Friday, July 18, 2008

The Death of Protestant America

A very interesting article from the current issue of First Things: "The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline", by Joseph Bottum, exploring the reasons for the decline of the Protestant mainline denominations and the unfortunate effects of that decline. A few short excerpts that do not do the article justice [read it all]:
...[T]he pollsters Benton Johnson, Dean R. Hoge, and Donald A. Luidens published in First Things their important 1993 analysis, “Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline.” “In our study,” they wrote, “the single best predictor of church participation turned out to be belief—orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ. . . .”

....Over the past thirty years, Mainline Protestantism has crumbled at the base, as its ordinary congregants slip away to evangelicalism, on one side, or disbelief, on the other. But it has weakened at the head, too, as its most serious theologians increasingly seek community—that longed-for intellectual culture of people who speak the same vocabulary, understand the same concepts, and study the same texts—in other, stricter denominations. ....

.... Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran—the name hardly matters anymore. It’s true that if you dig through the conservative manifestos and broadsides of the past thirty years, you find one distressed cry after another, each bemoaning the particular path by which this or that denomination lost its intellectual and doctrinal distinctiveness.

After you’ve read a few of these outraged complaints, however, the targets begin to blur together. The names may vary, but the topics remain the same: the uniformity of social class at the church head­quarters, the routine genuflections toward the latest political causes, the feminizing of the clergy, the unimportance of the ecclesial points that once defined the denomination, the substitution of leftist social action for Christian evangelizing, and the disappearance of biblical theology. All the Mainline churches have become essentially the same church: their histories, their theologies, and even much of their practice lost to a uniform vision of social progress. Only the names of the corporations that own their properties seem to differ. ....

America was Methodist, once upon a time—or Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Congregationalist, or Episcopalian. Protestant, in other words. What can we call it today? Those churches simply don’t mean much any more. That’s a fact of some theological significance. It’s a fact of genuine sorrow, for that matter, as the aging members of the old denominations watch their congregations dwindle away: funeral after funeral, with far too few weddings and baptisms in between. .... [more]
The picture is of the Riverside Church

FIRST THINGS: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life

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