In recent decades, one story about the Protestant mainline has dominated both scholarly studies and popular writing: decline. Once a mighty establishment, so the story goes, the Protestant mainline has lost members and power. Depending on the storyteller, the mainline has been pitied for its losses, chided for its perceived theological laxity, or left as a remnant of a bygone era. Often it has simply been ignored for other, more exciting narratives.
Elesha Coffman joins a growing group of scholars looking past the declension narrative and seeking to explore the Protestant mainline. Her vehicle for exploration is the flagship periodical of the mainline, The Christian Century. Her work is both an institutional history and [End Page 312] a cultural history. As the former, it traces the Century’s history from 1906 to 1960—the years when C. C. Morrison, its most important editor, was affiliated with the magazine. As the latter, it investigates the place of the Century in the religious landscape and argues that the magazine’s pages became a forum through which a group of interconnected, well-educated Protestant leaders made the case that their brand of Protestantism was not, actually, a brand among many but the normative form of Christianity. As Coffman shows, the Century mattered not because it represented the beliefs of the majority of Protestants (it could not even make the case that it represented the beliefs of the majority of laity whose pastors took the magazine), but because in its pages leaders “laid out their arguments about American religion, politics and society while also building a case for their own status as shepherds of the national soul” (p. 3).
It is in this exploration that the power of using what might seem an unlikely vehicle—a not particularly well-subscribed, often underfunded magazine—for exploring the mainline becomes evident. Not only does Coffman show that the Century itself mattered in defining the mainline, but that the Protestant establishment was not simply a historical given. Establishments can be hard to explore, precisely because, almost by definition, they present themselves as given and inevitable. Yet as Coffman argues, the Protestant establishment was not a given but a historically contingent creation of an elite group of (almost exclusively) well-educated, white men. For Coffman, the mainline is not (as it is often defined) simply a set of powerful denominations; it is an argument about beliefs, practices, and religion’s social influence. What can be hard to see when looking at a seemingly secure edifice becomes clear through a study of a magazine that simultaneously positioned itself as normative and worried about its competition.
Coffman also explores an important cleavage in American religious life: that between religious elites and the majority of people sitting in pews. For as much as the Century gained a hearing among the cultural elite, it could not convince the majority of Christians [End Page 313] to accept its vision. It tried to define the mainline, but never really spoke for the mainstream.
Coffman’s work, then, gives us insight into the complicated nature of today’s Protestant mainline. As she notes, the use of the term Protestant mainline—part of the lexicon since around 1960—is an acknowledgement of other forms of Protestantism (not to mention other forms of Christianity). Today’s Century no longer pretends that it speaks for all Protestants. The larger mainline need only look at statistics to know that its pews are emptier and its coffers less plush than they were in 1965. The decline narrative is not completely wrong. Still, both the Century and the mainline remain influential. The arguments favored by the Century and many mainline leaders—ecumenism and socially-engaged religion, for example—continue to gain public hearings and even the occasional victory. In demonstrating that such victories were never as secure as they might once have seemed, Coffman has helped us see past the mainline as (perhaps) crumbling edifice and into its nature as extended and still relevant argument.