Looking for the Mainline with Roof and McKinney

by David Heim

Mr. Heim is a Century assistant editor.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 1988, p. 544. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The authors, Roof and McKinney, are interested not in issuing a jeremiad or an apology about the state of American religion, but in ascertaining just how the landscape of American religion is being altered.

Book Review: American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future, by Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney (Rutgers University Press, 279 pp.’ $27.00; paperback, $10.00)

The recognition that the term "mainline churches" is something of an anachronism now extends to the funny pages. In the past two decades, while conservative churches have experienced steady growth, mainline denominations have watched their numbers level off and decline. United Methodists have lost 2 million members in the past 20 years, and Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, Lutherans and the United Church of Christ have also incurred significant losses. There are as many members of the Assemblies of God as there are Presbyterians. So where is the mainline?

Commentators on these developments are invariably influenced by where their own train sits in relation to the old mainline. Conservative Protestants are inclined to see the mainline’s decline as the inevitable accompaniment of a palsied faith: having diluted their theology and embraced a worldly agenda, mainline churches no longer offer a vibrant alternative to secular life. Mainliners, for their part, can offer this satisfying explanation: while conservative churches have offered people a simplistic faith. shrewdly aligned with the American ethos of individual success and self-fulfillment, mainline churches have courageously taken unpopular stands, confronting head-on the diversity of American life, the depth of our social problems and the intellectual challenges to belief.

Scenarios of this sort have some plausibility, but mostly to those who construct them. History rarely provides morally unambiguous tales about the rise and fall of any institution, including religious ones. One of the strengths of American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future, by Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney (Rutgers University Press, 279 pp.’ $27.00; paperback, $10.00) is that it shuns such tendentious arguments. Roof, professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, and McKinney, professor of religion and society at Hartford Seminary, are interested not in issuing a jeremiad or an apology about the state of American religion, but in ascertaining just how the landscape of American religion is being altered.

To map that landscape, Roof and McKinney divide Americans into eight religious families: liberal Protestants (Presbyterians, Episcopalians and the United Church of Christ) , roughly 9 per cent of the population; moderate Protestants (United Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples, American Baptists, Reformed) , 24 per cent; conservative Protestants (including Southern Baptists, Churches of Christ, Nazarenes, Pentecostal and holiness groups, and evangelicals and fundamentalists) , 16 per cent; black Protestants, 16 per cent; Catholics. 25 per cent; Jews, 2 per cent; those of other faiths (such as Mormons, Christian Scientists, Unitarians) , 8 per cent; and those of "no religious preference," 7 per cent. Though all these groups are treated to some extent by Roof and McKinney, their special concern is with the state of mainline Protestantism.

As the authors present it, the demography of religious change can be rather simply parsed. Churches gain and lose members in two ways: by the natural process of births and deaths, and by luring people from -- or losing them to -- other churches or the ranks of the unchurched.

Age cohorts and fertility rates may not be terribly edifying topics, but as Roof and McKinney show, they are crucial for understanding the plight of the mainline, Liberal and moderate Protestants suffer from an aging population. The mean age of UCC members, for example, is over 50; 41 per cent of Methodists and 42 per cent of Disciples are 55 or over. Though 40 per cent of Americans are in the 18-to-34 category, only 21 per cent of UCC members, and 28 per cent of Methodists, fall into this group. Young adults are far better represented in conservative denominations. The graying of the churches in relation to conservative Protestants means two things, both of them unconducive to growth: more members are dying off and. with fewer members in the childbearing years, fewer new members are being born. The problem is compounded by the fact that conservatives have larger families (conservative women average 2.54 children, moderates 2.27 and liberals 1.97) With fewer people having fewer children, the mainline’s growth potential is weak and can only get weaker.

If this sort of demography is destiny, as Roof and McKinney contend, mainliners must regard it with a certain amount of philosophic detachment. After all, the graying of America is a general phenomenon largely tied to nonreligious factors. Traditionally, as groups in America have risen in social status, become better educated and more urbanized (and in recent years as more women have entered the work force) , their birthrates have gone down. Catholics’ birthrates, for example, have plummeted in the past two decades until they are indistinguishable from those of Protestants -- in this case despite a religious prohibition against contraception. One can at least speculate that similar patterns will affect conservative Protestants in the decades ahead.

The weakness of the liberal position shows up in data on people leaving the church altogether. Liberals pick up 2 per cent of their members from the unchurched but lose 8 per cent to that group, for a net loss of 6 per cent. All religious families lose in their transactions with the secular world ("no religious preference" is by far the biggest winner in the switching game) but liberals lose the most. In light of this fact, and of liberals’ strength in interfamily switching, Roof and McKinney conclude that liberal Protestantism’s real competition is "not the conservatives it has spurned but the secularists it has spawned.’’ Liberal churches have trouble stopping the secular drift of their own members. particularly those younger members who would otherwise be supplying the liberal Protestants of the future.

Adding to liberal woes is what Roof and McKinney discern as the poor "quality" of the members they do attract. Those switching into liberal churches tend to be older people, which adds to the original demographic problem. More significantly, these people tend to be less active churchgoers than the ones switching out. So even in the category where liberals gain members, they end up losing: the members they lose are "better" than the ones they attract. The far-from-impressive picture of liberal churches that emerges from these data is that they are inhabited by aging, not very committed members, many of whom are headed out the church door.

It would seem that Doonesbury exhibited uncanny brilliance in picking as the exemplar of the mainline an aging radical like Scot Sloan (originally modeled on William Sloane Coffin in his days as Yale chaplain) At least as Roof and McKinney see it, the very openness of the mainline churches to the ferment of the ‘60s -- the fact that the ‘60s experience took place inside these churches -- has been an institutional liability. For "the commitment to personal freedom and choice, individual autonomy, and personal quest as well as tolerance of diversity and openness" that characterized the ‘60s cultural revolution tended "to erode loyalty to the religious establishment."

One should pause here to note the irony in Roof and McKinney’s regarding "individualism" and the "pursuit of self-fulfillment" as characteristically liberal temptations, when liberal churches themselves tend to inveigh against individualism and speak glowingly about "community." The authors judge, correctly I reckon, that however individualistic conservatives’ political and theological ideology may be, their churches are apt to function more like authentic communities -- close-knit groups, commitment to which is viewed by their members not as optional but as integral to individual identity. The liberal fondness for talking about community would seem to reflect some effort to compensate rhetorically for the absence of the real thing.

That the ‘60s were a watershed in cultural and religious history is widely assumed. The argument gains a good deal of persuasiveness from the sharp contrast in religiosity between that period and the ‘50s, when liberal and moderate Protestants were not only happily a part of the American way of life but enjoyed a growth curve comparable to that of conservative Protestants. The argument is less persuasive, however, when one expands the historical perspective to note that for liberals, especially, the growth of the ‘50s was more the exception than the norm. From the ‘20s to the ‘50s the churches that Roof and McKinney designate as liberal did not grow at all, and their proportion of the total population was falling. So it is not clear, even with the negative numbers of recent years, that liberals’ current situation is without precedent. The Protestant establishment was also widely seen to be wasting away in the ‘20s, for example -- a period when H. L. Mencken was moved to observe, "Every day another Methodist or Presbyterian church is turned into a garage.

Roof and McKinney are surely right, however, that the critique of authority that pervaded the ‘60s served, often inadvertently, to exacerbate secularizing tendencies inherent in modern culture, particularly the inclination to regard religion as a private affair. Moreover, the period precipitated the deep polarization of the middle classes on social and moral issues that has defined subsequent religious and political debate. For all the theological divisions that separated Protestants from each other in the ‘50s (and separated Protestants, Catholics and Jews) , a fairly firm consensus existed about the substance of personal morality and the soundness of American social and political life. It was that consensus that unraveled in the debates over Vietnam, civil rights, abortion, sexual morality, women’s issues, and the limits of tolerance.

The predictability with which various churches divide across the left-right spectrum on these issues provides Roof and McKinney with one of their chief tools for designating Protestants as liberal, moderate or conservative. For example, 62 per cent of liberal Protestants believe that a married woman who wants no more children should have the right to an abortion, whereas only 46 per cent of the moderates, and 28 per cent of conservatives, agree. On women’s issues in general, liberal Protestants fall well to the left, conservatives well to the right, of the national average. This is not surprising in itself, of course; what Roof and McKinney regard as significant is the fact that religious communities are increasingly distinguished not by theological beliefs but by "contrasting ethical styles and moral views." Underscoring this point, they note that religious switchers adhere even more closely to the dominant moral ethos of their new groups than do people raised in those groups. Much of the religious switching going on, it appears, is prompted by the desire to find the moral ethos into which one fits, to take sides in the Kulturkampf of our time.

The cultural pressure to move left or right is especially hard on those in the "embattled middle," namely moderate Protestants. Moderate Protestants (along with Catholics) tend to ‘lean in a conservative direction on personal life-style issues and in a more liberal direction on matters of social justice." One would think that this stance would make these groups prime candidates for the role of the new mainline. But Roof and McKinney see this middle ground less as a position of strength than of vulnerability: those in the middle are most subject to the forces of polarization. Indeed, moderates, the only white Protestant group to lose more members to other religious families than they gain, appear to be drained from both sides, supplying recruits to both the left and the right. Sensing that the future of American Protestantism is much bound up with how moderates negotiate the current cultural crisis, the authors are solicitous about their future; perhaps, Roof and McKinney speculate, these churches will be able to forge anew the "broadly based synthesis of belief and culture that has been missing in American life since the 1950s." But the authors do not see any signs that this is happening.

Their approach also prevents them from examining different constituencies within the various religious families and denominations that might suggest different ways of mapping the world of religion. Some conservative Protestant groups, for example, especially in leadership circles, contain their own versions of the left-right cultural battle. The triumph of conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention should not obscure the fact that a sizable number of Southern Baptists share classic liberal concerns for women’s rights, racial and social justice and international peace, not to mention the viability of historical-critical method. A number of moderate evangelical groups are also engaged with these issues, sometimes with a passion outstripping that of liberals, for whom these are long-settled topics. As historian William Hutchison has suggested, liberalism may be flourishing in ways that don’t show up in statistics, and in institutions that are not officially regarded as liberal.

Evidence of another sort comes from James Davison Hunter’s recent Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (University of Chicago Press, 1987) , in which he examines student opinions at evangelical colleges and concludes that they have moved significantly to the left on moral and theological issues. Though Hunter’s argument has been challenged, it seems likely that something of what he describes is happening: having become part of mainstream culture and more confidently entered into cultural debates, evangelicalism itself is changing. The center of American Protestantism may have moved toward more conservative denominations, but important parts of those denominations may be less conservative now than they were 20 years ago.

All this is simply to say that one can probe beyond Roof and McKinney’s data to formulate other versions of the current and future state of American Protestantism. Their work remains, however, a very useful clarification of the broad forces shaping the old mainline churches. It accords well, I suspect, with many mainliners’ experience. For many moderates, and liberals, too, denominational and congregational life revolve around internal versions of the left-right conflict. Holding both sides of that struggle together in one church, and subordinating it to the larger claims of the Christian confession, can be exhausting; the temptation, for ministers and members, is to seek a place where the debate has been settled.

Roof and McKinney’s emphasis on liberals’ secular drift aptly calls attention to the perennial liberal problem in propagating the faith and inculcating piety. The crossroads of tradition and modernity can be lively, but it is difficult to build an institution or to raise a family there: too many people are coming and going. I recall attending an adult Sunday school class at one liberal church where the diffusion of Christian identity and the dynamics of secular drift were almost palpable. The class discussed "faith" for some time without ever identifying the object or basis of this faith. When this deficiency was pointed out, some people grew uneasy (had a fundamentalist snuck in?), while others nodded interestedly. But further definition was not offered. Given these people’s wariness in talking about faith, it was hard to see how they could pass that faith -- whatever it was -- on to their children. And hard to see what incentive they had for even meeting together.

Roof and McKinney’s final chapter tentatively recommends, in the neutral language of social science, that liberals counter this secular drift by sharpening their religious identity. "A crucial challenge for liberal Protestantism is to recapture some sense of particularity as a community of memory and not merely as a custodian of generalized cultural values. . . . The liberal churches need their own particular language of faith to communicate with the cultured despisers of the modern world, in a manner that lays claim upon the self and the community."

Calls for liberal Christians to focus more aggressively on what makes them different, not just from conservative Christians but from secularists, have been sounded for some time. The authors adduce remarks on the topic from Yale theologian George Lindbeck’s 1984 book The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Westminster) A forceful sociological case for the benefits of particularity was made as long ago as 1972 in Dean M. Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Harper & Row) Kelley, observing that churches are in the business of providing meaning, argued that successful churches will be ones that provide the most clearly defined and self-reinforcing packages of meaning. Liberal traits of openness and tolerance, he suggested, are liabilities when it comes to institution-building.

It might be objected here that one cannot leap from sociological reality to ecclesial mission: the church is not called simply to follow sociologists’ recipes for institutional growth. Churches that aren’t growing may still be faithful witnesses to the gospel, maybe even more faithful than others. Nevertheless, it would be strange for members of any institution to be indifferent to the news that it is not attracting or holding committed members. Unless one thinks that one’s church is too good for this world, or that its passing would be no reason to mourn, a bit of soul-searching seems in order.

The challenge in the liberal search for particularity will be to engage in some rigorous theological reflection, not defensive posturing, number-gazing or sociological tinkering. Insofar as a church’s identity is consciously fashioned in response to a sociological imperative, it is not likely to be enduring or persuasive anyway. And it would be a further miscalculation for churches to try to borrow a sense of particularity from the fervor of a particular social or political cause. Works like American Mainline Religion can apprise us of liberalism’s social strengths and weaknesses, and of its demographic constraints. But any genuine recovery of a "particular language of faith" will entail developing and appropriating a theological tradition and embodying that tradition in faithful living -- a project that necessarily requires motivations and insights deriving from a quite different kind of authority than the sociologists possess.