“The collapse of the Protestant mainline has been swift, steady, and self-inflicted,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president R. Albert Mohler wrote in 2008.
Mohler’s views align with many of his evangelical colleagues—including Russell Moore just this week—that essentially say liberal theology and politics is responsible for the decline of the once proud American mainline.
But is it really that simple?
According to a sweeping new study by Pew Research Center, the popular evangelical trope is not as true as some assumed. Yes, mainline denominations remain in sharp decline, and yes, evangelicals have fared slightly better overall. Yet many evangelical bodies have begun shrinking as a share of the population as well. Romans Catholics—also theologically and politically conservative—are also declining significantly. This, despite these groups’ evangelistic zeal, orthodox theology, and conservative political stances.
- Liberal mainline denominations continue to decline. Over the seven-year period Pew surveyed (2007-2014), these bodies fell 3.4 percent as a share of the total population. But at the same time, evangelical denominations also dropped by approximately 1 percent of the total population. Given that evangelical denominations invest heavily in proselytizing, that can’t be overlooked.
- Mohler and Moore’s own Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), declined as a share of the population by 1.5 percent between 2007 and 2014—even more quickly than evangelicalism at large. The evangelical Assemblies of God, Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church in America, and Church of God failed to grow at all. The only evangelical body among the top 15 largest Protestant denominations that saw any growth was the Seventh-Day Adventists, and they only experienced a 0.1 percent increase as a share of the population.
- During this same time period, among mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church declined by 1.5 percent, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declined by 0.6 percent, the Presbyterian Church (USA) declined by 0.2 percent, the United Church of Christ declined by only 0.1 percent, and the American Baptist Churches USA actually grew by 0.3 percent.
- America’s largest “denomination”—the Roman Catholic Church—further challenges the notions conservatives have been peddling. From prohibitions on contraception to resisting same-sex marriage, no body has held the traditional line more than Roman Catholics. Yet between 2007 and 2014, Catholics declined by 3.1 percent as a share of the population.
Simply put, almost all of America’s largest Protestant denominations are declining, regardless of political or theological alignment.