Mainline Protestants' Dead End

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Apr 14, 2009 6:25 PM
Mainline Protestants' Dead End

Is America's long love affair with Christianity coming to an end?

Newsweek and other media decided the most appropriate way to mark the anniversary of Jesus' death was to trumpet the end of the influence in America of the religion he founded. Do they not recall how that story ends?

Yes, there is a kernel of truth in the headlines. Since 1990, according to American Religious Identification Survey 2008, Americans who say they have no religion jumped from 8 percent to 15 percent.

These people are not necessarily atheists or agnostics. A 2006 Baylor University study titled "American Piety in the 21st Century" found that the majority of people who say they have no religion also say they believe in God. A third of "nones" pray sometimes. One out of 10 people with no religion attend church at least once a month, and a similar proportion say they firmly believe Jesus is the son of God.

Nonetheless the growth in "nones" is a significant phenomenon. Northern New England has replaced the Pacific Northwest as the place with the highest proportion of "nones"; 34 percent of Vermonters, when asked about their religion, tell pollsters "none."

The big jump in "nones," however, is mostly old news. Almost all the increase occurred between 1990 and 2001. In that last seven years the number of Americans who say they have no religion barely inched up from 14.2 percent to 15 percent.

Similarly, in the last seven years there has been almost no visible decline in Christian identification: Between 1990 and 2001, the percentage of Christians in America dropped from 86 percent to 77 percent. In the most recent survey it edged down to 76 percent.

The latest news is thus mostly good news for Christians: The data show the sharp drops of the 1990s are ancient history. Far more significant (by far) in recent years than any shift away from Christianity have been the shifts within Christianity.

And here the press reports missed the one really big, obvious headline: Mainline Protestants are dying out.

The study's authors summarize:

"Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans and the United Church of Christ. These groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 17.2 percent in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9 percent."

Overall Christianity has been holding its own in recent years. But since 2001, the liberal mainline Protestants have lost a third of their adherents.

"It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism -- mainline versus evangelical -- is collapsing," said Mark Silk, director of the Public Values Program. "A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United States."

The most amusing thing, if it weren't so sad, is to watch the pundits prophesy that abortion and gay marriage and evangelical boogeymen in general are turning off people from religion. When the reality is that the only Christian denominations declining in recent years are those which have surrendered core Christian teaching on sex, marriage and the dignity of every human life.

What we have all learned over the last two decades is this: A religion that caves in to pressure from sexual liberalism is a dead end. Surrender Christian teachings to appease the secular princes and Christianity dies. If faith leaders had any doubts about that strategy, we now know where it leads.

It's clear that one man, the new archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, understands this truth. On the eve of his assuming what The Associated Press video reporter called the role of "top Catholic in America," Dolan said his main job will be to inspire Catholics to stand for certain timeless truths: including the truth about abortion and marriage.

"Periodically, we Catholics have to stand up and say, 'Enough,'" he said. "The church as a whole still calls out to what is noble in us."

"Speak truth to power" is the call for our times.