In April, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat wrote a column arguing — appropriately for a Sunday opinion piece — that liberals need to go to church. More specifically, he argued: “The wider experience of American politics suggests that as liberalism de-churches it struggles to find a nontransactional organizing principle, a persuasive language of the common good.”
For a theologically confessional Lutheran and politically conservative Republican like me, this is an interesting suggestion. How much of the cultural and political change we have observed in the past 20 years can be explained by the quiet death of the “mainlines”?
For readers not familiar with Christian denominational classifications, “mainline” is the term that students of American religious life use to refer to more theologically or politically liberal white-majority churches. Since Sunday morning remains America’s most segregated hour, experts separate “historically black Protestant” churches into their own group, and then divide the white churches into various segments.
Mainline churches today remain diverse but tend to share a cluster of overlapping values: They may endorse same-sex marriage in the church, hold more lenient views on extramarital sex, confess less exclusivist views of eternal salvation, and focus more political efforts toward Christian …