Can Mainline Protestantism Be Rebuilt?

Can Mainline Protestantism Be Rebuilt?

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The negative world is almost defined by institutional incompatibility or hostility to historical Protestantism. This necessitates a countercultural approach and bars the door to a mainline relationship of the church to culture. 

Jake Meador wrote a recent interesting piece on a topic of great interest to me, namely about a call to attempt to create a new Protestant mainline. He says:

So to bring the discussion to reformed catholicity and what reformed catholic churches can do in our current context, here it is: The old Mainline is dead. American Catholicism is likely terminal as well, even prior to the plausible turmoil to come under Pope Francis’s successor. American Evangelicalism is now encountering its own dechurching crisis and loss of influence. The Christian movement in America is thus at a crossroads. Something new will need to be built. But I do not think we should build a new evangelicalism; I think we should build a new mainline.

That mainline should be centered around the EPC, PCA, and ACNA with room for the possible addition of Lutheran, Methodist, or Baptist denominations, should denominations interested in this project emerge from those streams. The old mainline encompassed Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Baptists. We currently have Presbyterian and Anglican communions that might plausibly grow into the “continuing church” vision once articulated at the PCA’s founding. It remains to be seen if the Global Methodists can join this movement, let alone if the LCMS can stave off its own demographic collapse or if a strengthened Baptist commujnion can emerge from the chaos and corruption currently vexing the SBC. These are the institutional pieces to watch, then: the PCA, EPC, ACNA, Global Methodists, LCMS, maybe WELS, and SBC.

I agree that America lost a lot with the decline of the mainline denominations. Attempts to at least salvage or reclaim some of that is of great interest to me, and also others as well. I think you can see Tim Keller’s plan for the renewal of the American church through this lens, and I might be collaborating on an article about that in the future.

Lind’s Four American Republics

Before digging in, however, I thought it was interesting to see Meador lay out a “four Americas” framework from Michael Lind that was very similar to my own version. I did not draw from Lind, though had heard he had something like this. But I think this sort of division of American history is one very obvious way to do it, so I’m sure it has recurred many times.

Where I differ from the framework Meador gives is that I see the “fourth republic” or “America 4.0” as less emerged than he does (or at least that’s my impression). I see us as in a liminal period where we can’t yet see the contours of what the future system will look like, just as those in the Depression didn’t know what postwar America would be like. The old is passing away but the new has not yet been born. Hence we should be cautious about over fitting solutions to the present movement.

Through Catholic Eyes

Meador is also influenced by Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age, which I actually read after I saw him make a previous reference to it. It’s an interesting book in which Bottum makes the common argument that contemporary elite morality and culture is a form of secularized mainline Protestantism (a view with some degree of truth). In his telling, Catholics (with evangelicals in a supporting role as public mouthpiece for Catholic natural law arguments) were the would be replacement for the mainline role in society, but that project failed because America ended up being too Protestant to submit to a Catholicism that was weakened at the time by internal issues.

You won’t be surprised to hear that Bottum himself is a staunch Catholic. That is, like 90% of the people I read who center America’s problems in mainline Protestantism, he himself is not a Protestant. Invariably in these readings, any role Ellis Islanders (like my family) might have played in contemporary America’s failings is minimized or avoided altogether. Just once I’d like to see a Catholic writer say something like, “The WASPs handed over the keys, but we ran the car into a ditch.”

This is one reason I have been arguing that Protestants must stop outsourcing their thinking to Catholic intellectuals. Invariably this leads to us repeating essentially Catholic serving talking points, as Bottum himself basically says in his book (e.g., of George W. Bush).

Meador’s Mainline Restoration Project

With those preliminaries, what does Meador’s mainline restoration project look like?

Institutionally, he sees it centered in the conservative “shadow denominations” of the mainline, mostly splinter groups (EPC, PCA) but some which are not (LCMS). He goes on to say:

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