The decline of Mainline Protestantism is a fact. But what does it mean? What’s at the root of it. Christian Smith offers some suggestions in Souls In Transition, at least where that decline concerns young adults.
It is old news by now that mainline-liberal Protestant denominations in the United States are suffering major declines in membership and social prestige. Sociologists have for decades been documenting a hemorrhaging of members from mainline Protestant churches. And the religious and political ascendancy of American evangelicalism since the 1970s has drawn the spotlight away from the once mainstream religious presence of the more liberal Protestant churches. What was once mainline is now regularly dubbed the “sideline”
and the “old-line.” These are not the glory days of mainline-liberal Protestantism in America. Yet many observers are so focused on membership statistics and apparent political influences that they miss an important fact: that liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and
is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory. In this idea, we follow the argument of the University of Massachusetts sociologist of religion N. Jay Demerath, in a perceptive but we think underappreciated journal article he published in 1995 entitled “Cultural Victory and Organizational Defeat in the Paradoxical Decline of Liberal Protestantism.” Demerath’s argument is fairly simple. “Far from representing failure,” he says, “the decline of Liberal Protestantism may actually stem from its success. It may be the painful structural consequences
of [its] wider cultural triumph. . . . Liberal Protestants have lost structurally at the micro level precisely because they won culturally at the macro level.” What Demerath means by this is that liberal Protestantism’s core values— individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, free critical inquiry, and the
authority of human experience—have come to so permeate broader American culture that its own churches as organizations have diffi culty surviving. One reason for this development is that these very liberal values have a tendency to undermine organizational vitality. The strongest organizations are generally not built on individualism, diversity, autonomy, and criticism. Furthermore, having won the larger battle to shape mainstream culture, it becomes difficult to sustain a strong rationale for maintaining distinctively liberal church organizations to continue to promote those now omnipresent values. Liberal Protestantism increasingly seems redundant to the taken-for-granted mainstream that it has helped to create. Why organize to promote what is already hegemonic?…very many mainline Protestant emerging adults simply could not care enough to talk about religion in any specific terms, but those who did in fact
usually talked like classical liberal Protestants. In short, many emerging adults would be quite comfortable with the kind of liberal faith described by the Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr in 1937 as being about “a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the
ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” They simply would have no idea about the genealogy of their taken-for-granted ideas, that is, from where historically they came. On more than a few occasions, in fact, while listening to emerging adults explain their views of religion, it struck us that they might just as well be paraphrasing passages from classical liberal Protestant theologians, of whom they have no doubt actually never heard, from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The likes of Adolf von Harnack, Albrecht Ritschl, Wilhelm Hermann, and Harry Emerson Fosdick would be proud. (p.288-289)
So perhaps the reason why the Mainline loses its young is not that they don’t listen, but that they listen all too well.