[Updated] Joseph Bottum on the central historical fact of our time

From Joseph Bottum in First Things:

Which makes it all the stranger that, somewhere around 1975, the main stream of Protestantism ran dry. In truth, there are still plenty of Methodists around. Baptists and Presbyterians, too—Lutherans, Episcopalians, and all the rest; millions of believing Christians who remain serious and devout. For that matter, you can still find, ­soldiering on, some of the institutions they established in their Mainline glory days: the National Council of Churches, for instance, in its God Box up on New York City’s Riverside Drive, with the cornerstone laid, in a grand ceremony, by President Eisenhower in 1958. But those institutions are corpses, even if they don’t quite realize that they’re dead. The great confluence of Protestantism has dwindled to a trickle over the past thirty years, and the Great Church of America has come to an end.

And that leaves us in an odd situation, unlike any before. The death of the Mainline is the central historical fact of our time: the event that distinguishes the past several decades from every other ­period in American history. Almost every one of our current political and cultural oddities, our contradictions and obscurities, derives from this fact: The Mainline has lost the capacity to set, or even significantly influence, the national vocabulary or the national self-understanding.

Jennifer Woodruff Tait put me on to another account of the reality that Bottum observes above. Maggie Nancarrow argues that the mainline isn’t dying; we’re just, well, failing.

Read it here.

Here’s a significant, extended quote:

In my life, I have met countless of these “nones” and these Millennials who don’t like church. They are  profoundly hungry to talk about God. Profoundly in need of spiritual guidance. Profoundly hungry for acceptance, trust, love.

And very rarely are these conversations mature, thoughtful faith dialogues. These things come up at drunken college parties, on awkward first dates,  as soon as something about gay people is in the vicinity, or as soon as a fight can be picked.  These people did not have religious communities that taught them how to be an adult in faith, never taught them how to go beyond petty religious behavior, never taught them how to safely discuss serious issues. Many of them never had churches who took their childhood religiosity seriously, and then viewed them as dangerous and broken when they went through their (very normal) stage of questioning as a teenager.

Many of them never had churches that did the hard work of serving the poor that they believed the church was about. Many felt excluded by the inappropriate and unloving stances on GLBT issues, or women’s issues, or society as a whole. Many are deeply scarred by the sex abuse scandals and the abuse of authority in the church. Many just got tired of the petty squabbles between the various old timers in the congregation, or the obsession with “the way it used to be”, or the way there always seemed to be insiders and outsiders.


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