Churches, Mainstream

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Since World War II, American mainstream churches have moved from presuming Protestant cultural dominance to a tripartite recognition of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to a multicultural reality in which identifying mainstream churches is difficult.


Historically, a group of Protestant denominations with roots deep in the American experience were known as the mainstream churches. They included Baptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and the Disciples or Churches of Christ and Reformed Churches. Most American presidents had belonged to one of these groups and their public consensus underlay public education. The trauma of the Depression and World War II, however, led to three developments in the mid-twentieth century.

First, paralleling the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, the ecumenical movement saw the founding of a World Council of Churches in 1948 and the reorganization of the Federal Council of Churches as the National Council of Churches in 1950. These organizations drew Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches into cooperative efforts.

Second, Europe's holocaust led Jewish Americans to a determination that never again should such a tragedy befall the Jewish people and reinforced the Zionist commitment which established Israel as an independent state in 1948.

Third, the trinity of the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths came increasingly to be recognized as the "American religions." The precedent for this lay in the founding of a united front against intolerance, the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1928, and was symbolized in World War II by the four chaplains—two Protestants, a Catholic, and a Jew—who gave up their life preservers to save fellow troopers when their transport ship was torpedoed and sank in the North Atlantic in 1943.

cold war

In 1951, the united front was analyzed in Will Herberg's widely influential book Protestant-Catholic-Jew. This sophisticated work of historical sociology argued that the American experience had largely eroded all particular beliefs among American lay people and replaced them with an amorphous "religion of the American way of life," which meant that to call oneself a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew was simply a way of saying that one was an American. In 1960, the united front seemed to have been affirmed by the election of a Roman Catholic, John F. Kennedy, the first non-Protestant president of the United States. Kennedy appeared to confirm Herberg's analysis by assuring voters that his Catholicism would have no influence on his conduct of public affairs. To counter the united front's theological vacuity but affirm its unity, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish theologians increasingly spoke of a "Biblical faith" and a "Judeo-Christian tradition," which was not simply reducible to an American civil religion. Neotraditional theologians like Herberg and Reinhold Niebuhr asserted that the real social implications of sin necessitated the use of coercion to confront false messianic faiths like fascism and communism and to achieve proximate justice in a democratic society. Whether mainstream American religion was a religion of the American way of life or a common heritage rooted in Biblical faith, it tended to see itself arrayed against the forces of "godless communism" in a cosmic battle between forces of good and evil. The Cold War was a struggle between competing economic and political systems, to be sure, but it was also seen as a struggle of transcendent significance.

war and protest

The National Conference of Christians and Jews promoted annual celebrations of Brotherhood Week, which virtually everywhere, and certainly in the South, was a white affair. The united front was racially exclusive. By the mid-1950s, African Americans, including many pastors of the National Baptist Convention, were using litigation and nonviolent direct action to challenge racial segregation. The Civil Rights struggle split the African-American Baptist church between the activist followers of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a larger group headed by its president, Joseph H. Jackson. King's dramatic appeal to biblical and democratic values eventually drew some white Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders to support the Civil Rights movement, thus dividing white religious groups as well. Despite opposition from some local white religious leaders, the National Council of Churches committed its Delta Ministry to ally with insurgent Civil Rights forces in Mississippi.

Widespread religious support for America's role in World War II, the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the Korean War gave way to mainstream opposition to the Vietnam War by the mid-1960s. Some leaders of the National Council of Churches and mainstream denominations organized the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam as a vehicle to oppose the war. Subsequent movements, including black nationalism, feminism, and a variety of ethnic identity groups, organized to reshape their religious traditions.

Identity religion shaped the mainstream denominations' attitudes in foreign policy. The American Jewish community, for example, became Israel's single most important and reliable international source of support. African-American Baptists and Methodists took particular interest in promoting missions in sub-Saharan Africa, which became the fastest growing part of world Christendom. In South Korea, Presbyterian missions helped secure American Presbyterian support for the Korean War. After communist revolutions in China and Cuba, the new regimes' suppression of Catholic and Methodist missions forced indigenous Christians to go underground and alienated western Christians from communist claims on behalf of social justice.

A conservative reaction to many of these developments held that the agenda of mainstream churches was being determined by secular social values rather than by traditional religion. This reaction drove both the formation of conservative coalitions within mainstream denominations, which challenged liberal leadership, and the dramatic growth of conservative Protestant denominations, many of them affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals. Even when they could speak with one voice, the once-mighty National Council of Churches and the National Council of Catholic Bishops increasingly seemed to be single voices among many contending voices. Not only were many voices now heard, but a crisis of authority was taking place in all religious groups as public scandal rocked evangelical and mainstream churches, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths, and clergy and lay leaders alike.

By the end of the twentieth century, a multicultural America made the identification of mainstream American churches problematic. Between 1960 and 1995, Protestants and Roman Catholics increased in numbers that were in proportion to the general population growth, but among Protestants the growth was concentrated in conservative and evangelical denominations. Despite mergers with related groups, all the mainstream denominations declined in relative, and even in absolute, numbers. Among Jews, the tendency was the reverse, with orthodox Jewish congregations declining in numbers as conservative and reformed congregations grew.

At the end of the century, however, there were more Muslims than Jews in the United States, more Eastern Orthodox Christians than Episcopalians, more members of the African-American pentecostal Church of God in Christ than Presbyterians, and more Roman Catholics than members of all "mainstream Protestant denominations" combined. The National Conference of Christians and Jews embraced diversity by changing its name to the National Conference on Community and Justice.

In 2000, the hegemony of white Protestants seemed vindicated when the nation elected a president and a vice president who were both United Methodists. When United Methodist bishops sought an audience with the new president to discuss his foreign policy, however, they sought it in vain. A president who was among the nation's most visibly religious could safely ignore his denomination's leaders, whom he suspected of being out of touch with their own membership.


Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972.

Heilman, Samuel C. Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the Twentieth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.

Herberg, Will. Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1951.

Marty, Martin E. Modern American Religion, Vol. 3: Under God, Indivisible, 1941–1960. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Moore, R. Laurence. Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Silk, Mark. Spiritual Politics: Religion in America since World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Wuthnow, Robert. The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith since World War II. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Ralph E. Luker

See also:Americanism vs. Godless Communism; Churches, Evangelical, 1946–Present; Civil Rights Movement; Hiroshima Guilt; Jackson, Jesse, Louis; Just-War Debate; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Nonviolence; Peace Movements, 1946–Present .

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Churches, Mainstream

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