The mighty have fallen: Is it time to redefine the mainline?
October 12, 2009

Mainline, oldline or sideline. Mainstream, standard brand or traditional. Progressive, liberal or moderate.

The continuing decline of denominations that once set the agenda for American civil religion is forcing new ways of thinking about how to define the group of churches long described as “the mainline.“

More than four decades of membership losses, along with dramatic increases in both numbers and economic and social influence among other Christian groups, leave historic denominations such as the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and The United Methodist Church with little claim on a title conferring a principal or prominent status in the nation's religious life.

The percentage of mainline Christians declined nearly a third since 1990, from 18.7 percent to 12.9 percent of the population, according to The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey of more than 54,000 respondents. The percentage is barely more than half of the Catholic population alone.

A recent report on the findings of the 2006-07 National Congregations Study directed by Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves raised the question “of the usefulness of the term ‘mainline.’”

"Can denominations commonly thought of as the mainline – Methodists, some Presbyterians, Episcopalians, some Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Reformed Church in America, American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and some other , smaller, groups – still claim that label?” asks the report entitled “American Congregations at the Beginning of the 21st Century.”

“Evangelical denominations have long been the mainline in some parts of the country; for example, the Southern Baptist Convention in the South and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the upper Midwest. If we use numbers rather than perceived social influence to define ‘mainline,’ American mainline religion is Catholic, Baptist, and non-denominational. … Whatever terms are used, it is worth noting that, numerically, the traditional Protestant mainline is not the default religion in America. It is not even the default Protestant religion in America, and has not been for about two decades."

Old terms die hard, however, and any new label has its own set of issues. Change will not come easy, if at all, say a group of prominent scholars surveyed for their insights.

“I don’t think you/we/anybody can see a really new name, were one available and attractive,” said historian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago.

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Mainline blues

The term mainline, derived from an upscale region along the “main line” of the Pennsylvania Railroad associated with members of high-status Protestant denominations, has never been universally embraced.

“I think mainline was and is used mainly by enemies of the mainline,” Marty said. “Compare it to the more invidious acronym WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). No WASP ever called herself that; enemies did.”

Political scientist Laura Olson of Clemson University also makes the point that “to be honest, not too many mainline Protestants think of themselves as such. They know that they are United Methodists or Episcopalians, and most know whether they fall on the liberal or conservative side of internal debates about theology or social policy, but not too many think of themselves as ‘mainline.’”

If it ever was an accurate term, however, the implication that these denominations are now the mainline in terms of numbers and influence no longer holds. Nor is it seen as correct to imply that other large Christian groups are not part of the mainline.

“The term ‘mainline’ is easily conflated with ‘mainstream,‘” Olson acknowledges, “and it is neither accurate nor fair to imply that denominations typically classified as mainstream are somehow mainstream while evangelical denominations (and non-denominational congregations) are, by extension, outside the mainstream.”

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Common traits

Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America do hold many traits in common – an ecumenical outlook, a greater openness to gay and lesbian clergy and an inclination to be on the liberal side of political issues, researchers note.

Reflecting these traits, some researchers use other terms in surveys.

The General Social Survey does not use “mainline” in its theological classification of denominations. “We use fundamentalist/evangelical, moderate, and liberal,” says Director Tom Smith. In survey questions, participants will sometimes be asked to choose among the terms evangelical, mainline and liberal Protestant. In those cases, Smith said, “mainline” has been selected by only a small number of respondents and among non-evangelicals is about as popular as “liberal.” A plurality of Protestants do not mention any term, he said. Chaves, who helped raise the issue in his report, finds it difficult to offer an alternative.

“The basic answer to your question,” he said, “is that I don't have any brilliant ideas about a replacement term for ‘mainline.’ If you held my feet to the fire, I'd probably say that I think ‘liberal’ v. ‘conservative’ Protestant is a better way to capture the key differences, but of course there are issues with those labels as well.”

Battling inertia

Logic and reason may not be enough to get rid of the term “mainline Protestantism,” scholars said.

The reference is ingrained in the culture, and “changing the term might just might add another level of confusion to an already confusing and complicated topic (American Protestantism),” Olson said. “Besides, I'm not sure how scholars and journalists and other elites could make a new nomenclature the norm.”

Sociologist N.J. Demerath III of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, offered one solution: Keep the name with an important qualifier.

Despite their declining numbers, he says, “the old liberal Protestant establishment” is not on the “sideline” politically.

“The old guard continues to exert disproportionate political influence through their collective cultural leadership and their members aggregate representation in national and especially local corridors of power,” he said.

So what do you call them? How about the "mainline minority,” Demerath suggested.

“This reflects the paradox of their continuing influence despite their dwindling size,” he says. “Like their namesake M&Ms, they refuse to simply melt away. “


-- David Briggs


David Briggs, a former national writer for The Associated Press who holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, is consistently honored among the Top 10 secular religion writers and reporters in North America.