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November 17, 2009

The rise of McChurch, but not Old Time Theology

Filed under: Culture,data,Protestantism — David Hume @ 10:02 pm

Mr. Bradlaugh’s post on the death of intellectual Protestantism, the highbrow aspect of what we normally term “Mainline Protestantism,” prompts to revisit some data which I’ve reported before, but want to reiterate.

First, the old Protestant denominations which have dominated our culture and set the terms of the debate in terms of what it means to be religious in America are now a small and dwindling minority faction. Pew confirms what has long been known, there are now more Evangelical Protestant Christians in the United States than Mainline Protestants. Here’s the breakdown:

This is confirmed by the fact that the proportion of Protestants who have been “Born Again” is increasing. This is a broader term than “Evangelical” (which is broader than “Fundamentalist”), but the trendline is telling. Using the “REBORN” variable in the GSS, limiting it to whites, here is the trend for both Protestants and Catholics (Catholics as the “control”):



So we see that:

1) the Mainline Protestant denominations are in decline, Evangelical ones are on the rise, at least relatively within Protestantism (Pew and the American Religious Identification actually show that many conservative Protestant groups like Baptists have been stagnating, but they haven’t been shrinking like Mainline Protestants, so their share is increasing in their religious category).

2) The terms which Evangelicals tend to use, such as “Born Again,” are gaining currency and acceptance.

But there’s more than meets the eye here. Below are the proportion of Protestants by decade who have different attitudes toward the Bible, from the most literalist to the least. Catholics again as a check against the Protestant data.



As you can see, Protestants are not becoming more Fundamentalist in their beliefs. This surprised me, and shows up in other data. So there are several concurrent trends:

1) The collapse of liberal Protestant groups

2) The rise of the Evangelical denominations

3) The persistence of liberalism among Protestants as a whole

What’s going on here? History teaches us much. Almost every major American “Mainline” denomination arose itself as reformed, and evangelical, movement within an institutional European Christian church. This is why Lutherans have the term Evangelical in their name. The Presbyterians and Congregationalist were in the Calvinist more Reformist wing of the Scottish and English Reformations (in Scotland they took over the national church, while in England they failed). Methodism arose to a large extent as a reform movement among American Protestants, with many of its early leaders coming from Anglicanism. Over time these insurgent churches became established institutions, and lost their evangelical fervor.

American religion has gone through cycles. The late 18th century was one of greater rationalism, as Deism and Unitarianism were dominant elite moods, and emerged out of the rationalist wing of the Protestant tradition. In the early 19th century the Second Great Awakening reignited conventional low church evangelical feeling. In the early to mid 20th century American Protestantism split into a modernist liberal wing, which became the dominant Mainline Protestantism, and a Fundamentalist wing which was marginalized but eventually gave rise to modern Evangelicalism. The cycles are always with us.


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