On “Mainline Religion"

Next summer I’ll be keynoting the “Craigville Colloquy” which has taken place in our little Cape Cod village for over 25 years. It’s a unique gathering of clergy and laity who gather for five days to do theological work together.

I haven’t been a regular attender over the years because part of the appeal of being here in the summer was not having to be part of group activities requiring me to smile all the time. Craigville has been a place of rest and renewal for Linda and me and not a placed to go to meetings!  For more about next summer's event see http://craigvillecolloquy.com/wordpress/?page_id=142.

The theme chosen by the planning group is “Breaking News in a Broken World: The Gospel Unbound in the Mainline Churches.” I’m told that “Mainline Churches” proved pretty controversial in the committee’s deliberations.

Some people interpreted mainline as focusing exclusively on the religious groups that dominated the American religious scene in the 16th through the 19th century: Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, joined later by Methodists, Disciples, Lutherans, some Baptists, some of the Reformed churches and the like. Use of the phrase implied that some groups occupy a religious “center” in relation to which other groups are somehow marginal.

There’s no question that has been a common use of the phrase: a reference to the groups Jerry Falwell once called “old-line” churches (which was not, for Falwell, a term of affection). I’ve used it myself to refer to that branch of Protestantism variously referred to as “liberal,” “established,” “public,” “National Council of Churches-related,” “progressive” and “the religious Left.” All of these labels as problematic, though they point to the inescapable face that since the late 19th century Protestantism has been divided into at least two major camps. Over the years, in fact, I’ve argued that use of the term “Protestant” or “Protestantism” without an accompanying adjective is misleading since it lacks an empirical referent. The term has little meaning beyond “non-Catholic,” “non-Jewish,” “non Muslim, “ non-no religious preference.”

In 1987 a colleague and I published a book with the title American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future. The book got a lot of attention and is still in print. In the book Wade Clark Roof and I argued that to be “mainline” today is “refer to religious groups that identify with and contribute to the definition of the society’s core values. To speak of a religious group as mainline is to acknowledge its place in the nation’s religious establishment.” This definition assumes an interaction with the culture in which groups both shape the culture and are open to being shaped by it. It makes little sense, we argued, to ignore the new mainline status of Catholics, Jews, Black Protestants, Conservative Protestants as part of that new religious establishment. Indeed, in the increasingly pluralistic America, we wondered, who is not mainline. This was brought home to me at the start of the first Gulf War. I was in San Diego for a meeting watching the evening news when the anchor reported on a statement issued by a local branch of the Chalcedonian Christian Church had released a statement on the war!

Words matter.

To refer to a single religious group as “the mainline” suggests that others are outside the mainline. I don’t find this to be a helpful lens for understanding the American religious scene today. For example, it tempts us to ask extremely unhelpful questions, including ones I’ve heard hundreds of times: “Who has replaced the old Protestant churches as the new mainline?” “Has conservative evangelicalism become the new mainline?” “How can ‘mainline’ Protestantism recover its former role in the culture?” The last question is especially awful because it divert attention from what ought to be the question for oldline churches: How do we find our place in a world that no longer defers to us on matters of theology, religion and politics?