Why do these declining denominations—or at least their ideas—remain so influential? I’ve only met one or two Unitarians in my life—although those COEXIST bumper stickers are everywhere—and I’ve never wittingly met a Quaker.
Well, I’ve met lots of Unitarians, and if we include the children of Unitarians I have now lived most of my life with Unitarians.
First, though, who exactly are the “Mainline Protestants”?
Wikipedia is helpful: They’re denominations that are Protestant but not fundamentalist, evangelical, or charismatic. In other words, they’re not too conservative and they don’t move or shout too much during services. (In the Mainline view, excessive movement or noise is animalistic and a sign of mental disability or weakness.)
In general, the Mainlines include Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, not-Southern but “American” Baptist Churches, and a variety of smaller deonominations like the Quakers and traditionally African American churches.
Formal Unitarian Universalists are a little questionable theologically since they don’t have much theology and reject the Trinity and many of their members are outright atheists, but from a cultural standpoint they are clearly Mainline Protestants who have simply completed the journey.
There are a welter of small Protestant denominations with not terribly helpful names like the “United Church of Christ;” I do not know how similar these are to UUs.
Steves is right that you don’t meet many Quakers these days; you also don’t meet many Puritans, due to churches changing their names over the years, eg, many “Congregational” churches are now “United” churches. I suspect most of the “Quakers” have been absorbed into Methodist churches, while Puritans have been absorbed into these blandly named “United” and “Unitarian” denominations.
As you can see on the map, if you don’t count the recent Irish and Italian immigrants, core New England (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire) now prefers to attend American Baptist (not Southern) churches, while Quaker stronghold Pennsylvania is largely Methodist. (This map of course only shows membership in organized denominations; if folks in an area prefer churches that aren’t part of larger denominational structures, they won’t show up.)
Wikipedia has some solid data explaining why Mainline Protestants and their atheist children are culturally dominant, even if they don’t loudly proclaim their religious affiliation:
Some mainline Protestant denominations have the highest proportion of graduate and post-graduate degrees of any other denomination in the United States. Some also include the highest proportion of those with some college education, such as the Episcopal Church (76%), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (64%), and the United Church of Christ(46%), as well as the most of the American upper class. compared with the nationwide average of 50%. Episcopalians and Presbyterians also tend to be considerably wealthier and better educated than most other religious groups, and they were disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of US business and law until the 1950s.
Probably the only people in the US who are better educated than Episcopalians are Hindus, Unitarian Universalists, and Jews–and Hindus are selected for their degrees. (Hindus: 77% college degrees; UU: 67%, Jews: 59%, Anglicans: 59%, Episcopalians: 56%–but for all practical purposes, Episcopalians and Anglicans are probably the same thing.)
Wikipedia also notes that Mainlines have:
played a leading role in the Social Gospel movement and were active in social causes such as the civil rights movement and women’s movement. As a group, the mainline churches have maintained religious doctrine that stresses social justice and personal salvation. Members of mainline denominations have played leadership roles in politics, business, science, the arts, and education. They were involved in the founding of leading institutes of higher education. Marsden argues that in the 1950s, “Mainline Protestant leaders were part of the liberal-moderate cultural mainstream, and their leading spokespersons were respected participants in the national conversation.”
If you want to be a respectable person in America, you join the Episcopal Church and make sandwiches for the homeless on Saturday afternoons. If you’re really smart, you join the Unitarians and make rainbow flags for the homeless on Saturday afternoons and try to get your kids to marry a nice Hindu doctor.
This dynamic is a different in the South, where the Southern Baptists dominate and the culture is more conservative, but influential cultural ideas don’t typically come out of the South. For starters, New York and Hollywood aren’t located in Atlanta.
While reading Richard Wayne Sapp’s Suwannee River Town, Suwannee River Country: Political moieties in a Southern country community, I came across an interesting and relevant discussion of the local religious denominations:
The primary recreational field outside schooling… kin folk… and outside voluntary associations… is the church. White owned churches…. are highly organized, formally constituted, and then formally reconstituted at a myriad of age-graded levels; each department, class, and committee electing its own slate of ranked officers and keeping them busy. …
In Apalachee County* church rank reiterates the general rank of its membership. Urban churches consider themselves higher in rank than rural churches. The rural churches consider themselves no better than, but “just as good as” the urban churches.
Note: the county name has changed and is now I believe Suwannee county.
We may correlate church social rank with the amount of individual freedom to extemporize during a communal service, with which rank varies inversely. In Apalachee County the small Episcopal church, for example, ranks very high; nearly every word and movement conform to a schedule, and communicants know exactly what to expect from the preacher… and from each other. Activity proceeds at an unemotional, orderly rehearsed pace, led by a single individual specifically clothed and trained for this specific ask. Changes in the form of worship or in interpretation of the holy writings are not local prerogatives. The service emphasizes reaffirmation and continuation.
Holiness churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Churches of God bear low social rankings; Baptist churches occupy the mid-range, the numerous sects [of different Baptist churches] comprising he overwhelming majority of he Apalachee County church-going public.
Note that “Baptist” here is Southern.
Churches of low rank value spontaneity and regard individual experiences “with the Lord” with rapture; individuals prize self-expression; several people, all informally clothed, initiate to the audience a different times in the ceremony; people move in specific relation to the circumstances of a particular … preacher, who often serves part time, is inventive in speech and gesture, although he relies on repetition of key phrases and movements, emphasizing a personal commitment, an emotional religious experience.
For example, the Church of God with Signs Following is a Pentecostal Holiness church famous for its tradition of handling poisonous snakes, speaking in tongues, and drinking poison (usually strychnine) during services. I don’t know if this specific denomination ever made it into Apalachee County, Florida, but I don’t think they’re going to become popular in NYC anytime soon, either.
(But before anyone gets jumpy, I’ve got Pentecostals in my own family, and they’re perfectly nice people who know better than to go handling rattlesnakes.)
If you ask me, Pentacostalism appeals to people who have emotions and want to express them, while Episcopalians and Presbytarians, as they say, are the “frozen chosen.”
Baptists span the high-and low-valued church types… The ceremonial format of Baptist churches varies between secs, locally ranked by the same criteria as other denominations, Southern being not only the most numerous but also the highest ranked. As with the Methodists, the downtown First Baptist Church… is the largest, most formal, most active, most organized, most visible, and most wealthy of is denomination in the county. Indeed [it] is the largest church of any denomination in the county.
Of course, Sapp doesn’t look at the question of actual religious fervor, what it means to actually believe something. That is a much more difficult matter, especially for an outsider.
So let’s turn to humor:
Different Denominational Ministries:
The Methodists pick you up out of the gutter.
The Baptists get you saved.
The Presbyterians educate you.
The Episcopalians introduce you to high society.
Then the Methodists have to pick you up out of the gutter again.
Why are Unitarian Universalists such lousy hymn singers? They are reading ahead to see if they agree with the next line.
An Episcopalian is either a Roman Catholic who flunked Latin or a Presbyterian whose stocks paid off.
Have a great weekend, wherever and whether you chose to worship.