Don't neglect Mainline Protestants when analyzing, e.g., sexual abuse or Baptist turmoil

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Two blockbusters dominated the American religion beat last week.

The Catholic bishops defied a nudge from Pope Francis’s Vatican and decided overwhelmingly to write a Communion policy that might target President Joe Biden and other pols for liberal abortion stances. And conservative establishment voters in a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) presidential showdown narrowly defeated (for now) hard-right populists.

Standard news judgment automatically puts the spotlight on hot disputes in the nation’s two largest religious sectors — white evangelicalism and Catholicism. Meanwhile, week by week, year by year, the media consistently downplay the third-ranking religious category, “Mainline” Protestantism, which not so long ago exercised such vast cultural influence. (They also neglect fourth-ranking Black Protestantism.)  

Two thoughtful new articles show intriguing ways to overcome sins of omission.

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Mark Tooley of the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy asks, at the Juicy Ecumenism weblog, why Mainline churches apparently suffer fewer sexual abuse scandals than their evangelical rivals.  And University of West Georgia historian Daniel K. Williams compares the turbulent Southern Baptists with their smaller and rarely covered Mainline rival, American Baptist Churches (ABC). [Disclosure: The Guy was happily raised in the ABC and remained a nominal member till age 30.]

“Mainline” refers to church bodies dating from Colonial and post-Revolutionary times that have been predominantly white, involved in ecumenical groups like the National Council of Churches and are either liberal on theology and politics or give liberals ample running room. The largest such denominations — often called the “Seven Sisters” — are the ABC, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church.

Tooley is a Methodist evangelical and major critic of liberal trends, so when he faintly praises Mainline performance this commands attention. He says that compared with evangelicals, Mainline churches have “seemingly” been “less susceptible to pervasive sexual abuse,” and related cover-ups or minimizing of the problem. 

Reporters should seek to eliminate the “seemingly” hedge word and figure out whether their performance is in fact superior. If so, are Mainliners simply more moral?

Tooley finds the explanation in church structures and cultures. 

First, Mainline groups are rapidly aging and often lack the thriving youth ministries that supply ample targets for predators.

Second, Mainline churches have “a genuine institutional advantage with wider systems of accountability” whereas the bulk of evangelicalism is “congregationalist,” so each local church governs itself without oversight and accountability. Not that such oversight operates perfectly either. 

Most important, Mainliners have “less deference toward and trust for clergy” and for church governance than evangelicals do. “Mainliners are typically not intimidated by clergy or distorted ideas about pastoral authority.” Their pastors are more like “hired help.” An evangelical pastor’s authority is exacerbated when he (almost always a he) is the founder or built up the ministry or has served a long span of years, or his governing board is laden with his pals. Such pastors “become nearly unassailable.” 

Finally, unlike with the Mainline, for evangelicals “the church is the most important human institution” and disrupting it with dissension and challenges of leaders can be harder. A Mainline church is “often more of a religious social club that’s nice but not essential.” Fair?

Turning to Williams and the Baptists, he observes that America’s “Second Great Awakening” prior to the Civil War combined evangelical fervor with social justice advocacy, not just on abolishing slavery but other ills. But slavery split Baptists North and South, and the 20th Century growth and impact of the SBC fostered “the southernization of American evangelicalism.” 

Now, in the Donald Trump epoch, “this particular brand of white evangelicalism has an outsized influence and colors national perceptions” of what “evangelical” means, associating it with “racism and patriarchy.”  Meanwhile, Williams says, the ABC Baptists live out the older version of the E-word. 

Officially, the ABC professes belief that “Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, and that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God that serves as the final written authority for living out the Christian faith,” etc. Evangelical faith is robust in many local churches. But the ABC is comfortable with its liberals and, unlike the SBC, does not cut ties with clergy and congregations that depart from traditional teachings on topics such as sex, salvation and marriage. 

Agenda items for reporters who’d develop the Williams scenario: Is the ABC evangelical, or Mainline, or partially both? Why did ABC statistics stagnate while the SBC produced decades of notable expansion (with declines more recently, with the rise of non-denominational churches)? How much room remains for an evangelicalism that is conservative on doctrine and progressive in social outlook?  

Then this mystery: When congregations rejected the SBC after a dramatic conservative “takeover,” why didn’t they join the ABC and give it new vitality instead of shunning it to form two new denominations? 

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