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

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.


Brett said…
I'm not sure I'm getting the argument here. Are you saying that "Mainline" ought to mean "majority"? Including Southern Baptists, Catholics, and Pentecostals would certainly move the category to include the majority, but I don't really see what else that would accomplish. Can you explain a little further about why a re-fashioned Mainline would be a useful move in classification?
Yes, I believe that when we use the term "Mainline" today, we should be talking about denominations (and even non-denominational evangelicals) where the majority of Christians actually worship, not out of hand, the Seven Sisters. But, as I outline in the book to a degree, the Mainline to me isn't JUST about numbers, it also has to do with cultural engagement and influence.

I think that a reclassification is important because I think that words have meaning. To talk of the Mainline should mean we are talking about the majority. To do otherwise, on some level, is to be intellectually dishonest.

Doing that lets us as scholars do at least two things: We can start looking at denominational decline in new ways (which is just as important for the former members of the Mainline as it is for the new membership)....and thus get away from talking about "Mainline decline" (which we have been doing for over four decades long can they decline?). The other thing it allows us to do is to once again start appreciating the complexity of American Christianity. Not just because of the new membership of the Mainline, but also because of the vibrancy and diversity of the faith (including the Seven Sisters). We should start comparing and contrasting, asking about what it means for this new Mainline to be the Mainline, resurrect discussion of how different denominations with different liturgical and doctrinal stances work together, and as historians even look back more closely at how the Seven Sisters solidified their position as the Mainline to begin with. I also hope there is more work done on American Christianity as part of a global faith (and denominations are a great way to do that).

As I said in the post, one of my goals with the book is to hopefully foster more research and discussion. I hope the above response both answered your question (at least in part) as well as gets us all thinking, researching, and writing on what I find to be a very important and interesting topic.
Elesha said…
I'm interested, Jason, in why you favor the term "mainline" over "mainstream" to distinguish the country's religious majority. The term "mainline" emerged in 1960 to describe a particular strain of liberal Protestantism, and it has been used fairly consistently since then to describe that one strain. It's not like "evangelical," which has described quite different groups over the years (and thus often needs to be clarified when scholars use it). If "mainline" ceased to describe the group to which it has historically been applied, what label would we use for those Protestants who, say, support the National Council of Churches and read The Christian Century? "Mainstream" strikes me as a readily available term for the ever-changing majority, one without a specific history, and one that is no more or less apt to disadvantage outsiders than "mainline."
Brett said…
Thanks for the helpful response, Jason. I'm still not totally convinced that the term "Mainline" needs to be repurposed to achieve your historiographical goals, but I get what you're working at. I'll have to check out your book.
DEG said…
This might be one of those dumb, you-should-read-more questions, but could y'all elaborate a bit more on the historical trajectory of the term "mainline"? I've employed the term myself many times in class and conversation, but I'm afraid I haven't actually ever thought about the term itself, its historical context in terms of usage, and any political power it has maintained - or lost - because of that context. It strikes me as a remarkably northern, urban, railroadian, Rust Belt term, which of course makes sense, especially given that "mainstream" sounds terribly southern or western to me - a place to go boating or fishing. Yes, I know I'm regionalizing these terms, but I hope such blunt impressionism has some intellectual use here.
Out less than a week, and already starting discussion...not a bad start for The Mainline!

Let me answer the question as to why I prefer Mainline to Mainstream in the following way:

First, there is an argument to be made for historical accuracy. Mainline as a term predates the rise of liberal Protestantism in the 1960s. While this is something of an aside, let me also say that we need to be wary (and I include myself in this) with using political terminology. While I think it safe to say that the denominational hierarchies of the Seven Sisters by the 1960s as "liberal", I think we would be on less solid ground to use that label on all members or congregations of those churches during that time.

That being said, let's get back to the Mainline. The term has its origins in the 1908 meeting in Philadelphia that created the Federal Council of Churches. Philly was chosen, in part, because of the easy rail access (via the Pennsylvania Railroad). The Pensy's main line of track was (and still is by Philadelphians old enough to remember it) known as the Mainline. The term became associated with the Seven Sisters at this meeting.

As such, if we are looking for a term with historic meaning (and hence is one of the reasons I argue we should craft a new line up as representative of the 21st century American religious life), then Mainline is it. Thanks to the Seven Sisters, we can talk about its origins (indeed, I think we should be doing at least as much of that as we are talking about their decline), and that gives us a strong, consistent, and coherent narrative thread to follow.

But why Mainline instead of Mainstream? In short, because I find Mainline to be a much more neutral term than Mainstream in a variety of ways. For example:

1. If we say the new Mainstream has replaced the old Mainline (both with their separate memberships), we have two terms instead of one (both with "main" as a root if you will) and that prompts confusion.

2. If we pretend Mainline never happened (just start talking about the Seven Sisters as Mainstream) we are engaging in unnecessary revisionism (hence, why not just reworking the line up of the Mainline?).

3. No matter how we use it, Mainstream is a more loaded term (much more so than Mainline). To say that this is mainstream is to imply, in my opinion, that it is "normal" and "good" in some way. That means that something that is not mainstream is if not "bad" than at least is odd (or non-normative if you prefer). If we then apply that to denominations, what are the consequences? If you were a Southern Baptist or Roman Catholic in the 1950s, since you aren't part of the Mainstream, what are you? If we say that those denominations are now Mainstream, what do we say about the decline of the Seven Sisters (indeed, do we start talking about Mainstream decline? Can that even happen? If it can, what are saying about those denominations?)? Furthermore, how are we to show the differences between those outside the Mainstream and a New Religious Movement (or to use other terms that have fallen into disuse to some degree, a sect or a cult)?

So, for the sake of historical accuracy and continuity, as well as to avoid linguistic judgements (both real and imagined), and promote clarity, I vote to keep the Mainline.
Elesha said…
Jason, a couple of follow-up questions:

1) On what basis do you link "mainline," 1908, and the Seven Sisters? Some 30 denominations participated in the founding of the Federal Council in 1908, not just seven. I'm not at all suggesting the three subjects are not linked, only that it takes some conceptual work to bind them together while excluding other denominations (and then, as you note, more work to accommodate the diversity of theology, politics, social status, and so on within the mainline denominations).

2) In what sources did the Protestantism associated with the Federal Council begin to be called "mainline" after 1908? I have not seen the term in The Christian Century from the first half of the twentieth century or in the other primary sources I've consulted, but goodness knows there are plenty of sources I haven't dug up. I'd be very interested to know where to look.

Part 1

After a day of kids' soccer games and finals grading (with more of the latter in store after this comment break), let try and come up with something that it somewhat coherent in response to these latest questions.

First, let me say that I have no "smoking gun" (either on hand or in the pages of the book), no memo circulated around the Seven Sisters saying "hey, wouldn't it be awesome if we had a name like "Mainline" and then a round of affirmative denominational votes. Though I have to say, it would be pretty cool to have such a document!

That being said, why do I call the Mainline "the Mainline" when I do? Mostly I'd say because I approach the phrase not as a title they bestowed (out of hand) on they would have in my awesome memo example, and as they did eventually themselves and by scholars....but because I do so (and because it works) as a term to describe them.

Obviously I get at this to a degree in the book, though right now I'm wishing I did more of it and could be one of those people who said "I cover it conclusively in the book that you'll have to buy to find out the answer"....but lets start in the 1960s if you wish (before going back to 1908): Why does the term emerge them? Why did both those inside the fold and members of the academy start using that term to define the Seven Sisters? Obviously it would be differentiate themselves from others, but WHY "mainline" (why not "mainstream")? I could, I think, make the case that it was to harken back to that 1908 Philadelphia meeting....that is if it doesn't emerge earlier.

I am however, wary, of saying that Mainline just applies to "liberal Protestant denominations." As has been mentioned already, you can't say that about every member or congregation that is/was a part of the Seven Sisters. While I don't want to get to deeply into this, I think we need to study more the denominational/congregational/clergy/laity divides within the Seven Sisters during the mid-20th century. I do get into this in the book in a few different ways, and I think very few would argue that everyone who was or even is conservative politically/theologically has left the Seven Sisters.

That being said, why would liberal Protestants (or even just the Seven Sister's denominationally) define themselves in some way by the FCC's creation in 1908? Again, I think the FCC's very creation begs for more/new studies...when you read even just the compiled speeches/reports they are a treasure trove. But the short answer is because it was a milestone moment in American Religious History (perhaps by the 1960s it was a means of commemoration, or maybe it was an attempt to recapture past/fading glory)...they believed it defined them in some way. In large part, it had to do with the Social Gospel (though even there, the SG has a much more complex legacy than merely liberal or conservative than it is often thought of). But be that as it may, I think this bolsters the idea even more of seeing the Mainline as good historical term to define the majority.
Part II

Which brings us to why if they were harkening back to 1908, what makes it a good term for JUST the Seven Sisters rather than the other 30 plus denominations who were present at the creation. Here I'd assert, with all due respect to those other denominations, that they do not have the membership numbers or cultural influence that the Seven Sisters do/did. It is not that they are unimportant (and perhaps here there needs to be more work done...both on the founding of the FCC, as well as who got invited/why, who was in charge of various committees, as well as in a larger sense, why do some denominations "take off" with members and influence and other do not), but that they simply are not as important as the Seven Sisters were/are. I think a good argument can be made that by the time of the 1908 meeting, there was little doubt about who the most prominent (largely Northern)denominations were/were likely to be....and while there is the element of ecumenical involvement, when looking at who was there in 1908, we also have to keep in mind that some denominations who were there, were soon to be swallowed up by the Seven Sisters in mergers etc.

I'm quite happy to keep the discussion going, though right now blue books are calling to me!
DEG said…
This was quite helpful and informative. Thanks, y'all.