In the past, mainstream churches played a central organizing function among volunteer organizations in America and were entities that were particularly concerned with the common good. They don't play that role any longer and have not been replaced.
The most famous story I know about a church working for the common good is one about the Society of Friends, or Quakers. In the early 1800s, they sent out members to talk to each of the several hundred individual members who owned slaves in the South to encourage them to free their slaves. A similar event took place in New York City in 1905, when a beit din (council of powerful elders) was formed by the Jewish community to organize Jewish prisons, courts, orphanages, schools, and social services for immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe, in response to the high level of criminality among immigrant Jews.
Most of us know that mainstream churches created the YMCA and many of our convalescent homes, retirement homes, funeral parlors, cemeteries, thrift shops, charities, universities and colleges, and other institutions. In this century, churches became politically active, promoting prohibition, women's suffrage, corporate shareholder representation, and desegregation in the United States and South Africa.
When did this central social role of main stream churches end?
It ended in the early 1970s, when the National Council of Churches lost influence because of its too liberal role on many issues, particularly its outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. Nearly all the fundamentalist churches, including the Southern Baptists and Mormons, stopped supporting the Council. During Nixon's second term, Congress no longer used mainstream ministers, but switched to fundamentalists and Pentecostals.
This is not to say that mainstream churches no longer have power, but that where they were formerly the great Hoover Dam of America, today they are a three-foot-high spillway with a fish ladder. About 64 percent of American families have belonged to a church over the past thirty years, and during that time attendance has dropped at mainstream churches and increased at fundamentalist ones.
The loss of influence among mainstream denominations is not just a result of the liberal views of the National Council of Churches, but of a fundamental shift in religious thought in the country as a whole. Many of the leaders of these denominations attended prestigious colleges during the last forty years and are intellectual relativists by inclination, even when they don't verbalize their position. Although many of these people would probably insist that they believe in God, some of them no longer believe in a traditional God, and those who do tend not to have the same kind of emotional relationship to a personal God that characterizes most fundamental denominations. As a result, mainstream churches don't have a strong impetus to regenerate themselves.
The consequence of all this is that the institutions working for amelioration, consensus, and the common good in our society are in shambles and I don't believe they can recover. Our volunteer organizations are depleted, and their organizational backbone, the mainstream churches, are weakened.
This leads to two questions I am often asked and often ask myself these days: Why is America so mean-spirited? And, when will this change? It won't, if my analysis is right. In fact, civil society may continue to get worse and disappear. I think the issue of belief in God will have to be confronted head on, before new institutions for the common good can emerge. Either churches will need to acknowledge the change in their role without god, or new institutions will be needed that explicitly premise their existence on the absence of a god.
Most well-educated people may still say they believe in God because it is the unassailable position in an argument they are not prepared to entertain. However a traditional God may no longer be real to many people. Some of the institutions built around the Judeo-Christian belief system of caring for those in need are essential in our society. This leaves us in a Catch 22: The belief in God isn't important to us personally, but the institutions built around this belief are important. Consequently, we can't attack, analyze, confound, or dispute God openly without fear, because we don't know how to replace God if we succeed in openly examining this issue.
Some readers may ask about the replacement of god with non-god religions (such as Zen Buddhism) and replacement with secular charities. No evidence in the past two decades justifies attention to these alternatives.
Our unwillingness to examine the extent of decline in our religious beliefs, for fear of the consequences, leaves our valuable religious organizations too weak to be effective.