"The black upper class has most often been associated with the Episcopal Church," says Rev. Harold T. Lewis, the author of Yet with a Steady Beat: The African American Struggle for Recognition in the Episcopal Church and rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. Despite earlier affiliations with the Baptist and Methodist denominations and the larger numbers of blacks who currently make up those congregations, the black elite have often selected the more formal high Episcopal Church or Congregational Church.SOURCE: Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class, by Lawrence Otis Graham (Harper, 2000), p. 13
The Episcopal faith was attractive because of its formality, and both faiths were appealing because they were known for having well-educated clergy and a small number of members. Well-to-do black Americans with roots in the West Indies had natural historic ties to the Episcopal Church, which had served a major role in Jamaica and other former British colonies for several generations. The Congregational Church's popularity among the black elite grew from the fact that it was the denomination that had given the greatest support to the American Missionary Association's efforts in establishing secondary schools and colleges for southern blacks in the late 1800s.
And for some of the most cynical and status-conscious members of the black elite, the two denominations were particularly appealing simply because most blacks were not of that faith.
In every city where there are members of the black elite, there is an Episcopal or a Congregational Church that dominates the upper-class black religious scene: In Chicago, it is St. Edmund's or Good Shepherd; in Detroit, St. Matthew's; in Philadelphia, St. Thomas; in Memphis, Second Congregational; in Charleston, St. Mark's; in Washington, St. Luke's; in Atlanta, First Congregational; and in New York, St. Philip's. Some say that the black upper class disdains the open display of emotions that are often shared in Baptist and AME [= African Methodist Episcopal] churches, while others say that Episcopal and Congregational denominations have better-educated church leaders.
For whatever the reason, the choice does keep the elite separated. And just as there have been special churches for the black upper class, so are there special social groups that separate men, women, and children of different classes.
I believe I first became aware of the social-class correlates of religious affiliation during my junior high school years in very status-conscious Winchester, Virginia, where one of the standard pejoratives among my peers during the early 1960s was "common": "Oh, she's so common!" We were Baptists—common enough in those parts, in both senses. In fact I was baptized in Winchester's First Baptist Church, my mother's home church, where my father served as associate pastor during our extended furlough there. My two wealthier uncles belonged to Presbyterian and Lutheran churches, somewhat more upscale denominations in those parts, but not as upscale as Episcopalians, who were at the top of the denominational heap.
UPDATE: Reader Aidan Kehoe wonders whether this phenomenon is as strong in any other country as it is in the U.S. In any country in which there is an established religion (or sect), there would seem to be a strong correlation between the elites and the established religion. It has at times been quite a social handicap (or worse) to be Catholic in the U.K.; Protestant in Spain, France, or Poland; Christian in Japan or Sumatra, Muslim in the Philippines or Moluccas (Maluku), Hindu in Pakistan or Sri Lanka, or Jewish almost anywhere. It's still tough to be Shi'a (or anything but Sunni) over most of the Muslim world. Nowadays, however, secularism seems to be the creed of the elites in West; it's at least a social faux pas to openly profess belief in any Western religion on any elite Western university campus. What makes the U.S. exceptional with regard to correlations of creed and class may be the combination of (1) perhaps the most extreme religious diversity of any current state, especially of sects within Christianity, with much regional variation; and (2) very high social mobility across boundaries of class, sect, and region.