The Establishment That Was

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 15, 1989, p. 1045. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The establishment prospered when it was chauvinist and super-American in ways its heirs would refuse to be.

Book Review:

Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960, edited by William R. Hutchison. Cambridge University Press, 322 pp., $39.50.

The establishment. First of all, about which Americans are we speaking? From the work of Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney I have drawn statistics which lead to this picture: Imagine 100 Americans. How would they characterize their religious preferences? Twenty-five would be Catholic; 24 "moderate Protestant"; 9 "liberal Protestants"; 7 "no religious preference"; 2 Jews; 8 "all others." That leaves "black Protestants with 9 and "conservative Protestants" with 16.

These statistics, though few and raw, tell us much about the plot of this book and of American religious life and indeed of American life in general. The establishment includes the people who "prefer" moderate and liberal Protestantism and excludes black and conservative Protestantism. Conservatism presumably includes the huge Southern Baptist Convention, groups like the Missouri Synod Lutherans and Christian Reformed, and all fundamentalists, evangelicals and Pentecostals.

We have no comparable data for 1900 or 1960, the beginning and ending dates of the book William R. Hutchison has edited. I have no doubt that 100 Americans would have answered the poll takers in 1960 pretty much the way they do now. Somewhere I have heard Andrew Greeley claim that perhaps three of a hundred have shifted from moderate-liberal Protestantism or something else to conservatism. Yet all the news since 1960, or at least 1970, has come from the conservative Protestant flank. It has not gained cohorts from among Catholics (though it has very recently surged among Hispanics -- a dramatic shift) , or from Jews, no preference," "all others" or blacks. It has recruited individuals (something the Campus Crusade roommate is often effective at) but not clumps from the liberal-moderate sector.

In 1960 the newsmakers and celebrities were, with the single exception of Billy Graham, from the establishment flank of Protestantism. Today People magazine could feature on its cover ten or 20 "conservatives" without needing to put their names under their pictures (my definition of a celebrity) but no one from the establishment. The "conservatives" have access to the White House and the Supreme Court, provide the Miss Americas, the National Football League Christians, and the articulate business and political witnesses to faith. They have successfully worked their cohorts since 1960, giving them morale and provoking them to "own the covenant" of faith, to learn techniques of gaining power, to invent their own media and celebrity world, and, quite frankly, to embrace the world they used to shun when the establishment ran it. They have no doubt been changed more than they have changed the world, but that is a different story for a different day. Hutchison and company present us with the moderate-liberal establishment, which holds "preferers" but loses active members and power.

Why call it "establishment" Protestantism? Hutchison admits there is no good name for this group. We are stuck, he sees, with "mainline," which was invented, ironically, at the last moment one could have thought of its denominations in that way. It’s a horrible word, referring to certain railroads or the vein into which you shoot heroin. I prefer "mainstream" but am not likely to get my way, and it doesn’t quite work either. "Old-line," "central tradition" and so on have been tried. But, for its period, "establishment" worked.

Today there are fine inquiries about changes in the mainline by Roof and McKinney, Robert Wuthnow and others. For the rest, discussion of its fate has tended to be in the hands of the tendentious. Some of those who would have run it had it stayed central are disaffected, alienated, drifters to conservatism, who haven’t the faintest idea how to make it prosper but who write in a spirit of self-hate and vengeance characteristic of apostates. Others write with a tinge of pathos and grief. I have elsewhere compared the articulators of the tradition to the Greeks when the Romans came along. The Greeks knew they had something of value and kept asserting it in their declining circles, while they looked down the slopes at the practical, militant Romans who knew how to run the show.

The people Hutchison gathered do not belong to the sadomasochistic, apostate school. They are historians, by no means all from the same camp. Some are Jews, some are evangelicals. They do their best to give an accounting of what historian Peter Laslett would call "the world we have lost." They do it without rage or pity, though not always without irony, for establishment Protestantism’s loss of ability to run the show is ironic. Until 1960, even until 1965, its leaders were able to kid themselves and the public about their power and to devise strategies to keep running the show. Then along came John F Kennedy and the Vatican Council; the visibility and vitality of black Protestantism; new religions and now New Age religions; the more patent secularity of the "no religious preference" sort; curiosity about Jews in respect to Israel, and, most of all, the revitalization of conservatisms.

Who now runs the show"? Who is the establishment? No one. Five or six clusters compete and on occasion coalesce. And that confuses the nation. The situation may account for the way some conservatives want the creche on the Court House lawn, their prayers in public schools, definitions of America as Judaeo-Christian or Christian. and more. All this, we say, is ironic, yes. truly ironic: in the years between 1900 and 1960 this is just what the establishment Protestants wanted.

It is clear from these essays that the price for white Protestant hegemony was awful. Many chapters show that as an establishment this one was built on prejudices -- against Catholicism chiefly, but also against Zionist Judaism, fundamentalism, and even black Protestantism. Mainline Protestantism ran out of hates on which the members could or would focus (while leaders kept some of their own prejudices going) When they bought into their own notions of liberalism and tolerance and acted differently, they contributed to their decline. They lost identity and some of the reasons for remaining together. They lost over-againstness. one of the motives for having a group in the first place.

The essays offer other reasons for the establishment’s dissolution. It stopped producing celebrity preachers in the television era. Edwin Scott Gaustad shows how in 1924 The Christian Century could receive 20,000 ballots nominating the nation’s top preachers. Of course, the sample reached by the mailing was biased, but no one would have argued much with the choices. Only one of the top preachers was a fundamentalist. None, of course, were women or black, and almost none were southern.

Dorothy C. Bass describes the status of education before the reshuffling and decentering. The modern university had distanced itself from the distinctive faith of Protestantism, but in a semisecular guise the establishment was at home there. There were still contacts, if today’s generation can believe it, between the university world and the Sunday school world. By 1960, says Bass -- quoting Robert W. Lynn (who, with the Lilly Endowment, helped make this important study possible) -- establishment Protestantism had moved to the "margin" in education. (I would argue that the baby boom and the suburban explosion which led to the momentary illusion of mainline prosperity through the ‘50s only superficially ran against a trend already visible in the Depression and the ‘30s.)

The media? Dennis N. Voskuil points out that in this period establishment Protestants came closer to running the show, or running some show, than they ever could again. But activity was moving elsewhere. Joel W Carpenter was first to show how the fundamentalist losers in the denominational battles of the ‘20s did not disappear. They simply went off and built Bible Schools, new denominations, and publishing or radio empires, which still survive. They successfully created a world-against-the-world or world-within-a-world, a cradle-to-grave, dusk-to-dawn, Sunday-to-Saturday envelope of meaning, thus shaping a market that the mainline lost when it urged churches to blur and blend with the best of secular culture.

Voskuil shows how the old establishment attempted to hold power in the media by trying to pre-empt free air time, but failed to develop and hold an audience. Their denominational magazines, no matter what their quality. cut a cultural swath that they could not aspire to today, and The Christian Century could speak for the culture as it would be embarrassed to try to do now. Voskuil reprints a two-page chart showing how mainline Protestantism slipped and almost disappeared from Newsweek and Time coverage by the end of the period, though in the false twilight of the ‘50s Henry Luce was still putting establishmentarians like Henry Knox Sherrill, Henry Pitney Van Dusen, Theodore Adams, Franklin Clark Fry and Eugene Carson Blake on the cover of Time. Voskuil stays around long enough to see the fundamentalist-evangelical-Pentecostalist takeover of radio and then television.

Robert A. Schneider writes of the new idea of "church federation" which prospered with the Federal Council (after 1908) and National Council of Churches (after 1951). Federation would help ‘Protestants keep power over against Catholics and secularists; there is no getting away from the fact that there were such motivations, among nobler ones. Photographs all male, all white Federal Council meetings depict as well as anything the world we have lost. The establishment prospered when it was chauvinist and super-American in ways its heirs in the forlorn conciliar world would refuse to be. (Losing hegemony, I hope it is becoming clear, is not entirely a bad thing.)

Blacks? David W. Wills tells the story well: only one or two people, like Benjamin E. Mays and George Edmund Haynes, made it into the establishment. The mainline was a white world, and when it began finally to integrate, not comprehending what was to become black power and pride, it contributed further to the loss of the old purposes.

Benny Kraut’s chapter on Protestant-Catholic and Christian-Jewish relations, like Brereton’s chapter, provides an agenda for much more research and writing. These were the years when interfaith movements became necessary and began to prosper. Giants in the Protestant establishment met counterparts in Judaism and Catholicism. But Kraut shows how anti-Catholic and uneasy about Judaism the establishment constituency was, despite a "Goodwill" movement. A picture of Protestant leaders decorously gathered in 1946 to protest Harry Truman’s naming of a U.S. representative to the Vatican is a scene from the days of hegemony that one would not like to see replicated today.

In a subtle chapter, R. Laurence Moore shows how social sciences, bone of Protestant bone and flesh of establishment flesh, moved away from their religious origins and contributed to secularization. And Grant Wacker chronicles the rise of true pluralism: the recognition by the establishment of the validity of other religions to the point that it turned relativist, supertolerant, nonmissionary. One could argue that this shift, so expensive for Christian evangelism, was an important factor in legitimating the inevitable change in U.S. population after midcentury. But it meant that the evangelizing impulse moved almost entirely to "conservative Protestantism," contributing to mainline decline. The establishmentarians had been so used to retaining their children’s loyalty and attracting their neighbors almost automatically that they never learned the mandate of modernity: you have to be aggressive to hold your own and win the new.

Hence Mark Silk can write of the rise of the "new evangelicalism" in the 1940s, the era of Billy Graham and Christianity Today and of meaner movements, militant and intolerant fundamentalisms. He points out how Reinhold Niebuhr gave establishment antievangelicalism a last whirl in an attack on Billy Graham. In the third of a century since then, the attacks on moderate evangelicals have come from the fundamentalist right -- ask Graham about that -- while moderates and liberals have done what moderates and liberals are supposed to do: they say they see some neoevangelical points, and they issue some cease-fires. While Silk does not stress it, one must also note that the old establishment leaders often came from conservative evangelical backgrounds; they resisted the repressiveness and restrictiveness but also brought along vitalities gained in their evangelically shaped youth. That flow has slowed if not stopped, as evangelicalism has come to provide its own status system for risers in the ranks.

Though Robert Handy has written of the "second disestablishment" of Protestantism (from the Depression on) , until now the historical record behind the decentering of American religious and secular culture has been neglected. It should be clear from my remarks that I consider this a pioneering and already landmark achievement. In many cases it is a first word, not a last word. Its stories will do more than attacks on National Councils, hand-wringing about liberalism’s ineffectual leftovers, and snide or spiteful sneers can do to explain why "we" have lost the world we have lost.