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What’s New in the Pew Religious Landscape Study?

May 28, 2015

What are the real reasons people are abandoning Mainline churches but not Evangelical ones? How are Americans likely to respond to a rapid increase in the number of Muslims here?

These and other questions are addressed in an informative and interesting Q and A article by David Masci of the Pew Research Center on the large “Religious Landscape Study” they recently released.  It is an interview with David Campbell, co-author of  American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us and author of other books.   You can find the article here.

The only question I’ll comment on is the one posed as, Why have mainline Protestants continued to decline dramatically, while evangelical Protestants have shown only small declines?”

I will summarize Campbell’s answer as saying it’s not as theological as we might think.  More social… in this sense: Evangelicals once needed and now tend to retain a stronger sub-culture that bonds people closer and makes leaving less attractive or “practical”.  Since Mainline churches were always a more integral part of broader culture, secularization tends to hurt them more.  It weakens the “glue” holding them to traditional beliefs and church “ways”.  And Campbell calls Evangelicals “highly innovative, entrepreneurial, and adaptable”.  Mainline Protestants not so much.

I might add that there is more energy in Evangelicalism, both “positive” in terms of social bonds, commitment to God (and country, usually), and “negative” in terms of fear and anger about “where the country is going”.  And that tends to include determination to do something about it (witness how much the Tea Party overlaps with Evangelicalism). To me, if we could combine the intensity and enthusiasm of Evangelicalism with the compassion and development/justice focus of Mainliners it would be “unstoppable”!

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