In Search of the Mainline
I'm happy to put up this guest post today from Jason Lantzer, who teaches at Butler University and is the author of Mainline Christianity: The Past and Future of America's Majority Faith. just out with NYU Press. Here, Jason reflects on the "mainline" versus "mainstream," something Elesha Coffman has reflected on at this blog before.
In Search of the Mainline
by Jason Lantzer
by Jason Lantzer
Some three years ago, while teaching a class on American Religious History, a student asked a question that transformed a project I was working on into a book: What is the Mainline? It was, and is, a simple question, and one that scholars all too often assume they know. The Mainline are the Seven Sisters of Protestantism: The Episcopal, Congregational/United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian, American Baptist, and Disciple of Christ denominations. These churches dominated the religious landscape of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, in terms of both membership and cultural influence. And talking about them in this way allows scholars to also discuss those outside the fold (Roman Catholics), those outside the “mainstream” (the Mormons), and of course the Mainline’s decline, all in a coherent narrative.
The problem with this analysis is manifold. The first issue is that we, as scholars, assume that we know what the Mainline is to begin with. Indeed, the consensus seems to be that the Mainline is static, or always has been. We do not, and have not, spent much time looking at the origins or even the development of the Mainline as a collection of very diverse, different, and divergent denominations, much more so historically perhaps than at the present. Still, their emergence should not be taken for granted. And while a historic evaluation of the Mainline’s creation does get us to the Seven Sisters, it also opens the door for much more exploration of the religious landscape of the United States.
What we discover is that there has been more than one Mainline. Or, to put it another way, the membership of the Mainline changed, or evolved, over time. During the colonial period, the Mainline consisted of the Episcopal/Anglican Church and the Congregational/Puritan Church. In the early nineteenth century, these denominations were joined by the evangelical churches of the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian persuasion, who grew in size and prominence because of the democratic impulse of the First and Second Great Awakenings. Joined by the end of the century by the Disciples and Evangelical Lutherans, we have the Seven Sisters. The point is that what constituted the Mainline during the colonial period is not the same by the mid-1800s, nor by the dawn of the twentieth. And yet, all too often, its make-up has been assumed to be consistent, despite real doctrinal and theological differences, and the very real addition of members over time.
If historically then, the Mainline is not static, then there is no reason why its make-up today cannot change. It has done so before after all. And that is why I am suggesting that we consider a new Mainline for the twenty-first century. The heart of the Seven Sisters has always been found in the evangelical denominations. That is why a modern Mainline must include the largest evangelical denomination in the nation, the Southern Baptist Convention, in addition to evangelicals regardless of denomination. By this I mean not just those in non-denominational or Megachurches, but also those still worshiping in congregations affiliated with the Seven Sisters. Doing this is not only more accurate at getting to where the majority of Protestants worship, but also forces us to contend with denominational decline in new and important ways. The new Mainline must also include Roman Catholics. Not only does this correct an historic wrong (that the story of American Religion is only a Protestant affair and that Catholics are marginal to it), but it also allows for analysis of the largest church in the nation, and its diverse membership (both modern and historic). Lastly, the new Mainline must include Pentecostals. Perhaps the fastest growing wing of Christianity, both in the United States and globally, not only does their inclusion force scholars to once again (and in new ways) confront issues involving doctrine and theology, but it shakes us out of our Seven Sister comfort zone as well. That decline has occurred is not the issue. Continuing to claim the Seven Sisters as the Mainline is. In many ways, it is simply inaccurate.
One of the benefits of doing this kind of change over time analysis is that we can then have a better understanding of the complex nature of the decline of the Seven Sisters and what that means for the reformulation of the Mainline. Looking at the Mainline in this way helps us understand the dynamics of denominations better, including thinking broadly about cultural engagement, worship style, and use media, and how those things affect churches at both the local, national, and even international levels. And perhaps more importantly, it gets us beyond talking just about “liberal” and “conservative” (whether politics or theology), for while such discussion is important, it is far from the only thing that ultimately matters when it comes to Mainline Christianity.
I believe the term “Mainline” is important, useful, and historically correct. “Mainstream” does neither those grouped in or outside of it justice. In short, I want to salvage or update the term to keep it as a viable way to talk about religion in the United States. My hope is that this study is the start of much more scholarship. Seeing the Mainline in a new way will force scholars, students, and those interested in matters of faith to think in new ways, and to appreciate the majority faith once again in all its complexities.