During the first half of the 20th Century, Mainline Protestant denominations were a large and powerful force in American culture. Protestant Christianity was mediated to America through these denominational bodies. This started to slowly change during what’s come to be called the fundamentalist/modernist controversies in the early part of the century (they peaked in the 1920s) when liberalism defeated the conservative fundamentalists for control of the denominations. From that moment these pillars of American Christianity began a slow slide into cultural irrelevance which persists to this day. These denominations continue to lose membership, and liberalism is why. The numbers are substantial:
Across the English-speaking world the numerical decline of mainline Protestantism is accelerating. The largest mainline Protestant denominations in the United States are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Episcopal Church. Collectively, membership in these denominations decreases by about 1 million a year, resulting in hundreds of church closures annually.
A recent study attempts to answer the question why this is happening. I could have saved them the time. The answer is liberalism! In a study of “2,200 of the congregants, half attending growing churches and half at declining churches,” it became obvious:
When we used statistical analysis to determine which factors are influencing growth, conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal take on the Bible, was a significant predictor. Conversely, the analysis showed liberal theology, with its metaphorical reading of Scripture, leads to decline. Our research stands out because past studies have suggested theology and church growth are not linked. They are.
As the article points out, since liberals believe there are many legitimate paths to God, what is the compelling case to attend their churches. Conservatives have a compelling case: Christianity is The Truth! As the Apostle Peter said:
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.
You may not believe it, but at the least it is a compelling reason to embrace it, if indeed there is evidence that it is The Truth. Fortunately, God has provided us with an an embarrassing amount of riches when it comes to evidence for the veracity of the Christian faith.
So what is liberal Christianity, and where did it come from. As the quote above implies, conservatives and liberals view Scripture differently. The liberal view was born in of The Enlightenment, which gave way to something called German Higher Criticism. These German scholars accepted the naturalist/materialist assumptions ( natural of The Enlightenment, and as such believed the Bible was a human book like any other. These assumptions began to find their way to this side of the Atlantic in the late 1800s, and by the 1920s liberals (modernists) were taking over the mainline denominations. But not without a fight.
The fundamentalists were a motley crew of Christians who refused to give up on the historical, supernatural foundations of Christianity. An essential book for understanding the dynamics of American Evangelical Christianity through this period, and into our own day, is George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture. The book is an indispensable resource if we are to accurately understand Christianity in our age, and especially its unique American character.
The term fundamentalism is well known today and carries with it pejorative connotations, but when coined in 1920, it meant conservatives who stood up against the liberals. The cultural baggage came later. The term came from book project called The Fundamentals, which was published in twelve paperback volumes from 1910 to 1915. These volumes and the conversation that grew up around them helped coalesce those unwilling to lay down on the tracks in front of the intellectual and cultural freight train of modernism. But as we’re seeing, conservatives are having the last laugh.