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Dennis R. Hoover


Redrawing the Mainline

Faith-based activism

My morning commute is a study in contrasts, starting from the western edge of Philadelphia, where the streets can be scruffy and mean, and passing through the always tidy and expensive neighborhoods of the suburban "mainline." The mainline's namesake is evident along my way—stately churches amid stately homes. But evangelical Protestantism is also evident and, as in other areas of the country, it is in these churches where the lion's share of Protestant growth is to be found. Some vibrant churches in the area are part of mainline denominations, but often the most successful ones lean toward an evangelical ethos. Religiously speaking, the local mainline scene conforms to a national mainline stereotype.

It would seem, therefore, that a study of mainline (some say "oldline") Protestantism's influence on public life should make for a short book. Is there anything interesting to say about the public role of a declining religious tradition? Clearly there is, as Robert Wuthnow and John H. Evans meticulously document in The Quiet Hand of God, a work that goes far beyond mere cataloging past achievements.

The book is the product of a three-year project directed by Wuthnow and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. One of seven such studies (the others examine the public role of evangelical Protestantism, African American Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Hispanic Christianity, and Islam in America), the mainline project commissioned an impressive collection of chapters, albeit Princeton- and sociology-centric: ten chapters are written by authors with a Princeton affiliation; only five of the 20 contributors are non-sociologists.

Subjects attended to include not only mainline Protestant history (Peter J. Thuesen offers an elegant historical overview of "The Logic of Mainline Churchliness") but also the mainline's contemporary demography, civic activities, political opinion and behavior, and organizations—from Washington offices to women's groups. There is also a range of ...

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