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What Makes a "New Mainline"?: A Reformation Day Reflection

October 31st, 2023 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

Onsi Kamel's recent piece at Ad Fontes is a welcome addition to the conversation about what a new mainline might be.

To review, when I talk about the need for a new mainline, I'm referring to a new Christian movement with a large number of influential churches, associated schools, and a steady voice within American public life, politics included, but not limited to politics. It needs to be marked by a spirit that does not feel threatened by America or entitled to special treatment from America, but that takes responsibility for the nation.

Kamel rightly observes that there are a few different expressions such a project could take. Obviously the historical vehicle has been the network of legacy Protestant denominations—the PC(USA), TEC, the ELCA, the UMC, and so on. That said, given the culture capture we have seen in all of these communions to varying degrees, as well as their general hostility toward orthodox regarding sex and gender, these institutions are no longer able to serve as vehicles for such a movement, even if there are still pockets of orthodoxy one can find in certain regions and institutions within the old mainline.

Another vehicle, and this is the one Kamel suggests, is Rome:

I suspect, therefore, that if a new mainline is to arise, it will be Catholic. Perhaps Catholicism already is our mainline. In addition to its unmistakable political dominance, nearly every crucial feature I identified as constituting the old mainline’s value for Christian discourse (a strong intellectual ecosystem, confessional breadth, societal reach, and socially dynamic vision) is possessed by Catholics in spades. Unfortunately, if understandably, given Catholicism’s history as a persecuted church in America, many key Catholic theorists and popularizers today seem to lack the sense that they are inheritors of America’s political traditions. Some have taken up instead Catholicism’s venerable tradition of anti-liberal thought, which was given its most forceful articulation in Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors.

But American Catholics should consider reinvigorating the American Catholic center ascendant in the decades following the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae, when Catholics adopted much of the ethos of the mainline. Catholic-leaning flagship magazines, such as First Things, were markedly pro-liberal until recently (admittedly, not always in the ways one would have hoped). First Things’  identity as a formally ecumenical and interreligious magazine devoted to American public life is in large measure an inheritance of its mainline heritage by way of its founding editor, Richard John Neuhaus. Perhaps the tradition of civic Augustinianism, articulated in the twenty-first century by figures like Eric Gregory, would provide a worthwhile point of departure for Catholics. After all, Augustine is a saint Protestants and Catholics have in common. But if elite Catholics cannot figure out how to adopt America’s political heritage as their own, even as they seek to transform it, they will not be able to fulfill the role of the mainline.

In many ways, Kamel himself has already named the problem here: The likelihood of Rome replacing the Mainline was always somewhat remote just because of the latent anti-Americanism that runs through much of historic modern Catholicism, to say nothing of the anti-Catholicism that frequently crops up in American public life.

But secondarily the window in which Rome might have filled that role has already closed: The joint project of St Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI seemed to suggest a way forward that was modern yet orthodox, inviting the church to go out into the world in the aftermath of Vatican II not racked by confusion and discord, but with a humble confidence in the calling God has given her and equipped with a coherent vision of a Catholic encounter with the modern west. It has, unfortunately, only taken a single decade and a single papacy to plunge the church back into the roiling disputations and whispered fears of schism that racked her before John Paul II's unlikely ascent. (All of this, up through the early 2010s, is summarized well by Joseph Bottum in An Anxious Age.) Certainly, Rome has the cultural standing, the institutions, and the structure needed to fulfill this role. But she is in many ways facing the same crisis as the mainline and is likely to fare little better, especially if, as is entirely possible, the next conclave yields a younger, bolder version of Francis.

I have already argued elsewhere that American evangelicalism is unable to carry on this vision. The evangelicalism of the past 50 years, marked by the seeker-sensitive ecclesial movement and the religious right's dominance of the public square, both lacks the spiritual depth and judgment and the cultural standing to fulfill the mainline's role. The result is that Kamel's tear in the fabric can't be repaired through any existing institution. It must, rather, be made again.

We shouldn't have any illusions about what this means. It is far preferable to salvage institutions rather than build new ones. Yet for the most part the latter course is the one we will have to take. That said, to stop here is to end in a rather hopeless place for "building new institutions to one day become a new mainline" is such a vague and abstract goal as to be almost useless.

So here is a more drilled down proposal: In ecclesial terms, what can perhaps one day provide what Kamel rightly desires is not Rome, but a broad partnership of denominational churches and congregational churches yoked together around a common vision and shared friendship. To get more specific, as I have suggested in the past, the denominational congregations will come from the PCA, EPC, ACNA and hopefully the Global Methodists as well as some Southern Baptists and Acts 29.

United around Nicene and moral orthodoxy and committed to a missionary encounter with the 21st century west, these institutions will be able to provide relatively monolithic expressions of simple Christianity. Here the PCA's sexuality report and the ACNA's pastoral statement are representative of what might be possible. Why should we think that more such speech is possible across these communions? Well, for the simple reason that many of the points of conflict between the contemporary west and Christianity don't actually focus that directly or narrowly on the points of conflict between various Christian communions. Baptists and Presbyterians can disagree about the sacraments while maintaining broad unity around the definition of marriage, for example. Anglicans and Methodists might disagree on polity while maintaining agreement on the dangers that a tech-enabled transhumanism poses to human flourishing.

The imminent threats these various churches now face—the breakdown of "reality," the radical reimagining of the human body, the ubiquity of digital technology, the inability to explain the value of human life in itself—are threats which can be responded to through mere Christianity of the sort shared by all these communions.

However, these communions all lack the size, resources, and presence needed to do what the mainline did. The only listed communion that can even approximate it is the SBC. Yet the SBC's leadership is sclerotic and often ineffective and as a denomination they are shrinking. Its numeric decline since its mid 2000s peak is actually comparable to the old mainline. It is possible that much of that decline is fictitious—the result of culling church membership rolls that were never accurate to begin with. But the numeric decline reported by the convention seems notable all the same. And yet relative to any other institution named above, the SBC is a giant. Even so, we need much more than the SBC to repair the holes Kamel describes.

This is where intentional localized friendships must pick up much of the slack. In addition to the denominational institutions listed above, pastors in these congregations should also seek out friendships with local independent churches, oftentimes the largest and most influential churches in their cities, particularly outside of the Bible belt.

Here a mutually beneficial cross-pollination might be possible: The denominational churches can help independent churches to think not only in individualistic and evangelistic terms, but also to think strategically about building enduring, long-term institutions. They may also at times be a help to these congregations in thinking about the liturgical and sacramental life of the local church. For their part, independent churches might help denominational churches grow in their evangelistic fervor and entrepreneurial spirit. And all can benefit one another through the offer of Christian counsel and aid amidst the difficulties and challenges of local ministry in a relatively hostile context. In this respect, institutions like The Gospel Coalition may have an especially strategic role to play because their audience already includes all of these groups and their conference can bring together people from all these groups into a single location for fellowship and mutual encouragement.

This may become especially important in the plausible event that Rome experiences seismic changes in the next decade. Should Rome revise its views on sexuality, for example, or simply schism, much of the cultural and institutional cover that Rome has long offered faithful Protestants will wither. In that scenario, it will be even more important for local Protestant communities to stand united.

To take one example of what this might look like, a small American city's public school district recently bussed children during school hours to a diversity event which turned out to feature a drag performance. In this case, the largest church in the area had a long-standing relationship with the school board, had made every effort to encourage and invest in area public schools, and had a number of teachers in their congregation. So when the pastors of this church sought out a meeting with the superintendent, they got it.

Or one might refer back to the example I shared recently of a small town where its local Lutheran school is supported so generously by local Christians that it can charge cheap tuition, allowing it to become an option for most people in the town and, in turn, allowing it to actually become larger than the public school district in the town. This kind of work is still possible. But getting there requires strategic thinking, creativity, and strong bonds of trust between local Christian pastors, Christian business leaders, and other institutional leaders. Attaining to all of that is hard, but it is not impossible in many places.  The work of creating a new mainline will consist in precisely this work.

The old institutions are largely past saving. But new ones can be made and new works can be attempted. And if God should bless the work, then perhaps we can, in our lifetimes or maybe our children's, see the rends Kamel describes be restored.

In m

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).