The ever astute Martian Mariner commented on my previous post on mainline turmoil and decline thusly:

I know you've posted extensively on the decline of mainline Protestant denominations in America. Most of the posts seem to be displaying the symptoms and warning signs. I was wondering if you could give us some of your analysis as to the causes of this decline. The disconnect between the leadership and congregants seems to be a major part of the decline, but what caused that disconnect in the first place?

I now will begin a series of posts trying to answer his questions. (Caveat--while I am a scholar of the interactions of religion, culture, and politics, my period expertise is the U.S. between the Revolution and the Civil War.) I think the state of the (formerly) Mainline Churches results from multiple causes. Please regard what I say as informed hypotheses, rather than definitive answers. (Blogging is a lot easier than writing books and articles in this regard.) Where to begin? (more below)

Reason #1 The Abolitionist Movement.

Don't stop reading just yet, assuming I've slid into dementia.

For most of Christian history almost all Christians assumed slavery to be a given of human life; part of the fallen but still God-ordered world. A bit before the Revolution there arose among the Friends (Quakers) a movement to rid their denomination of slave-holding, and ultimately to rid society of this institution. Gradually, stronger in Great Britain but growing here, some other Protestants came to the same position.

The problem was that slavery was found in both the Old and the New Testaments. Abraham, the father of the faithful, owned slaves. Old Testament law regulated the practice of it. Jesus never challenged it directly. The epistles accepted slavery as a social fact, did not challenge it overtly, and regulated the conduct of Christian slaves . If the Bible is God's written word, then how could God regulate an institution he regarded as sinful? How could Spirit-inspired apostles tell slaves to obey their masters? How could Jesus see slavery all around him and say nothing to condemn it? (Ask the Pharisees, he was not shy about condemning people and practices.)

To counter the traditional understanding of the Church, and what seems to be the plain sense of Scripture, the abolitionists resorted to arguing from principles deduced from Scripture. Without going into detail among the various writers, it was argued that the command to love others as we love ourselves implied an end to slavery, that since every human soul had eternal worth none could be enslaved, that God had not created slavery but rather it was the result of sin and the Fall and so should be repented of and overcome, that no creature made in the image of God could own another such creature as property, etc.

Whether explicit or implicit, what was being argued was that some elements within Scripture reflected cultural practice without actually endorsing them; and these cultural practices should be challenged by Scriptural principles even if it meant challenging or explaining away portions of Scripture itself.

[I agree with the abolitionists. The problem becomes where to stop doing this. The Devil practices judo, pulling us with our own momentum farther than we intended to go]

It is no accident that those who today argue for recognition of same-sex practice and the lifting of taboos against such make the analogy with abolition and slavery. They operate by a principle that is used to undercut portions of Scripture they understand to be culturally bound.