Thursday, June 23, 2022
The Protestant mainline had its heyday, both in cultural influence and in active membership, in the 1950s and ’60s. During that time, Burton writes, the denominations were united by an ecumenical commitment to morality, community, and the brotherhood of man. Apple pie and Jesus Christ. They were the old WASP establishment at prayer.
It’s easy to criticize the kind of civil religion that enabled President Eisenhower to say that our form of government depends on “a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Flannery O’Connor said that if she weren’t a Catholic, she’d be a hootin’ hollerin’ Pentecostal. Anything to escape from banal post-war respectability.
But look at what’s replaced it. The old mainline sustained a shared cultural commitment to a common set of values. Before 1960, interfaith marriages were rare, but inter-political marriages were common. Today, it’s the other way around. The new mainline, terrified of being on the wrong side of the next Civil Rights Movement, panders to activists and ideologues. It’s the new woke establishment at prayer.
Members of this new establishment aren’t nearly as likely to pay lip service to organized religion as their WASP predecessors, but because the new mainline poses no ideological threat, it gets to keep some of its prestige. ELCA pastors still get glowing write-ups in NPR and the New Yorker, just as Reinhold Niebuhr graced the cover of Time back in 1948. The difference is that the mainline no longer speaks for a broad swath of the country. The best they can hope for, as their attendance numbers plummet, is occasional expressions of vague approval from people who have never lifted the cover of a Bible or darkened the door of a church.