In his 1955 best-seller, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, sociologist Will Herberg wrote that “it is the American Way of Life that supplies American society with an ‘overarching sense of unity’ amid conflict.”
Sixty-one years later, amid divisive ideologies of presidential politics, debates over the nature of the American Ways of Life reveal a nation manifesting an overarching sense of conflict, amid increasingly elusive unity, thus reversing Herberg’s earlier, optimistic assessment. Would 21st-century religious pluralism compel Herberg to retitle his study, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, et. al., even as 56 percent of Americans believe Islam is incompatible with American values?
Herberg touted the flourishing religiosity of the 1950s, noting that “public opinion is markedly more favorable to religion today than it has been for a long time,” citing increases in church membership, the popularity of “religious books” and “more sophisticated religious and theological writings.” He described “the intellectual rehabilitation” of religious outlooks, a trend “so pronounced” that even Reinhold Niebuhr, ever suspicious about “claims of a contemporary ‘revival,’” acknowledged that “the signs in this area to be quite unmistakable.”
He surveyed the distinctive characteristics of the three great religious traditions, and their adaptation to the American socio-religious “triple melting pot,” created in this “land of immigrants.” Thus, Protestant/Catholic/Jew had become “the three faces of American religion” as “defined by the American Way of Life.” Amid their distinct traditions, they achieved a cultural consensus that enabled them to thrive together in America’s pluralistic environment. “By and large,” he insisted, “to be an American today means to be either a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew.” “Not to be a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Jew today,” he continued, “is not to be anything, not to have a name.”
Protestant, Catholic, Jew was a fascinating effort to describe the context of religious America in the 1950s and respond to a perceived religious renewal evident throughout popular culture. While Herberg was criticized for overemphasizing the religious “triple melting pot” theory and offering limited consideration to ethnic and doctrinal differences, he provided a serious critique of the more superficial elements of the so-called “religious revival.”
His most poignant criticism seems leveled at rabid individualism, a religious culture “so naively, so innocently man-centered.” In this way, “Not God, but man — man in his individual and corporate being — is the beginning and end of the spiritual system of much of present-day American religiosity.” While American religion seemed energetic, and appeared to permeate the society, Herberg warned that it was often “found to be so empty and contentless, so conformist, so utilitarian, so sentimental, so individualistic, and so self-righteous.”
Herberg, a Conservative Jew, was insistent that a pluralistic “triple melting-pot” undergirded the “overarching American society despite indubitable differences of religion, section, culture, and class.” He concluded: “America today may be conceived, as it is indeed conceived by most Americans, as one great community divided into three big sub-communities religiously defined.” The United States was not one great “melting-pot” where religious distinctions were absorbed or watered-down. Rather, amid differences, the three faith traditions were united in their common commitment to, and reinforcement of, “the American Way of Life,” a set of shared values that comprised the “religion” of the Republic.
In his optimism regarding American religion and life, Herberg overlooked the continuing cultural, regional and religious distinctions that would extend divisions among ethnic groups and faith communities into this century. He gave limited attention to the presence of racism and racial divisions in the America of the 1950s, issues that continue to divide and polarize the American nation.
Indeed, less than a decade after the publication of Protestant, Catholic, Jew, the “melting-pot” boiled over. Representative religious traditions split publicly and privately over questions of belief, practice, and the nature of democracy itself. As the historian Sidney Mead wrote: “Church members in America have always been faced with the necessity to choose, implicitly at least, between the inclusive religion of democracy and the particularistic Christianity of their sect.”
In his fine study, Piety, Purity, Plenty, Robert Ferm, Middlebury College religion professor, noted that America’s “increasing pluralism” goes well beyond Mead’s comment since “different understandings of civil religion vie with religiously particularistic options that have outgrown the borders of Jewish-Christian tradition.” Religious and non-religious groups and individuals offer competing visions of “the American Way of Life,” or declare that they have been omitted from it altogether.
I wrote about this the night Donald Trump won the Indiana primary, becoming the “presumptive” Republican nominee for U.S. president. Religiously, Trump seems a mostly-in-name-only Presbyterian, elected by large numbers of Evangelicals who preferred him over the uber-Evangelical Ted Cruz. The Indiana Democratic primary was won by the Jewish secularist/socialist, Bernie Sanders. Their contradictory visions of the American Way of Life alone illustrate the depth of our present religio-political dilemma.
Truth is, religion and the “American Ways of Life” have never produced complete consensus, from Roger Williams’ challenge to colonial “Christian nationhood;” to refusing Muslims admission to the “land of the free;” to the possibility of deporting 11 million illegal (Latino/a) immigrants ASAP. Like others before us, we 21st-century Christians must discern where the “American Ways of Life” stop and where the “Jesus Story” begins. Then learn to live with and live out the difference.