American Christianity has undergone a seismic shift since the 1970s, with most American Protestant Christians moving from recognized Mainline denominations to evangelical and fundamentalist churches, Butler adjunct professor of history Jason S. Lantzer writes in his new book Mainline Christianity: The Past and Future of America’s Majority Faith (New York University Press).
Through much of the country’s first two centuries, the majority of Americans worshiped at the Mainline Seven Sisters churches — the Congregational Church, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, the American Baptist Convention and the Disciples of Christ.
Lantzer’s book traces the significant influence those Mainline institutions had on U.S. popular culture, as well as their recent losses in membership and influence to churches that offer moderate-to-conservative doctrine and contemporary service styles.
He foresees a possible twenty-first century Mainline that could include evangelical Protestants regardless of denomination, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals and of the Southern Baptist Convention, currently the largest Protestant denomination in the nation.
This new Mainline, Lantzer wrote in the book’s final chapter, would “better reflect the actual on-the-ground diversity of Christianity in America and around the world,” and could radically change external perceptions of U.S. Christians.
“By accepting that there might now be a new Mainline, we can once again start talking about where the majority of Americans actually worship, and what these churches and the believers who attend them mean for the United States,” he said.
The book covers several historic instances of religion and politics intersecting, making it relevant to this year’s presidential election campaigns, Lantzer said.
“The book discusses how the Founders looked at the role of faith in the public square; what Thomas Jefferson, and later the U.S. Supreme Court, meant by the phrase ‘wall of separation;’ federal court cases about religious expression in the public sphere and the faith traditions of many presidents.”
Mainline Christianityis available in hardback, paper back, and electronic versions through Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble (bn.com), New York University Press and the Butler bookstore
Lantzer has taught the course “American Religious History” at Butler several times, covering additional themes in the book. He credits students in his spring class 2009 with helping inspire his writing.
“I had an exceptionally good class of students that semester,” Lantzer said. They asked good questions, wrote good papers, and made me rethink what I was doing. My epiphany moment was when one of my students simply asked, ‘But, what is the Mainline?’
“Without that class of students in particular, but also without being at Butler, I don’t know if the book would have ended up the way it did.”
Media contact: Mary Ellen Stephenson