Why don’t they listen?” Cosmopolitan elites the world over have asked this question about their provincial constituencies. But no such elite in any time at any place had more cause for exasperated puzzlement than the men and women leading the mainline Protestant churches of the United States in the middle decades of the 20th century. The people in the pews seemed to be following well enough through the 1940s and early 1950s. Congregations were even growing, especially in suburbs. But in the late 1950s churchgoers revealed dismaying limitations. Despite decades of earnest instruction on what a mature faith looked like, many of the faithful couldn’t quite get what was so dreadful about Billy Graham.

The ignorance and bad taste of the flamboyant southern preacher was carefully explained by Reinhold Niebuhr in several forums and by a host of writers for the leadership’s redoubtable (unofficial) house organ, the Christian Century. Yet within a single generation after Graham’s astounding triumph at a New York revival in 1957, when his television audience reached 10 million per week, the public face of Protestantism was largely that of the Graham-led evangelicals and their own magazine, Christianity Today. In the meantime, there was another, comparable failure to pay heed: a very different, younger segment of the community of faith did not get what was so bad about secularism. This had been another of the lessons taught by Century writers, but from the mid-1960s onward many of their own children drifted into varieties of post-Protestant nonaffiliation.

Just how and why all this happened is a matter of ongoing, sometimes contentious debate, enriched now by the intervention of Elesha J. Coffman. The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline is happily distinguished by its sustained attention to the character and dynamics of the great gap between an educated elite and a mass population of churchgoers.