supporting the nation in general while speaking out against specific social failures. The civil-rights movement, for instance, showed a strong Lutheran component, although the Prohibition-era war on alcohol was not joined by many church members. Local campaigns against pornography always had high Lutheran participation, but by the 1950s the Lutheran vote in national elections was largely indistinguishable from the general voting patterns of the rest of the country. They influenced American culture mostly by being themselves: a significant stream in Tocqueville’s undivided current.
Where are they now? Well into the twentieth century, Lutherans were uncomfortable with their relation to other Protestant churches. The more conservative branches of Lutheranism still maintain some of that old distance: Neither the Missouri Synod (with 2.5 million congregants) nor the Wisconsin Synod (with 400,000) are members of the National Council of Churches, for example. But about this much, Carl Braaten is right: The largest branch, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has merged itself almost entirely with the other liberal Protestant denominations.
Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran—the name hardly matters anymore. It’s true that if you dig through the conservative manifestos and broadsides of the past thirty years, you find one distressed cry after another, each bemoaning the particular path by which this or that denomination lost its intellectual and doctrinal distinctiveness.
After you’ve read a few of these outraged complaints, however, the targets begin to blur together. The names may vary, but the topics remain the same: the uniformity of social class at the church headquarters, the routine genuflections toward the latest political causes, the feminizing of the clergy, the unimportance of the ecclesial points that once defined the denomination, the substitution of leftist social action for Christian evangelizing, and the disappearance of biblical theology. All the Mainline churches have become essentially the same church: their histories, their theologies, and even much of their practice lost to a uniform vision of social progress. Only the names of the corporations that own their properties seem to differ.
Good riddance, some would say—including the Methodist Stanley Hauerwas, named by Time magazine in 2001 the nation’s “best theologian.” A pacifist of generally liberal bent, Hauerwas is hardly a political conservative. Neither is he a backward-looking Great Awakener, preaching fire and brimstone to call Protestants home to their fundamentalist roots. He has always liked the Christianity of the Protestant Mainline. Or, rather, he has always liked it except insofar as the Mainline operates as the Mainline, performing its old unifying functions in the American social experiment.
With such books as After Christendom and Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, Hauerwas has demanded that the nation’s churches renounce their historical role as patriotic chaplains to American culture. That role, he thinks, is idolatry—a sacrilegious substitution of the nation-state for the Church of God—and he finds traces of its blasphemy in everyone from the eighteenth-century John Witherspoon to the twentieth-century Reinhold Niebuhr.
“Preaching to the choir,” we used to call what Hauerwas is doing. America’s Mainline churches still preserve, in certain ways, the mood of the days in which they really did define the nation. (“Puerto Ricans, Jews, and Episcopalians each form around 2 percent of the American population,” runs an old joke from the sociologist Peter Berger. “Guess which group does not think of itself as a minority.”) But it has been years since these churches were what Hauerwas excoriates them for being. The Mainline is now only embarrassed by its old Mainline place, by its vanished role as both the enabler and the conscience of the American republic.
Look, for instance, on the official website of the United Church of Christ, where there’s something called UCC FIRSTS: A Journey through Time—a list of the historic achievements of the various Congregationalist and German Reformed churches that joined to form the denomination in 1957. The items run from John Winthrop’s 1630 prayer that the Massachusetts Bay Colony “be as a city upon a hill” to the 1995 publication of “the only hymnal released by a Christian church that honors in equal measure both male and female images of God.”
Interestingly, as it travels down the years, UCC FIRSTS reveals the classic shape of a Protestant denomination in America, performing the old paired functions: the accommodating and the critical, the patriotic and the prophetic. The church boasts that in 1777 its members saved the Liberty Bell from the British, while in 1785 they ordained Lemuel Haynes, the nation’s first African American pastor. In 1810 they formed the first foreign-mission society, and in 1853 they ordained the nation’s first woman pastor.
The last item of theological significance in UCC FIRSTS, however, is The Courage to Be, the book that Paul Tillich (nominally a Lutheran) published in 1952 while he was attending one of the Reformed churches that would later join the denomination. In the more than fifty years since, the United Church of Christ can find no theological work to trumpet—and no patriotic work, either. Everything since the 1950s of which the church now wants to boast is adversarial: attempts to deploy Christianity against the errors of the nation.
That’s a curious admission for a major American denomination. By its own account, the church’s intellectual life has come to an end. And as its numbers catastrophically decline, the ordinary practice of its members has ceased to influence the culture. The United Church of Christ is left little except its putatively prophetic voice—and a strikingly unoriginal voice, at that. All the issues on which the church opines, and all the positions it takes, track the usual run of liberal American politics.
The key, however, is not the mostly uninteresting politics of the church bureaucracy but the astonishing lack of influence those political statements have. With no deposits into the account of its prestige by accommodating the other props of the nation—and no influence on the culture from the everyday practices of its congregants—the prophetic demands of the United Church of Christ cash out to nothing. No one listens, no one minds, no one cares.
The question, of course, is why it happened—this sudden decline of the Mainline, this collapse of the Great Church of America, this dwindling of American Protestantism even as it has now finally found the unity that it always lacked before. Each new book on the topic offers a new explanation, but analysts tend to follow three general paths for explaining the turn of liberal Protestant Christianity.
The oldest is the Catholic complaint, born in the Counter-Reformation. One could summon up here the arguments of the sixteenth century: the worries of Erasmus about free will, or Cardinal Sadolet’s debate with John Calvin about the dangers of “innovation” that come when believers break the chain of apostolic succession that links them to antiquity. But this Catholic line probably reaches its peak with the great nineteenth-century theological convert from Anglicanism, John Henry Newman—for he insisted on a logical connection between the Protestant rejection of Rome and the decline of private devotion and social unity in liberal Christian nations.
The second general path of criticism is an internal one—a cry of Protestants against the spirit of their own age. In one form, it found its greatest expression with Søren Kierkegaard’s 1854 Attack upon “Christendom.” In another form, it issued in Karl Barth’s thunderous Nein! of the 1920s, rejecting the emergence of what he called Kulturprotestantismus, the effort to water Christianity down into a spiritual feeling for modern culture to indulge. In America, however, the fundamental text of Protestant complaint remains John Gresham Machen’s 1923 Christianity and Liberalism. Against the Catholic claim that Protestantism was always bound to end in something like the modern situation, Machen insists that liberalism is not the necessary result of Protestant theology and practice. It comes, rather, from the changes of the modern age and the fearful notion of some Protestants that they must warp their religion to match their times.
The third common line appears most often in academic analysis—the account offered by modern scholars, who typically pose themselves as standing above the fray: religious historians rather than committed theologians. In this line, competition is usually lifted up as the key factor: Religious competition enabled the churches to flourish for a while in American history, but once modern times brought non-religious choices into the mix—newspapers, entertainment, sports, the goods of material prosperity—the outmoded churches were doomed. Somewhere here belongs, as well, what sociologists used to call the “Secularization Thesis,” the now mostly debunked notion that modernity inevitably means the decline of religion.
To these three standard explanations, others could be added. There has emerged, for instance, something we might call “Mere Religion.” A curious pattern grew in the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversies of the 1920s—a cross-denominational sympathy: the fellow feeling of people who, though their churches differ, nonetheless share a view of the world and a sense that they are all under attack from similar enemies. The pattern is worth marking, for it appeared not only in the 1920s but over and over again in the ensuing decades.
Indeed, it returned with a vengeance in our own post-Mainline age since the 1970s. You can see it today among the liberal managers of the old churches, and you can see it as well among conservative churchgoers, where the horizontal unity of Mere Religion cuts across denominations. Serious, believing Presbyterians, for example, now typically feel that they have more in common with serious, believing Catholics and evangelicals—with serious, believing Jews, for that matter—than they do, vertically, with the unserious, unorthodox members of their own denomination.
Related to this is another explanatory factor: the general decline of anti-Catholicism among American believers, particularly evangelicals. Apart from a few fringe fundamentalist elements, anti-Catholicism in the United States today belongs entirely to the political left, as its members rage about insidious Roman influence on the nation: the five Catholic justices on the Supreme Court plotting to undo the abortion license, and the Catholic racists of the old rust-belt states turning their backs on Barack Obama to vote for Hillary Clinton. Why is it no surprise that one of the last places in American Christianity to find good, old-fashioned anti-Catholicism is among the administrators of the dying Mainline—Bishop Schori and all the rest? They must be anti-Catholics precisely to the extent that they are also political leftists.
The astonishingly rapid dechristianizing of Europe since the 1960s has received, I think, too little attention as yet another cause. The prestige of the theological work that came from European thinkers—from the Reformation’s John Calvin all the way through to the twentieth century’s Wolfhart Pannenberg—ensured that the American churches maintained something of their old European distinctions. The Episcopal Church was not free to become one with the Presbyterians so long as British theologians spoke with the voice of worldwide Anglicanism. The Lutherans were not able to merge with the Congregationalists so long as German theologians kept the unique identity of Lutheranism alive.
Believers in this country did not typically look to Europe for political or even ecclesial authority. But, good Americans, they always felt intellectually inferior to Europeans, and the European churches helped the American denominations remain theologically distinct even while those denominations were socially united in creating the culture of the United States. Protestantism is essentially gone from Europe now—its population center shifted to the global South, and its intellectual center dissolved. And once Europe ceased to produce defining theological work, the American churches had less confidence in maintaining their old historical distinctions.
In 1948, as he completed his draft of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Canadian law professor John Humphrey went home and noted in his diary that what had been achieved was “something like the Christian morality without the tommyrot.”
That seems a nearly perfect phrase: Christian morality without the tommyrot. Humphrey meant, of course, all the unnecessary accretions of prayer and miracles and faith and sacraments and chapels. But the phrase might be the motto of all who answer surveys by saying they are “spiritual, but not religious.” It might be the motto of all who have a vague and unspoken—indeed, unspeakable—feeling that it is somehow more Christian not to be a Christian.
It might even be the motto of the Mainline churches today. Of course, without all that stuff about God and church, the morality proves to be empty: cups for us to fill with almost any meaning we want—which, in the actual give and take of public life, will almost always be political and economic meaning. In other words, having gotten rid of all the tommyrot, the liberal Protestant churches can at last agree in nearly every particular.
Unfortunately, they obtained their ecumenical unity at the price of abandoning most of the religious work that ecumenism was supposed to advance. Indeed, the churches’ desperate hunger to mean more in politics and economics had the perverse effect of making them less effective opponents to the political and economic pressures on the nation. They mattered more when they wanted to matter less.
Social nature abhors a social vacuum, and the past thirty years have seen many attempts to fill the place where Protestantism used to stand. Feminism in the 1980s, homosexuality in the 1990s, environmentalism today, the quadrennial presidential campaigns that promise to reunify the nation—the struggle against abortion, for that matter: Leave aside the question of whether these movements are right or wrong, helpful or unhelpful, and consider them purely as social phenomena. In their appearance on the public stage, these political movements have all posed themselves as partial Protestantisms, bastard Christianities, determined not merely to win elections but to be the platform by which all other platforms are judged.
Look at the fury, for instance, with which environmentalists now attack any disputing of global warming. Such movements seek converts, not supporters, and they respond to objections the way religions respond to heretics and heathens. Each of them wants to be the great vocabulary by which the nation understands itself. Each of them wants to be the new American religion, standing as the third great prop of the nation: the moral vocabulary by which we know ourselves.
Just as religion is damaged when the churches see themselves as political movements, so politics is damaged when political platforms act as though they were religions. And perhaps more than merely damaged. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the killing fields of Cambodia, the cultural revolution in China: We had terrible experiences in the twentieth century when political and economic theories succeeded in posing themselves as religions.
We’re not on the edge of something that frightening today. But the death of Protestant America really has weakened both Christianity and public life in the United States—for when the Mainline died, it took with it to the grave the vocabulary in which both criticism and support of the nation could be effective.
That vocabulary was incomplete in many ways, and the churches often failed to provide true Christian witness. But in its everyday practice, Protestantism nonetheless gave America something vital: a social unity and cultural definition that did not derive entirely from political arrangements and economic relations. And America gave Protestantism something in return: a chance to flourish without state interference, a freedom to fulfill the human desire for what lies beyond the material world.
Among conservative Christians, much attention is devoted to the question of whether the hole in public life can be filled by either Catholicism or the evangelical churches. I have my doubts. The evangelicals may have too little church organization, and the Catholics may have too much. Besides, both are minorities in the nation’s population, and they arrive at our current moment with a history of being outsiders—the objects of a long record of American suspicion, which hasn’t gone away despite the decline of the churches that gave the suspicion its modern form.
Perhaps some joining of Catholics and evangelicals, in morals and manners, could achieve the social unity in theological difference that characterized the old Mainline. But the vast intellectual resources of Catholicism still sound a little odd in the American ear, just as the enormous reservoir of evangelical faith has been unable, thus far, to provide a widely accepted moral rhetoric.
America was Methodist, once upon a time—or Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Congregationalist, or Episcopalian. Protestant, in other words. What can we call it today? Those churches simply don’t mean much any more. That’s a fact of some theological significance. It’s a fact of genuine sorrow, for that matter, as the aging members of the old denominations watch their congregations dwindle away: funeral after funeral, with far too few weddings and baptisms in between. But future historians, telling the story of our age, will begin with the public effect in the United States.
As he prepared to leave the presidency in 1796, George Washington famously warned, “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Generally speaking, however, Americans tended not to worry much about the philosophical question of religion and nation. The whole theologico-political problem, which obsessed European philosophers, was gnawed at in the United States most by those who were least churched.
We all have to worry about it, now. Without the political theory that depended on the existence of the Protestant Mainline, what does it mean to support the nation? What does it mean to criticize it? The American experiment has always needed what Alexis de Tocqueville called the undivided current, and now that current has finally run dry.
Joseph Bottum wrote this article when he was editor of First Things.