Protestant-Catholic-Jew, Will Herberg, 1959

Will Herberg taught at Drew University during the 1950s. His Protestant-Catholic-Jew (excerpted here) has become a classic in its interpretation of America in the 1950s. Herberg’s articulation of the “triple melting pot,” of “The American Way of Life,” and of the role of religion in claiming an American identity provide a starting point for discussion in thinking about a more complex religious America in the 1990s.

The three religious communities—Protestant, Catholic, Jew—are America. Together, they embrace almost the entire population of this country. In the scheme of things, defined by the American Way of Life, they constitute the three faces of American religion, the three “pools” or “melting pots” in and through which the American people is emerging as a national entity after a century of mass immigration. (211)

The outstanding feature of the religious situation in American today is the pervasiveness of religious self-identification along the tripartite scheme of Protestant, Catholic, Jew. From the “land of immigrants,” America has, as we have seen, become the “triple melting pot,” restructured in three great communities with religious labels, defining three great “communions” or “faiths.” This transformation has been greatly furthered by what may be called the dialectic of “third generation interest”: the third generation, coming into its own with the cessation of mass immigration, tries to recover its “heritage,” so as to give itself some sort of “name” or context of self-identification and social location, in the larger society. “What the son wishes to forget”—so runs “Hansen’s Law”—“the grandson wishes to remember.” But what he can “remember” is obviously not his grandfather’s foreign language, or even his grandfather’s foreign culture; it is rather his grandfather’s religion—America does not demand of him the abandonment of the ancestral religion as it does of the ancestral language and culture. This religion he now “remembers” in a form suitably “Americanized,” and yet in a curious way also “retraditionalized.” Within this comprehensive framework of basic sociological change operate those inner factors making for a “return to religion” which so many observers have noted in recent years…

[B]eing a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew is understood as the specific way, and increasingly perhaps the only way, of being an American and locating oneself in American society. It is something that does not in itself necessarily imply actual affiliation with a particular church, participation in religious activities, or even the affirmation of any definite creed or belief; it implies merely identification and social location. A convinced atheist, or an eccentric American who adopts Buddhism or Yoga, may identify himself to himself and find his stance in life in terms of his anti-religious ideology or exotic cult, although it is more than likely that a Yankee turned Buddhist would still be regarded as a “Protestant,” albeit admittedly a queer one. But such people are few and far between in this country and are not even remotely significant in determining the American’s understanding of himself. By and large, to be an American today means to be either a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew, because all other forms of self-identification and social location are either (like regional background) peripheral and obsolescent, or else (like ethnic diversity) subsumed under the broader head of  religious community.

…What is this American Way of Life that we have said constitutes the “common religion” of American society?… If the American Way of Life had to be defined in one word, “democracy” would undoubtedly be the word, but democracy in a peculiarly American sense. On its political side it means the Constitution; on its economic side, “free enterprise”; on its social side, an equalitarianism which is not only compatible with but indeed actually implies vigorous economic competition and high mobility. Spiritually, the American Way of Life is best expressed in a certain kind of “idealism” which has come to be recognized as characteristically American. It is a faith that has its symbols and its rituals, its holidays and its liturgy, its saints and its sancta, and it is a faith that every American, to the degree that he is an American, knows and understands. (79)

…Americans believe in religion in a way that perhaps no other people do. It may indeed be said that the primary religious affirmation of the American people, in harmony with the American Way of Life, is that religion is a “good thing,” a supremely “good thing,” for the individual and the community. And “religion” here means not so much any particular religion, but religion as such, religion-in-general. “Our government makes no sense,” President Eisenhower recently declared, “unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.” In saying this, the President was saying something that almost any American could understand and approve, but which must seem like a deplorable heresy to the European churchman. Every American could understand, first, that Mr. Eisenhower’s apparent indifferentism (“and I don’t care what it is”) was not indifferentism at all, but the expression of the conviction that at bottom the “three great faiths” were really “saying the same thing” in affirming the “spiritual ideals” and “moral values” of the American Way of Life.

…It must be remembered that in America the variety and multiplicity of churches did not, as in Europe, come with the breakdown of a single established national church; in America, taking the nation as a whole, the variety and multiplicity of churches was almost the original condition and coeval with the emergence of the new society. In America religious pluralism is thus not merely a historical and political fact; it is, in the mind of the American, the primordial condition of things, an essential aspect of the American Way of Life, and therefore in itself an aspect of religious belief. Americans, in other words, believe that the plurality of religious groups is a proper and legitimate condition. However much he may be attached to his own church, however dimly he may regard the beliefs and practices of other churches, the American tends to feel rather strongly that total religious uniformity, even with his own church benefiting thereby, would be something undesirable and wrong, scarcely conceivable. Pluralism of religions and churches is something quite axiomatic to the American. This feeling, more than anything else, is the foundation of the American doctrine of the “separation of church and state,” for it is the heart of this doctrine that the government may not do anything that implies the pre-eminence or superior legitimacy of one church over another. (84-85)

This means that outside the Old World distinction of church and sect America has given birth to a new type of religious structure—the denomination. The denomination as we know it is a stable, settled church, enjoying a legitimate and recognized place in a larger aggregate of churches, each recognizing the proper status of the others.

[From Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay on American Religious Sociology (New York: Anchor Books), 1960. Permission granted by Professor Donald G. Jones, executor of the estate of Will Herberg]