Tuesday, November 15 2016
When the Mainline isn’t the Mainstream Anymore
November 15, 2016
A number of years ago I was taking a class from the noted historian of American Christian history, Martin E. Marty. (Yes, it’s name-dropping, but it’s what I do.) In any case, one of my classmates referred to her denomination as “mainline” on which Martin Marty reflected that we should call ourselves “name-brand” because mainline implied a certain dominance of the culture and denominations such as Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran were fast becoming minority traditions in both the larger culture and as a segment of Christianity. Independent evangelicals, he reflected, were the new mainline of American and Christian culture.
That was nearly 30 years ago and having now served as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for nearly three decades, I think I finally understand the implication from both sides. The familiar side of the concern can be seen in cities, suburbs, and small towns across the country. Aging facilities, massive sanctuaries, two and three story Christian education buildings, stages, fellowship halls, parlors, and multipurpose gymnasiums now accommodating a few dozen people, unable to invest in higher efficiency climate systems that, in the long run, would pay for themselves. Pension fund and health benefits once provided to multi-staff congregations, now breaking the bank for a single part-time pastor. The old way of doing mainline religion involved a minimum of three full-time employees, a pastor, secretary, and custodian, plus a regular complement of part-time musicians, children and youth workers, and perhaps a second office staff member responsible for answering phones, folding newsletters and stuffing bulletins. Now, in many cases the pastor herself types the bulletin and volunteers clean the toilets. Some attention may be given to the music staff, but competent organists are so scarce they’re usually paid more than a substitute preacher.
The evidence of decline is obvious. These massive buildings, with their programs and silver tea-sets, served a different constituency; in most cases, the members weren’t wealthier, there was just a large number of them and the economy of scale allowed for filmstrip projectors in every Sunday School department.
The members of these congregations were the establishment, the ones who owned things, built things, made things happen in the town square and the board room. For the most part, they voted establishment, they were anti-union, selective free-trade, strong defense, small-government Republicans. They lived the wide-awake version of the American Dream and the believed the reason others did not achieve their level of success was because they were sleepy-headed liberals, looking for handouts, and hiding behind collective bargaining to cover their underproductive laziness. And while there were, in the ranks of the former mainline Protestants, many progressivists who worked on the front line of education reform, poverty assistance, and health care, this handful of well-meaning do-gooders were in the tolerated margins of institutional North American Protestantism.
Theologically, the Protestant mainline in the mid-twentieth century weren’t particularly driven by theology. While they knew something about God, and about Jesus Christ, my own evangelical upbringing warned me that mainline Christians didn’t really know the Bible, care much about orthodoxy, or internalize doctrine. Theirs was more of a civil religion, something that required the Pledge of Allegiance before the invocation on Boy Scout Sunday. Mainline Protestants were living a religious life that didn’t challenge our upset the civil order because they didn’t promote a spirituality that questioned conspicuous consumption or raised flags about quiet infidelities, racial inequality, or social justice. They believed they were right because it was their world.
While we can debate long and hard as to why these denominations lost their century-long hold on American Christianity, I would suggest the most recent election reveals the dominance of a new American mainstream. With white evangelicals voting for the Republican candidate five to one, many pundits perceive a contradiction between evangelical theology and a Trump endorsement. While this may be true on paper, and in the minds of those who still live the “old time religion,” what the surprised pundits are missing is, this is what happens when your denomination dominates.
Like mid-twentieth century mainline Protestants, new twenty-first century evangelicals are dropping any theological framework that challenges their hold on the culture. Spirituality is an “inward” thing, something one believes in one’s heart, which may or may not play-out in the real world. What a thrice-married profane speaking Republican candidate delivered was the promise to defend their way of life – white, middle-class, cultural dominance. They didn’t vote to secure policies or for piety, they voted against pluralism, five to one. Like the mainline protestants before them, they endorsed the agenda that justified and praised their hold on the American agenda – nothing more, nothing less.