Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

By Martin E. Marty

Published in late 1959, my first book, The New Shape of American Religion, cited several mainstream commentators and spotted numerous trends to suggest that the then-much-noticed “revival of interest” in religion had crested in 1958. It’s bad manners for authors to cite their own writings, but… Religious institutions, e.g., in suburbia, were prospering, but the culture, ethos, and spirit of religion in America were changing. We did not speak of ‘Mainline Decline” in part because the “mainline” in America’s then-majority religion, “Protestantism,” did not yet have a name. But decline soon began, in “the Sixties,” observers observe.

I mention this after having reflected on “Mainline Decline” in a recent Christian Century blog-post. Today, one could speak of a virtual link between the two words, as in “Mainlinedecline.” Readers of Sightings can test this trend by using their search engines to confirm how headlines routinely refer to decline.

I played the game of typing “decline” alongside other entities. Thus: “declining Catholic” linked with “number of” “worshippers,” “priests,” “nuns,” “seminarians,” and “parishes.” “Declining Jewish” linked with “number of members” reveal statistics that make ‘Mainline’ or ‘Protestant’ or ‘Christian’ appear comparatively healthy.

We are only getting started: Type “decline” and link it even to “Fundamentalist,” “Evangelical.” “African-American” or “Black,” “Suburban” or “Megachurch” or — be startled! — “Brazilian Catholicism.” We find “decline-talk” associated with almost every “institutional” (at least nominally) population cohort. Currently, “Latter-day Saints” or “Mormon” plus kinds of “Pentecostalism” are the only exceptions.

Why point out decline among the religions when Sightings’ role is to spot and explore religion in outstanding events? What goes on here with “decline?” A fad? Maybe “decline” is not occurring. This claim is hard to support. Maybe headline writers are concentrating on the wrong aspects of religion. Maybe they are exhibiting the old “be-the-first-kid-on-your-block” syndrome, seeking to be a jump ahead, to get a scoop. Maybe enemies of religious institutions of all sorts are enjoying mass Schadenfreude, enjoying the misfortunes of others. Whatever else is going on, noticing this phenomenon should be liberating: We are henceforth allowed to yawn when one more headline-writer tries to play catch-up.

I’ve been on this beat since the above-noticed year of 1958, and thus have been chronicling the ups and/or downs in religious participation and institutional life. Like others, I’ve seen good reason to prefix certain terms with “post-“ as in “post-Protestant,” “post-Christian” (not “post-religious,” however). The writers and doers that I respect ask what succeeds and replaces something like “the Mainline.”

Notice: Millions of citizens are not “bowling alone,” (Robert Putnam’s appropriate analogy in his book, Bowling Alone), or being “spiritual” on their own, in splendid entrepreneurial isolation.

We observe them instead in tens of thousands of parishes and temples where, in difficult places and against cultural odds, old faithful and new faithful people pray, give for, and through, “institutional religion,” serve their God, serve others, and, yes, are interesting. They all notice that the needs they serve are not declining in numbers or weight, and they draw inspiration for that service from the resources of their particular faiths.

Author Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor Myriam Renaud is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.


Marty, Martin. “Rough Treatment.” The Christian Century, July 17, 2013.

Dickerson, John. “The Decline of Evangelical America,” The New York Times Sunday Review (The Opinion Pages), Dec. 15, 2012.

Wiener, Julie. “Study: Shul Affiliation Rising, but Jewish Population Declining,” The Jewish Federations of North America, Feb. 27, 2013.

Sullivan, Amy. “Pope Benedict and the Decline of American Catholicism,” National Journal, Feb. 11, 2013. Updated May 30, 2013.

Ram, Alessandra. “In Changing Neighborhoods, Black Churches Face an Identity Crisis.” The Atlantic, Oct. 12, 2012.

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