The idea of the mainline—the idea of a unified American Protestantism, culturally dominant, socially progressive, fulfilling its obligation as shepherd of the nation’s soul—achieved unprecedented success in the late 1940s and early 1950s. At the same time, mainline ideas about specific social issues and about the mechanics of Protestant cooperation often failed to gain traction. As discussions of these issues, in the pages of the Century and elsewhere, bogged down or exposed sharp disagreements, increasing numbers of American Protestants channeled their energies away from formal ecumenism and into parachurch initiatives. This redirection of clergy and, even more significantly, lay energy depleted the strength of Century-style ecumenism, but it also attested to the power of the idea of the mainline. American Protestants in the postwar decade wanted unity, and they wanted to change the world. They just could not agree on the best way to proceed.
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