Maybe what sociologists call mainline decline is God pulling us away from external things so we can rediscover our union with God in love.
Readers familiar with Ross Douthat's column might expect his new book to be moderately conservative and carefully nuanced. It is neither.
In a recent interview with the Century, historian David Hollinger talks about his preference for the phrase “ecumenical Protestants” to describe non-evangelical mid-20th-century American Protestants, instead of the more frequently used terms “liberal” and “mainline.” “Ecumenical” refers to a specific, vital and largely defining impulse within the groups I am describing. It also provides a more specific and appropriate contrast to evangelical. The term evangelical comes into currency in the mid-century to refer to a combination of fundamentalists and Holiness, Pentecostals and others; ecumenical refers to the consolidation of the ecumenical point of view in the big conferences of 1942 and 1945. I appreciated this shift in vocabulary because I have long disliked both the terms “liberal” and “mainline” to refer to whatever-kind-of-Protestant it is that I am.
Ross Douthat's gotten a lot of pushback for using his soapbox to complain that liberal Christianity lacks "a religious reason for its own existence." And with good reason—it'd be nice if the national paper of record's faithiest columnist could at least spin a fresher argument against us mainliners. My favorite response so far comes from the always entertaining Sarah Morice-Brubaker.
Jill Gill has produced a remarkable account of the declining influence of mainline Protestantism and the NCC in the 1960s and 70s.
Diana Butler Bass's new book is warm and winsome. But it lacks the particularizing power of her earlier work's grounding in stories about specific communities and people.
"Ecumenical leaders of the 1960s took a series of risks," says historian David Hollinger, "asking their constituency to follow them in directions that many resisted."
Anytime you say something is new while also ignoring something old, it begs the question of what labels you use and how slippery their definitions are.
"Are we witnessing the death of America's denominations?" asks Russell D. Moore, pointing out that people tend to choose a church based mostly on the nursery or the music. This is not new information.