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21 March 2018

“The mainline”: America’s older churches.

Not necessarily America’s liberal churches.

Mainline is a bit of Christianese in the United States. The adjective refers to the Protestant churches in the United States who were around since the 1700s—since before our constitutional freedom of religion made it possible for all sorts of new churches to crop up, and add to the thousands of Protestant denominations.

Some of these churches, like the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Unitarians, got their start here. Others, like the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches, got their start in England and Scotland—but when the colonies declared independence from the UK in 1776, the churches reorganized their leadership to become distinct from their UK governing bodies.

So being “mainline” or a “mainliner” doesn’t refer to a belief system. They’re not mainliners by philosophy: Other than Jesus’s teachings and Protestant traditions, they don’t necessarily have a lot in common. (In the case of Unitarians, the rest of us figure they’re heretic.) They’re mainline because they’re older. They have a longer history. They were here when the United States began.

But for many politically and theologically conservative Christians, “mainliner” has become their shorthand for a politically progressive or theologically liberal Christian. Because a number of mainline churches are liberal in their beliefs. Not all of ’em, but just enough for “mainliner” to pick up another definition.

So when you hear Christians refer to certain churches as “mainline churches,” sometimes you gotta ask them: Do you mean old, or liberal? (Maybe both.)

The mainline and the Christian Left.

As I said in my article on Fundamentalists, that word tends to be used as shorthand for the Christian Right. ’Cause Fundamentalists are theologically conservative, and nearly all of them tend to also be politically conservative. It’s not meant to mean the same thing as conservatism, but Fundies have got so mixed up in those politics, people can’t separate ’em.

In the very same way “mainliner” tends to be used to refer to the Christian Left. Not all mainline churches are politically progressive—but many are.

And often people join these churches precisely because of their politics. When I share Jesus with progressives, some of ’em won’t set foot in a church building unless I’ve guaranteed them the people of that church are gonna be progressive like them. They won’t have anything to do with Christians who don’t give a rip about the needy and downtrodden, and for them this means the church has to be progressive. I don’t agree it has to be progressive; compassionate conservatives actually do exist! But if they insist on a progressive church, I’ll usually point ’em to one of the mainliners. My priority is to first get ’em to go to church and religiously follow Jesus. Then he can deal with their political hangups.

And lemme point out I’ve met plenty of conservatives in mainline churches—and more than a few closeted liberals in Fundamentalist churches. So the stereotype ain’t perfect.

Because, contrary to popular belief, politics and Christianity are opposite things. Politics is about gathering power so we can get what we want. Christianity is about surrendering everything, power especially, to Jesus—so he can get what God wants.

Not every Christian understands this. Hence progressive newbies who want a progressive church; hence Fundies who get involved in politics and are trying to manipulate their entire churches into joining their camp, and mobilizing them in favor of their favorite politicians. ’Cause their party appears to agree with them, and claims the other party doesn’t. But as we’ve seen by the behavior of our politicians, they’re only pandering to Christians for our votes.

The reality is mainliners and Fundamentalists have way more in common than Republicans and Democrats. Comes from having the same Lord. The politicians are trying to divide Jesus’s church for votes. Don’t compromise the gospel: Don’t let them.