What is the Discourse of Decline?

Growing up, the narrative I heard (pretty much from Bruce Bawer onward, at least) was about the worrying rise of "fundamentalism." The word eventually changed to "evangelicalism," but there was still that sense of being overwhelmed; the awareness that we were struggling even as the local megachurch exploded, eventually drawing my sister (and thus my mother) until it burned them both out.

What I've read, what I've heard, the Christians I've spoken to, the non-Christians I've spoken to - all of them share an overarching narrative about the history and fate of American Protestantism. That narrative runs something like this:
  • The mainline churches are the hegemonic ones in America. I use "hegemonic" both in the conventional sense of "dominant" and the Gramscian sense of "normative, such that outsiders are forced to define themselves relative to it."
  • The mainline churches have lost the Mandate of Heaven. They no longer take the faith seriously, and have increasingly accomodated to the secular world.
  • The Mandate of Heaven is passing to the evangelicals. Evangelicals, who do take the faith seriously and present it in an unadulterated form, are growing like gangbusters picking up those who leave (or are left behind by) increasingly irrelevant mainline Protestantism.
The only problem with the narrative is that it's not true.

Looking at the demographics, the numbers are something like so:
  • Evangelicalism is hegemonic: Anybody who has ever observed the difference between identifying as "Christian" and identifying as "Presbyterian" (as I did, growing up) could've told you this already. But since the plural of anecdotes isn't data, I did a quick bit of searching, and came up with some Pew Forum research: 26% of America identifies as evangelical, and 18% identifies as mainline.
  • Mainline Protestantism was the church of the Greatest Generation: The mainline churches peaked in the 1950s - a time when the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, and the cusp of the Boomers were all in attendance.
    • The significant declines starts (if I recall correctly) with the late 1960s/early 1970s. In addition to all the political strife, the Greatest Generation had stopped reproducing, the Silent Generation was at the tail end of its childbearing years, and the Boomers were going to college in greater numbers than ever before.
  • Evangelicalism, meanwhile, is the church of the Boomers and Gen X: Based on Pew numbers, 65% of American evangelicals are ages 30-59.
I could also dispute the part about evangelicalism being pure and unadulterated, but I'll leave that to smarter people than I, who have been doing it (in some cases) for years now. Let anybody who cares check the links.

Defining the discourse of decline

The discourse of decline is the way that America perceives, processes, perpetuates, and lives the idea that the collapse of mainline Protestantism is not about demographics. A lot of the writing, the fighting, the thinking and the assumptions about the fate of Protestantism in America come from a systematic ignoring of the fact that the mainline churches had a huge dieoff, and evangelicalism is about to follow suit.

The traditional trope, listed earlier, was that the mainline is faithless and doesn't take itself seriously. I don't buy this argument, because being unaffiliated is increasingly socially acceptable: while there may have been pew-warming deists in the past, their equivalents can be totally irreligious today with stigma attached. While I lack the numbers to prove anything, I'll hazard a guess that the remnant of the mainline is increasingly a faithful remnant, and Pew benchmarks for personal piety are somewhat skewed (how many mainline churches have multiple services a week to attend?)

What interests me isn't that one trope, although it's a very real one and certainly does merit looking at. Thinking about things, there are a lot of other non-demographic reasons that tie into, and relate to, the discourse of decline. And as far as I know, nobody's ever thought to connect the dots before.

This series, written somewhat sporadically, is meant to look at those dots and see how they connect.

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