In the winter of 1954, Will Herberg, the best untrained sociologist in America, turned his attention to the sociology of American religion. Nine months later, he emerged with Protestant-Catholic-Jew , still a classic of American religious history.
Fifty years after its first publication, Herberg’s critique of pluralism is still impressive, as are his ideas about the importance of group identities and his derision of the melting pot. And yet, one cannot help wondering if Herberg was right in his description of America. Was American social life really divided into three separate parts, one Protestant, one Catholic, one Jewish? Despite these divisions, was there really an overarching sense of unity, a common religion, that most Americans believed? Although the book reminds us of a time when deep social divisiveness was not at the core of the culture wars, was he right to suggest that religion was an under-acknowledged party in American discussions about pluralism? Were postwar Catholics and Jews the first multiculturalists?
Protestant-Catholic-Jew made two large claims”that America contained a triple melting pot and that the religious revival of the 1950s was essentially superficial”though really only the first is much remembered. Herberg’s triple melting pot idea was relatively simple. He had little use for the notions of Israel Zangwill, who had popularized the phrase melting pot in the title of a 1908 play, or of Henry Ford’s image of a foreigner jumping into the pot and coming out in a gray flannel suit waving an American flag.
Still, Herberg said, these ideas were only partly wrong. It was true that national-origin identities had softened since the restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s. It was also true that working-class identities had been weakened by the broadening of the American middle-class and by the demonization of Soviet-style socialism. Sectarian differences within the major faiths had dulled as well. (As one of the book’s great blind spots, Herberg did not spend much time considering racial divisions in America, calling them an anomaly of considerable importance to his general scheme.)
Instead, he focused on the triple melting pot, which posited that, while most other identities had fallen away, religious divisions between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews had not. To be an Irish American did not matter so much, but to be Catholic carried social significance. To be a Methodist was only nominally or regionally important, but to be Protestant meant something.
Herberg acknowledged they were all Bible-based, Abrahamic faiths and therefore had some things in common. But he was more interested in the fact that each religion was presumed to possess the same spiritual values of the American Way of Life, by which he meant a soft-hearted faith in democracy (political, economic, and religious) combined with a more robust faith in idealism, activism, and moral conviction. Coming in the wake of several interfaith battles where Catholics were thought to be insufficiently independent from the dictates of a foreign pope and Jews were chastised for advocating an extreme separation of church and state, Herberg’s claim of the fundamental equality of the three faiths showed the progression of diversity-acceptance in postwar America. It also perhaps displayed some of his own insecurities as an American Jew.
Herberg was not the first to suggest the existence of the triple melting pot. He borrowed the phrase from Ruby Jo Kennedy, a sociologist who published in 1944 an article on intermarriage in New Haven called Single or Triple Melting Pot? Kennedy had examined 9,044 marriages from several different years (1870, 1900, 1930, and 1940) to chart the decline of endogamy among people of the same nationality (Irish, Italian, Polish, etc.) and the rise of endogamy among the three religious groups. By 1940, Kennedy found that, in New Haven at least, Catholics married Catholics 85 percent of the time. Protestants married Protestants nearly 80 percent of the time. And Jews married Jews 94 percent of the time. Culture [i.e. ethnic] lines may fade, she concluded from her study, but religious barriers are holding fast.
Another of Herberg’s predecessors was August Hollingshead, a distinguished mid-century sociologist. By 1952, Hollingshead had concluded that in America two social worlds have evolved”a Negro world and a white world. The white world is divided by ethnic origin and religion into Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish contingents. Another sociologist, George Stewart, had written in 1954 that if Americans did expect foreigners to change their language, we did not really expect a man to change his faith. Meanwhile, Oscar Handlin had written in his 1954 textbook, The American People in the Twentieth Century , religious activities fell into a fundamental tripartite division that had begun to take form earlier in the century. Men were Catholics, Protestants, or Jews, categories based less on theological than on social distinctions.
Herberg simplified and amplified the findings of these more cautious predecessors. He claimed that nearly every facet of mid-century American society could be divided into three social camps: Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. By and large, he said, 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 is, he concluded, not to be anything, not to have a name .
This was a bold and broad thesis, and in hindsight one finds the book’s evidence for it a bit thin. Herberg attempted to demonstrate the lack of intermarriage between the three big faiths, and he cited several sociological studies to prove the point, including Kennedy’s. Then he repeatedly used polls to show that, when Americans were asked what their faith was, roughly 95 percent of them responded by saying either Protestant, Catholic, or Jew.
That was about it. Perhaps Herberg felt that his triple melting pot theory was so logical or obvious to mid-century Americans that it would go unchallenged. The early reviews of the book demonstrate that this might not have been far from the truth. Many picked at parts of his evidence, but few disputed the large-scale scheme. Today, however, when religious divisions between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews have declined, the evidentiary grounds upon which he stood seems less clear.
Still, Herberg spent considerable energy demonstrating the unity within each of the three faiths, and here he is more impressive. Herberg was fascinated that American Protestants experience no difficulty in passing from one denomination to another when social or personal convenience requires. Nor did he find any real difficulties in marriage among people of differing denominations. And several Protestant para-church groups had formed since World War II, suggesting the growing institutional unity within a religious group famously divided by sectarian differences.
For their part, Catholics had developed an incredible number of institutions designed solely for use by American Catholics. There were Catholic baseball teams, sewing circles, bowling leagues, hospitals, orphanages, welfare agencies, boy scouts, war veterans, associations of doctors, lawyers, teachers, students, and philosophers. There were also Catholic leagues of policemen, firemen, and sanitary workers. And there was, of course, the immense Catholic educational system, which boasted between three and five million students”more than half of all of the Catholic children of elementary-school age. Taken together, this Catholic social system constituted a self-contained Catholic world. Herberg pointed out the increasing number of marriages between Irish and Italian Catholics, a union that at one time had been taboo but which was now deemed acceptable because both parties were Catholic.
As for Jews, Herberg cited surveys showing that Jews were increasingly seeking to retain their Jewish identity, a conscious decision that prevented both assimilation and intermarriage. Almost 100 percent of the adolescents in one sample thought of Jews in religious terms rather than racial or ethnic ones, meaning that they no longer associated themselves with the contingent of Eastern European ethnics who had moved to America during the first two decades of the twentieth century. They were no longer ethnically Jewish, but religiously so. Jewish holidays were celebrated lavishly, and Herberg cited one poll that found that 50 percent of American Jews replied affirmatively to a question about being an active member of a synagogue. Mid-century American Jews, then, were growing in number, increasing their unity, and showing no sign of willingly assimilating into a broader American identity.
The triple melting pot was a living and breathing thing, Herberg concluded, and it was showing no sign of decline in the middle 1950s or in the foreseeable future. When Americans answered the question, Who am I? they thought primarily in religious terms: I am a Jew or I am a Catholic or I am a Protestant. Thus Herberg concluded with what became the book’s most famous line: 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.
If Herberg’s triple melting pot idea is fairly well remembered today, the second point Herberg sought to make is more often forgotten. Arguing that mid-century America made religion important for all the wrong reasons, Herberg insisted that Americans identified with one of the three big faiths in order to be accepted. Borrowing heavily from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd , Herberg noted the need to be recognized in society, or, to use Riesman’s phrase, to have a brand name. This was how one advanced in an other-directed society, where society judged a person by how he or she presented him or herself.
Submitting religion to Riesman’s analysis, Herberg concluded that religious identities were the brand name that mid-century Americans relied on. In fact, Herberg concluded, not to identify oneself and be identified as . . . a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew is somehow not to be an American. Atheists and agnostics were un-American. Buddhists and Muslims were foreign. To be a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew are today the alternative ways of being an American.
The result, Herberg suggested, was not only that the three big religions were allowing people of minimal faith to enter their buildings, but that they were, more damningly, making concessions to keep these half-hearted believers in the pews. To assert their credentials as Jews, mid-century Americans filled synagogues, but they did so only because they wanted to be seen as firm in their belief, not because they wanted to keep kosher. Conservative synagogues found this more than acceptable, Herberg complained, and in fact they had become increasingly sympathetic to the practices of the reform denominations in order to maintain their membership. Herberg complained that such religion, however sincere and well-meant, is ultimately vitiated by a strong and pervasive idolatrous element. Americans of 1955 practiced religiousness without religion, a religiousness with almost any kind of content or none, a way of sociability or belonging’ rather than a way of reorienting life to God. It is thus frequently a religiousness without serious commitment, without real inner conviction, without genuine existential decision.
In the argument of Protestant-Catholic-Jew , if the specific dogmatic elements of each faith were not important, then religion must have become simply one way a minority group could ease its way into the mainstream. Religion had become the central mode of earning acceptance, although what was unique about this particular type of assimilation was that nobody expected religious minorities”Catholics or Jews”to depart fully from the tenets of their faith. They could remain Catholic or Jewish and still be good Americans.
This, then, was certainly not assimilation, nor was it the melting pot. Today’s notions of multiculturalism insist on acceptance of group identities and give priority to harmonious, society-wide group relations. Protestant-Catholic-Jew is an early articulation of this ideal. Catholics and Jews, Herberg was saying, were rightful participants in American society, despite the fact that they were not Protestants. With a common ideological foundation”the American Way of Life”underlying each social group, the three groups could then properly contest for society’s rewards. The communal tensions between the groups were of major importance in the life of the nation, Herberg added, suggesting that they began non-divisive discussions about the limits of American democracy and allowed all 96 percent of Americans who identified as Protestant, Catholic, or Jew to have some social, political, and cultural recognition in America. In theory at least, they achieved what the advocates of today’s multiculturalism so desperately seek.
Upon its release, Protestant-Catholic-Jew was an immediate success, although then, as today, most people ignored Herberg’s second, more indicting thesis. The book sold well, and was reviewed even better. The New York Times assigned as a reviewer Reinhold Niebuhr, without a doubt the most famous theologian in America at the time. Niebuhr called Protestant-Catholic-Jew the most fascinating essay on the religious sociology of America that has appeared in decades. Within three weeks of its release, more than forty reviews appeared, causing Herberg to write, It is obvious that the book is making something of a sensation.
For most reviewers, the book seemed to explain the social dynamics of religion in America to an audience well aware that religion was important, but not entirely sure of its dynamics. Religion-watchers were dubious of the religiosity of the 1950s revival; religious minorities were uncertain of the accepting nature of the revival; and culture-watchers were unsure what it all meant. How had Going My Way ‘s Father O’Malley and the Goldbergs both become cultural icons in what had so recently been Protestant America?
Herberg supplied them with an answer. And because of this, he was cited in almost every major sociological book for the next decade. Milton Gordon relied on Herberg in his landmark work, Assimilation in American Life . E. Digby Baltzell, the great chronicler of America’s Wasp elite, repeatedly cited Herberg as well in The Protestant Establishment .
But was Herberg accurate in his description of mid-century America? When we consider his pessimism about Americans’ depth of belief, I am reminded of the words of Herberg’s contemporary, Walter Reuther, who admitted that he was frightened to pass judgment on the purity of one another’s motives. It is revealing, however, that many who did join churches and synagogues in the 1950s were quick to leave them once their children had grown up, once Vatican II changed the way of Catholic worship, once the Civil Rights Movement put on display the un-religious practices of many of America’s mainline churches.
It seems inexcusable that Herberg did not really acknowledge the deepening racial divisions in American society. But upon re-reading Herberg, one senses that he was being honest in leaving black people out of his social analysis. He was, it seems, acknowledging a social truth about race in America during the 1950s, namely that racial minorities did not matter much to the goings-on of mainstream society. This was egregious to be sure, and I have the feeling that Herberg would agree it was too. But Herberg had set out to describe the varieties of Americanism in the 1950s, and one cannot help but confront the fact that, in this period, to a great many mid-century Americans, being black was not quite being American.
Beyond this oversight, Herberg’s triple melting pot theory has come under some scrutiny over the decades, although few scholars have seriously engaged the thesis since the 1970s. From the beginning, Baptists, especially in the South, were not sure they were ready to marry other Protestants as much as Herberg claimed they were, and they wondered aloud about the unity of American Protestantism.
More forthright complaints came in the early 1960s from a number of Jewish authors worried about what they called the identity crisis of American Judaism. As early as six years after the release of Protestant-Catholic-Jew , many young Jewish intellectuals admitted feeling little attachment to their Jewish faith. The cause, they mostly said, was widespread success. As Philip Roth put it, What a Jew wants and how he goes after it, does not on the whole appear to differ radically from what his Gentile neighbor wants and how he goes after it. Samuel Shapiro wrote, the postwar prosperity and the consequent decline of anti-Semitism
have . . . tended to make us as smooth and bland as any other group of successful middle-class Americans.
Many sociologists began chipping away at Herberg’s reliance on intermarriage data. In 1962, Werner Cahnman edited a volume called Intermarriage and Jewish Life , which argued that fully 20 percent of all Jewish marriages were mixed. In 1963, Erich Rosenthal published a study on Jewish intermarriage rates in Washington, D.C., which confirmed Cahnman’s numbers. In 1964, Marshall Sklare similarly found that Jews were intermarrying at a high rate. Sklare concluded that until the early 1960s American Jews had been smug about the issue, assuming intermarriage was only an occasional aberration. Several recent studies, however, had served as one of the first signs that this community may at last be preparing to recognize that a problem does exist. He blamed Herberg for assisting in the sense of smugness Jews felt about intermarriage. Thomas B. Morgan’s famous 1964 Look article, The Vanishing American Jew, made similar claims.
Meanwhile, in the early 1970s, social observers began protesting the nature of Herberg’s melting pot analysis. Ignoring his comments about the necessary persistence of group identities in an other-directed society, Herberg’s use of the phrase melting pot made him a target to those who saw continuing ethnic particularism. Most memorable in this vein was Michael Novak’s Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics , but many other ethnic particularists emerged in the 1970s to complain about the conception of the melting pot as well. With the rise of race as a serious social concern, and with the defense of group rights and ethnic particularism, Herberg’s star declined.
A second edition of Protestant-Catholic-Jew came out in 1960, but after that the book was not re-published until 1983, when historians began to cite the book as a descriptive text of the 1950s. Professional journals and academics generally favored interpretations of American society that focused more on race than religion. And in 1967, a federal committee, the Kerner Commission, declared that America was moving toward two societies, one black, one white”separate and unequal. With the rise of race as an issue of major sociological importance, Herberg’s book became a quaint tale of American innocence before the fall.
Moreover, if Herberg was clairvoyant in his discussion of diversity, he was blind when it came to the future of American religiousness. His entire book was based around his assumption that Americans’ faith was weak. What Herberg did not see coming was the resurgence of a split between liberal Protestants and evangelicals”a split that would rejuvenate Protestant fervor throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century. A useful starting date for this rejuvenation is the same 1955 in which Protestant-Catholic-Jew appeared”for that was also the year of the founding of Christianity Today , a magazine by and for Protestant evangelicals.
The division between liberals and evangelicals has a long history, but many institutions formed during the 1950s, and then of course the social activism of the 1960s, sped things up considerably. As Robert Wuthnow has shown in The Restructuring of American Religion , evangelicals of the 1960s resisted social activism and the causes behind it, while liberal Protestants were more willing to participate. This precipitated a split in the manifestations of belief between the two parties, one that exists today. While it is difficult to draw exact parallels, this division between liberals and evangelicals affected Catholics and Jews as well, leading to a time when it was less important that you were Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, and more important that you were conservative or liberal in your faith.
Herberg saw none of this coming. Still, he touched on several truths about the 1950s, even if they are hard to see today with our race- and ethnicity-colored glasses. For instance, several seminal organizations began tabulating the number of religious adherents in the middle of the century, including the United States Census Bureau, something that widely attests to the importance of religious identities. Catholics, meanwhile, were indeed in the middle of what some scholars have called a Catholic Renaissance where they expressed their group’s unity more profoundly than before. Jews, too, were relatively unified and publicly noticeable in their struggles against racism, anti-Semitism, and public displays of religion. And Protestants possessed a sense of unity as well, mostly when confronted by Catholics seeking public money for parochial schools or Jews seeking to oust Bible readings from public schools and other practices that seemed to cross the church-state line.
Herberg, in fact, was on to something that many of today’s historians have seemed to forget. Religion was vitally important as a social marker in mid-century society. Perhaps this is why Protestant-Catholic-Jew resonates today as a harbinger of multiculturalism. Unlike nearly all his predecessors, who either supported the melting pot or the ill-defined pluralism ideal, Herberg understood that there was a contested middle ground between assimilation and particularism. He accepted the persistence of group identities, but he rejected the notion of particularism, where people from different backgrounds get to keep in full what it was that made them unique. For a nation to exist, there had to be some common ground. But people also needed to maintain an allegiance to a smaller group identity to maintain a healthy individual identity.
Protestant-Catholic-Jew should perhaps be remembered as one effort to find a sustainable middle. Postwar Jews were emerging from a pattern of pre-war defensiveness. Barriers to social clubs and neighborhoods were falling, and Jews were moving into neighborhoods and novels in a way that they never had before. Catholics, meanwhile, were entering the mainstream as well. There was a Catholic literary revival during these years, monsignors were appearing on the cover of Time , and a Catholic was well on his way to becoming president. And Jews and Catholics were doing all this without having to give up the identity that made them unique. This indeed was multiculturalism”a kind of multiculturalism worth preserving.
Kevin M. Schultz is a postdoctural fellow in American history at the Center on Religion and Democracy at the University of Virginia .
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