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In the United States, so-called mainline churches are the large and established denominations that constitute the majority of organized American Christianity. The term, while somewhat inexact, is used informally to refer to the major players in the American religious sector, implying a shared concern for "public ordering" (see Table M. 1, from Roof and McKinney 1987).
In the United States, church-state separation produced a pattern of "denominational pluralism," with previously state-established "transplants" (Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian) reduced to nonmonopolies (denominations) in competition with and/or accommodation to each other. Denominations that mainly originated in the new world (e.g., Baptists, Disciples, Methodists) originally began with notions of pluralism.
Generally, mainline churches exhibit many or most of the following characteristics: They have their own (or predecessor) origins in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries; have a million or more members spread widely among the 50 states; are predominantly Caucasian (except for black Baptist or Methodist denomina
tions) but include proportions of African Americans, Hispanics, Asiatics, Native Americans, and others; are governed by elected, parliamentary assemblies, with agency offices and staffs at a central location; sponsor colleges, seminaries/theological schools, and part-time local church schools (sometimes also elementary and high schools); staff their congregations with full-time, professional, seminary-educated, ordained clergy who now increasingly include women; run publishing houses and publish theological journals, denominational magazines, and newspapers; operate program units in domestic and global missions, social action and social welfare, evangelism, and Christian education; issue "social statements" on political, economic, and social issues and sponsor representation (lobbying) to governmental agencies; contribute to and/or cooperate with councils of churches at local, state, national, and world levels.
"Mainline" churches thus may include the following bodies, listed according to denominational "family" and specific self-naming: Baptist (American, National, Southern), Catholic (Roman), Christian Churches-Disciples, Episcopal, Lutheran (Evangelical Lutheran, Missouri Synod), Methodist (African Episcopal, Christian, United), Orthodox (Greek, Russian, some other "Eastern"), Presbyterian, Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ. Sometimes coordinating associations of Reform and Conservative Jewish groups are also included. (Developing associations of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim groups may over time also attain "mainline" status.) A deliberate policy on the part of specific denominations to play a sociopolitical role in the national arena is important in assigning a label of "mainline" for such groups.
There are many exceptions to and/or variations in the qualifying characteristics given above. It should be stressed that differences among conservative, moderate, and liberal individuals within any one denomination may be as great as those between the denominations overall themselves. That is, the correlation between denominational "profession" and pastoral and member "practice" may vary a great deal. Also, the degree of democracy in denominational government varies from much grassroots participation to high oligarchy. For the most part, however, mainline churches and their members tend to be "moderate" in degree of theological orthodoxy, personal lifestyle, and official openness to interchurch relations (ecumenism) and exhibit a sense of ethical responsibility toward the "public" sphere (e.g., concern for social justice versus purely individual morality or spirituality).
Regarding exceptions, the Roman Catholic Church does not permit divorce or abortion, the ordination of women, or marriage of its priests, and any policy assemblies are purely advisory. Missouri Lutheran and Southern Baptist bodies officially endorse scriptural "inerrancy" and disapprove abortion, women's ordination, and council memberships, although some clergy may join local ministerial alliances. The United Church of Christ alone approves ordination of active gays and lesbians. Latter-day Saints and Christian Scientists, while fairly prominent in the media and public life, are not considered part of the "mainline churches." Many conservative, established, smaller bodies in the United States, while usually not listed as "mainline," share many of the above characteristics, sometimes forming loose alliances in action groups like the National Association of Evangelicals. So-called evangelical groups often attribute mainline membership losses to allegedly less "strict" theological and moral stands. The Unitarian-Universalist Church, while possessing many "mainline" criteria, is usually excluded from the category because it is not officially Christian.
See also Church-Sect Theory, Denominationalism, Evangelicalism, Organization Theory
Ross P. Scherer
W. C. Roof and W. McKinney, American Mainline Religion (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987)
R. Stark and C. Y. Glock, American Piety (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970)
R. Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).
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