The Future of Mainline Protestantism in America

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Jame Hudnut-Beumler, Mark Silk
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , January
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Future of Mainline Protestantism in America, the newest addition to Mark Silk and James Hudnut-Beumler’s series on the future of religion in America, is a welcome contribution to American religious scholarship. In the four decades since Dean M. Kelley’s seminal work, Why Conservative Churches are Growing (Mercer University Press, 1996), few studies of mainline Protestant Christianity have deviated from the now-traditional narrative of declension. Silk and Hudnut-Beumler’s collection, on the other hand, offers something new. While the study acknowledges the mainline’s precipitous decline in both numbers and prominence, it departs from previous works by asserting that the future of the American mainline, though marked by diminished influence, is one of promise. In his introduction, Hudnut-Beumler posits the thesis of “Quakerization,” arguing that the mainline has transitioned from a supervisory, establishmentarian position in society to a more peripheral role, albeit one with the potential for meaningful involvement in American religion, culture, and politics. Through a variety of disciplinary approaches, the authors in this volume analyze the mainline’s shift to the American religious periphery and imagine what a future on the periphery might entail. 

Graham Reside’s essay on the current state of mainline Protestantism is particularly helpful in unpacking a pervasive notion of decline. His analysis of changing mainline demographics during the last half century pushes back against those arguments that frame numerical decline as the result of some internal, theological failure among liberal Protestants to keep members from deserting to more conservative churches. Drawing largely from statistical data, Reside demonstrates that this decline is instead due to sociological factors such as low mainline birth rates, the rising number of non-Protestant immigrants, and a growing trend among Americans to regard religion as chosen rather than inherited. Furthermore, data shows that Americans no longer feel the need to switch from conservative to mainline denominations in order to achieve upward social mobility. The evidence Reside examines shows a rapidly aging mainline membership largely composed of white, affluent, suburban individuals who are struggling—and will likely continue to struggle—to attract and retain younger members. 

Hudnut-Beumler also addresses this “graying of the mainline.” He argues that, given the historical tendency of mainline adherents to feel at home in the broader culture, many do not share the fear that their children may become unmoored from their faith and thus place little emphasis on keeping them within the fold. In the same way, Maria Erling uses a series of case studies to show that dwindling membership and resources have resulted in the failure of mainline educational institutions to act as pipelines for drawing undergraduates and seminarians in from the pews. She argues that the future of the mainline’s educational institutions will depend upon their ability to adapt to the needs of a diverse student body while still maintaining self-consciously denominational identities. 

Despite the different contexts of their contributions, however, the authors agree that as widespread denominational identity wanes in importance for many American Protestants, the local church will emerge as a center of religious gravity. In his historical and contemporary assessment of much-publicized mainline controversies, Daniel Sack concludes that this shift toward localism may help mainline churches eschew the doctrinal conflict that has dominated in recent years. In light of the schisms that have followed, he opines that the mainline’s diminished membership may actually work in its favor, resulting in a more coherent and unified membership. He and Hudnut-Beumler, however, also acknowledge the possibility that the sizeable evangelical wings still present in mainline denominations may result in the ultimate “evangelicalization” of the mainline.

A consideration for the relationship between mainline Protestantism and other, “competing,” denominations animates many of the contributions to this volume. For instance, in his survey of mainline beliefs and practices, David Bains notes a blurring between evangelical and mainline worship styles, pointing out that much of what once made liberal Protestantism distinct can be found outside the formal bounds of the mainline. Likewise, Hudnut-Beumler argues that, given liberal Protestantism’s historical theological bent, the mainline has seen more of its adherents desert to join the ranks of religious nones than have more conservative segments of American Christianity.  In many ways, the volume as a whole functions to disprove the idea that the mainline’s numerical decline is the result of theological shortcomings, and instead offers competing hypotheses that are sure to spark spirited debate.

With their diverse methodological and disciplinary perspectives, these scholars arrive at different (although not necessarily conflicting) conclusions. Rather than sketching any single—most probable—future,  this volume exists more as compilation of potential futures for mainline Christianity in the United States. Thus, while the disparity in conclusions may sometimes undermine the coherence of the volume, it demonstrates the extent to which this material has been treated realistically and responsibly. 

And while the collection’s authors—several of whom can be considered insiders within the mainline—do not attempt to predict the future, they do call for this segment of American Protestantism to adopt a newfound role: to adapt to the needs of local congregations and successfully build bridges to the public sphere.  Certainly, the contributors are not so sanguine as to believe the mainline can ever return to its midcentury hegemony. Despite their realism, however, they agree that its remaining cultural capital offers adherents a chance to recover a distinctly mainline witness in society, provided that they accept the call to be, in the words of Hudnut-Beumler, “faithful, rather than in charge” (179).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Skylar Ray is a doctoral student in History at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James Hudnut-Beumler is the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University. His books include Looking for God in the Suburbs: The Religion of the American Dream and Its Critics, 1945–1965 (1994); Generous Saints: Congregations Rethinking Ethics and Money(1999); and In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism (2007).

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life and Director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College. He is the author of Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II (1988) and Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America (1995), and he is coeditor of Religion by Region, an eight-volume series on religion and public life in the United States.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.