Lessons from the Collapse of American Protestantism

The main sanctuary of the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church (photo: http://detroiturbex.com)

I’ve written a piece for The Gospel Coalition on the collapse of American Protestantism and what we should be braced for in the future.

It’s also noteworthy that almost all the Christian intellectuals Jacobs discusses, whether historic or contemporary, belonged to the Protestant mainline rather than evangelical denominations. Outside the context of the mainline, evangelicals never enjoyed the status of public intellectuals, even as they often functioned as important figures in populist and mass movements and accordingly enjoyed a measure of political influence (à la Billy Graham).

I suspect the twin movements of anti-intellectualism and anti-populism in the United States cannot adequately be told without reflecting on the split of mainline Protestantism into, on the one hand, de-institutionalized fundamentalist and evangelical movements and, on the other, a culturally elite yet increasingly faithless institutionalism.

Jake Meador has discussed this breach in American society in terms of culturally and institutionally sequestered intellectuals and a populism fuelled by mass media. Although a radically transformed media ecology has much to do with the American public’s realignments and reconfigurations, the fracturing of the Protestant mainline remains an essential part of the picture if we want to understand intellectuals’ separation from the public.

Why? Because mainline churches were the primary institutions that held these parties together. Yet as believing congregants abandoned mainline institutions for more populist movements, and as the mainline vanished into a post-Christian cultural elite, American society was riven apart—and a deepened antagonism between intellectuals and the public arose.

Read the whole piece here. It may be helpful to read it in dialogue with this piece I wrote a few weeks ago.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Church History, Culture, Guest Post, Politics, The Church. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Lessons from the Collapse of American Protestantism

  1. Physiocrat1 says:

    I haven’t read the above yet (but I will) I just came across a fascinating case on the election by Keith Preston (a very interesting political commentator and advocate of what he calls Pan-Secessionism) which I thought might interest you. His main claim is that Trump won because he ran to the Left of Clinton. https://attackthesystem.com/2016/11/13/donald-trump-and-the-return-of-liberalism/

  2. William Murphy says:

    Thanks for another fascinating article, Alastair. I am always amazed how you reflect on American society while living in Durham. The picture of the semi-derelict Presbyterian Church on Woodward Avenue, Detroit brings back poignant memories of my two years in Motown (1998-2000) before returning to Reading, England. There were at least three magnificent churches on Woodward; they would be cathedrals anywhere else. They were sad reminders of the wealth and religious activity in the city before its catastrophic decline. Not to mention the splendid Catholic Shrine of the Little Flower (still a very vigorous parish with 12,000 members) and the astonishing mausoleum facing it across Woodward. To judge by Mark Binelli’s wonderful book “The last days of Detroit”, I saw the city when it was about 70% down the slope to rock bottom.

    • Thanks for the comment, William, and for sharing your experience in Detroit. My nearest encounter with the city was driving through it at night in 2002. It is truly tragic to see what has become of the place in the last couple of decades.

    • And, on my interest in American society, I suspect that, for better or worse, the immediate fate of Protestantism in the West will largely be played out on the far side of the Atlantic (I also plan to move there in the next couple of years).

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