Rodney Stark on the Decline of the Mainline

I saw this the other day at and had, well, not a chuckle, because I think there is some kind of tragedy lurking, but a starkness in vision (if you will):

The first [reason for the decline of “mainline” Protestantism] is modernist theology. The theology that prevailed in the mainline churches changed dramatically [from post Civil war times]. If you take Paul Tillich’s view of God, in which God is essentially something imaginary, then why do you bother to hold a church service in the first place? If there’s nothing there to pray to, why do it?

“Something imaginary.” Yes, it does follow a sequence of theological moves that made the Divine something “Plotinian” in the extreme. Stark is spot-on in regard to Tillich’s abstractions. They would not seem “worshipable” to the Sunday in church crowd. I remember reading a rather telling criticism of Tillich by one of this students, one Truman Madsen.[1] Madsen was saying in the 1960s essentially what Stark is saying here. There is no God in that god. When you erase prayer from religion, where do you go from there? Stark answers:

The second factor was, when the clergy in the mainline denominations decided that they could no longer save souls — because there were no souls to save — they decided that they should save the world instead. They switched from religion to politics, and that was a politics of Left-wing radicalism.
It’s fine, of course, to be a Left-wing radical. But it was far out of step with the people in the pews. The people in the pews still believed in God, and the people in the pews did not believe that they needed a socialist government next week. Consequently, they stopped sitting in those pews and started going to other pews.

What Stark describes in terms of depopulation of the pews is what I have observed in European Catholicism. Sunday-go-to-meeting is the province of the Elderly, and Elderly Women at that. Even at the home of the Inquisition. And while the reasons given may seem diametrically opposed to Stark’s on American Protestantism, I don’t think at base they really are. Catholicism in Europe lost it’s savor for the “peasants” because it was seen as impotent against reality. Too much history there and faith became irrelevant to daily life. The growth of Evangelicalism in France mirrors in a muted way what Stark observes in America.

As a matter of fact, one of the big changes is that the second-largest Protestant body in the United States today, second only to the Southern Baptists, is the non-denominational Evangelical Protestant churches. They hardly existed forty years ago, but today they probably have half as many members as the Southern Baptists. That’s real growth, and it shows that the product matters and effort makes a great deal of difference. People in evangelical churches witness their faith and bring their friends and neighbors to church, and the people in liberal churches — at least according to survey data — don’t witness and don’t invite anybody into their church.

In some ways the non SBCers are doing what Mormon missionaries do, witness and invite people to church. David O. McKay’s motto not withstanding, the same seems less true of Mormons by and large. (But the perceived success in baptisms in member initiated contacts is not something that can be really forcefully expanded to a great degree, in my opinion. But see Stark’s comments below.)

Stark’s estimation of Mormonism:

They grow, of course, because they work hard at growing. Since they continue to work hard at growing, I would assume that they are continuing to grow. It’s amazing what results you get — in religion as in other things — when you inspire your members to work hard at it. . . .

the circumstances have greatly changed in my lifetime. When I was young, the idea of a Mormon even trying to run for the Republican Presidential nomination was unthinkable. Things have gotten better. They’ve gotten better out here in the West, more than they have in the South and East, largely because there are so many Mormons. Out here in the West, we all know and live alongside Mormon families. That makes a difference. You see the enormous unity on the cultural issues. And you see that they’re good neighbors, who care well for their children.

Every member a missionary? Maybe, but Every Member for the Wholesome Family appears even stronger. See NCT’s recent post on missionary approaches and retention.

I found Stark’s comment on shrinking denominational youth populations interesting, partly because it links well with similar Mormon concerns.

George Barna scared every evangelical preacher in America a couple of years ago by coming out with the remarkable finding that people under 30 had left the church. There were screams and hollers and everybody was going to organize all of these campaigns to save the young people.
Nonsense. As long as there has been survey data, it has shown the same thing. Even back in the 1930s, it was true that people under thirty are less likely to go to church than people over 30. It’s been true ever since.

Whenever you find a difference between two groups, you have two options. Does that difference reflect social change? That is to say, is it a generational effect? Or is it an aging effect? The answer in this case is that it’s an aging effect. People leave home, they stop going to church, the sleep in on Sunday mornings. Then they get married, have children, and go back to church. Simple as that, and it’s been going on for the fifty or sixty years that we know about.
So it’s too bad when people do research they have no background in. I had seen that same data in the 1960s. You always find it, and it’s not too surprising. There are many things that unmarried people do that they don’t do when they’re married and over 30. Sleeping in on Sunday morning is only one of them, and it’s probably because they stay out later on Saturday nights than they do later in their lives.

Bunch of drifters!

Finally I have to say I loved his anecdotal experiences when on tour with some survey data on mystical experiences in America:

In the last Baylor survey, we asked people a series of questions about potential mystical experiences. Fifty-two percent of Americans say, “I was saved from harm by a guardian angel.” Some people say, well, they didn’t mean it. But I had two press conferences about the release of these findings, one in Texas and one in Washington, D.C. In each instance, a reporter from a major media outlet sidled up to me after the press conference and said, “I was saved by a guardian angel.”

One, a woman, said, “I was about eight months pregnant, wearing heels, and I fell off the curb. Two hands grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back up and set me on the curb — but there was nobody there.”

This sort of confession used to be fairly common in Mormon meetings in my narrow experience, but it seems much less common now-a-days and I believe that leadership views this as encroaching secularism (can you say Neal Maxwell?). Hence the recent spate (ok, two or three) of speeches by Elder Dallin Oaks on Miracles. An approach I agree with and hope continues. We need to be more open I think about not just the “personal revelation” experiences, but the kind the Baylor study found, however many may be authentic. I sense a little heat over this, but I’m firmly in favor of it.

[1] I like Madsen’s little sermon on the subject and I’m going to try and find it and put it up here.

12 Responses to Rodney Stark on the Decline of the Mainline

  1. Ben S says:

    Nice analysis, WVS.

  2. Josh says:

    Here’s David Hume’s famous critique on miracles, from “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.”

    “The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ‘That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish….’ When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.”

  3. ricke says:

    In my ward, I have learned through personal experience that the large majoriy of members have had deeply spiritual experiences. On the other hand, you could attend our testimony meetings for months on end and never hear about any of them. It’s unfortunate.

  4. WVS says:

    Thanks Ben S.

    Josh, Hume’s statement has been parsed to death, I won’t do that here. I would just offer that while his Occam-like approach has some sympathy from me, being someone who makes their living off of logic, I think his rule is breathtakingly useless for Mormons whose epistemology is a bit more broad.

    ricke, I think our trend to quietness on such matters is founded on a number of reasons. Any ideas?

    • ricke says:

      I understand that there have been problems with members whose experiences were questionable who wanted the open mike to promote a point of view. In one of our own wards, a sister could be counted on to tell about her latest encounter with the spirit of Joseph Smith. I do understand the encouragement toward restraint, but I feel it has gone too far. Members are now reluctant to tell anything spiritual that happened to them. On the other hand, the lesson manuals are full of stories that are undoubtably true, but sound oddly contrived. It is claimed that Joseph was reticent to tell about all of his experiences. However, given a receptive and believing audience, I believe he was more forthcoming. This would seem to be a lesson in not casting your pearls before swine, rather than about not casting them at all.

      • WVS says:

        Yes, the door can open wide enough that what is “normative” can be violated. Can you suggest an example of something that has that contrived flavor?

        Difficult to locate that happy medium.

  5. Josh says:

    How do Mormons, with their more “broad” epistemology, discount Hume’s critique as “breathtakingly useless?” Please enlighten. Is my epistemology too narrow if I think he makes a valid point?

  6. Josh says:

    How do you determine the truthfulness of someone else’s revelation? Can you trust your own? What about all the mutually exclusive revelations – all claiming to be from God – yet all contradictory? What do we make of these types of revelatory miracles? In the same vein as Hume, what is more probable: that God sends contradictory revelations to different people, or that people make them up? I’m not trying to be “purposely naive.” I’d like to get your opinion.

    • WVS says:

      Mormonism works this out, more or less successfully with the bifurcation that took place with D&C 28. There is the prophetic revelation and the individual’s own experience. Stewardship controls possible validity. You don’t get revelations to direct your stake president. But you may get one confirming something he told you. The system is not completely perfect for a myriad of reasons. But that’s the way it has been done since 1830, more or less. There are various ancillary rules that are brought up but that’s the basic idea. Hierarchy. And of course, the private experience of revelation (outside of visions or voices perhaps) tends to be characterized as a high degree of assurance that one’s faith is justified. If one’s private revelation confirms the prophetic voice (or at least does not advocate rebellion) then it’s normative, faithful. But exceptions exist (think, Brigham Young, Orson Pratt for example -history judges them both as being right and wrong on various peaks of their point-counterpoint), no rule is completely without exception. How do you know? Yeah. Revelation. There is advice that circulates in Mormonism, about recognizing the truth, etc. There is an uncomfortable dialogue between reason and revelation. The Mormon dictum, “by study and also by faith” is not some kind of motto. It’s always been a challenge.

  7. Josh says:

    D&C 28:2 “But, behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses.”

    This revelation seems convenient since Joseph’s claim to authority was being threatened at the time by others who wanted to speak for the Lord as well. Of course this was (and is) the problem with church-wide revelation: how to maintain order. The solution seems to be that only the person in charge gets to have revelation that is widely applicable – or a rigid heirarchy. Other people can have revalations as long as it doesn’t contradict Joseph’s. There’s just something that smacks of despotism with that idea though. The same justification for order or “unity” has always been used by fundamentalists despots.

    • WVS says:

      Despotism is a possibility in hierarchical organizations. But there are checks – the voting booth analogy is apt. And if one is fundamentally dissatisfied individually with the doctrine or practice, one can become less participatory, or even withdraw altogether. In Joseph’s case, there were various provisions for failure. But I think we’ve drifted pretty far from the OP.

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