Claybourn: The disappearing pillars of American society
Driving through America’s heartland, one notices the solemn steeples piercing the skies—a historical symbol of the spiritual landscape. But what happens when these steeples wobble and their foundations crack? The recent United Methodist Church (UMC) split signifies not just a faith crisis, but a societal one.
This crisis is evident in the decline of mainline Protestantism, historically central to social cohesion. Data from the Pew Research Center reveals a significant drop: from 35% of Americans identifying with these denominations in 2007 to just 26% in 2022 — a 10-point decline in 15 years.
The shift is more pronounced among younger generations. Only 36% of Generation Y and a mere 11% of Gen Z adults identify as mainline Protestants, in stark contrast to 32% of Baby Boomers. Nationwide, church membership has plummeted from 70% in 1999 to only half of Americans in recent years, largely due to the rise in those with no religious affiliation.
Methodism, a key mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S., exemplifies this trend. Its membership has fallen from 11.5 million in 2000 to 8.5 million in 2022. These shifts are not mere statistical anomalies; they reflect deeper societal transformations. We’re witnessing a transition towards secularization, particularly among the youth, and a change in the social fabric of communities where churches were once central pillars.
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The mainline denominations have, in the past, offered more than just religious teachings. Its role as a social fabric has provided values, a sense of belonging, and a communal moral framework. As membership dwindles and divisions widen, we lose a critical social structure that once united us in common purpose.
Consider the tangible impacts of this decline. In towns and cities across America, mainline Protestant churches have been the bedrock of social services. They've provided more than just spiritual nourishment; they've been essential in meeting basic human needs.
For instance, in rural areas, these churches often operate the only food banks or homeless shelters within miles. In urban centers, they offer after-school programs, counseling services, and support for the elderly.
Beyond their role as service providers, these churches have acted as social mediators. They foster spaces where folks across political and social divides can meet, bound by a shared moral language. Today, those bridges are crumbling, and what replaces them? A cacophony of social media, where tribalism flourishes and empathy withers.
Of course, one can't ignore the internal struggles these institutions face — debates over theological doctrine, sexual ethics, and so on. But let's not be naive; these struggles are also a reflection of a society that has become allergic to nuance and intolerant of moral complexity.
As mainline Protestantism withers, what takes its place? A sort of soulless secularism, devoid of the moral richness these faiths provided? Or perhaps even more troubling, a more dogmatic and less tolerant form of religious expression that widens social gulfs rather than bridges them?
The UMC split encapsulates this unraveling tapestry. Ostensibly about LGBTQ+ inclusion, it reveals broader ideological rifts. The schism disrupts local communities, separating families and friends, and reducing the collective strength of the church as a social entity. It lays bare a society increasingly fragmented, not just along lines of faith, but across the spectrums of ideology, geography, and even reality.
This crisis demands a reevaluation of our values. Do we prioritize doctrinal purity over social cohesion, individual spiritual journeys over collective moral clarity? Society will invariably find something to fill the vacuum left by the church’s decline, but will it enrich us or deepen existing divides?
We're at a crossroads. The fading of mainline Protestant churches signals increasing isolation, moral ambiguity, and a weakening social contract. We're losing a part of our collective spirit, a change that's reshaping the American landscape in subtle yet profound ways.
As this vital institution crumbles, it marks a critical moment. Let's respond not with resignation but with a renewed commitment to rebuilding our shared social fabric. The falling steeples warn us: as they go, so might our societal pillars.
This crisis deserves our full attention, lest we belatedly grasp the extent of our communal loss. The bell tolls not just for prayer, but for a broader awakening.
Joshua Claybourn is an attorney and historian based in Indiana. Visit him online at .