Review of Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2011). ISBN: 9780195331769. 264 pages.
Reviewed by Fred Beuttler
America as a “Protestant” Nation?
A few years ago I was at a conference on religion and neuroscience and was arguing with a German theologian over which of our two countries was more democratic. We went back and forth on various aspects of our respective cultures, such as science, religion, political procedure, and so forth. After trading points, she finally got all flustered and said that “you Americans aren’t as democratic as we Germans, because we trust our government.” I burst out laughing. No American would think that that is the basis for democracy – in fact, a deep skepticism of any official truth promulgated by any governmental establishment is almost second nature to us. Dissent is far more engrained in the American tradition than deference to an establishment, ecclesiastical or otherwise.
This anecdote came to mind as I was reading Kevin Schultz’s excellent book, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held America to its Protestant Promise. He brilliantly examines how the idea of America as a “Protestant nation” in the early and mid-twentieth century was replaced by what he calls a “new national image” of a “Tri-Faith” America, that the country by the 1950s was composed of three separate, equally American faiths: Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism. The new concept of a “Judeo-Christian” tradition helped to supersede the nativist conception of a Christian, or even Protestant America, as evidenced not only in the most extremist elements in the 1920s, but also in the thoughts of President Franklin Roosevelt, who mentioned as late as 1942 that the United States was “a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.” A decade later most agreed with President Eisenhower’s understanding of the relation between democracy and a “deeply held religious faith,” including his “and I don’t care what it is.”
Kevin Schultz’s book begins with the story of the Four Chaplains – two Protestant ministers, a Catholic priest, and a Jewish rabbi – who gave up their life vests and drowned after the torpedoing of the U.S.S. Dorchester in February, 1943. This became a vital symbol of American unity against totalitarianism, and was widely recognized during and after the war. While an incredible story of heroism, the Dorchester incident reinforced the painstaking work of a young Presbyterian minister, Everett R. Clinchy, who had become head of the new National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) in 1928. While the idea of a “triple-melting pot” was noticed even in the 1950s, by Will Herberg most famously, one of Schultz’s significant contributions is to reveal how new ideas become widely disseminated in twentieth century America culture.
The NCCJ was part of a larger “goodwill” movement of many after World War I, to oppose nativist calls for “one-hundred percent Americanism,” immigration restrictions, and discrimination against Jews and Catholics. After traveling to Nazi Germany, Clinchy denounced Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews, and helped organize a seven-week thirty-eight city speaking tour, with a priest and a rabbi, as a “Tolerance Trio,” talking about the brotherhood of man under the Fatherhood of God.” These “trialogues” were seen as widely successful, and soon the NCCJ were sending out numerous other tolerance trios across the country, as well as organizing local chapters of the organization. Schultz argues that the NCCJ became one of the leading organizations for a new kind of America, one that would emphasize an inclusive cultural pluralist vision, “centered on the common foundation Protestants, Catholics, and Jews shared.” Leading up to World War II, the NCCJ stressed the linking of religion and democracy, anticipating President Eisenhower’s belief in democracy and deeply held religious faith.
One decision the organization did make, however, was to concentrate on interreligious activity and the acceptance of the tri-faith ideal, rather than expand beyond religion to include race. Schultz tells how the Clinchy and the NCCJ board consciously chose to maintain its religious focus, not because it was unsympathetic to racial equality, but rather for fear of becoming a secular “General League Against All Intolerance,” of which there were numerous others. Schultz does not really mention it, but ironically, the NCCJ changed its name in the 1990s, to the National Conference for Community and Justice, a move from pluralism to secularism that would have appalled the Rev. Clinchy.
This book, which began as dissertation under David Hollinger at Berkeley, has been widely and very positively reviewed. It would be an ideal supplemental text for courses in twentieth century American intellectual history, although it is a little pricey in hardcover. Chris Beneke praises the book for revealing that “between the labor-capital divide of the 1930s and the racial divide of the 1960s, there was an ideological contest over the religious composition of the nation.” David Reimer, at H-Judaic praises its study of the decline of bigotry and the growth of toleration, pointing to a “virtual second disestablishment of Protestantism in American society,” although he is frustrated with the focus on ideas rather than social change.
Yet the focus on ideas and their reception is precisely the book’s most important contribution. The book is divided into two parts, the first, on “Inventing Tri-Faith America, Ending ‘Protestant America,’” on the ideological campaign, and the second part, “Living in Tri-Faith America,” which describes various ways in the ideal was implemented in post-war America, in the suburbs, public schools, and college fraternities.
Schultz makes a broad and substantial claim that it was the tri-faith ideal that “softened” the ground for the Civil Rights movement, arguing that “the most successful civil rights language was that borrowed from Tri-Faith America,” rather than that of secular equality or labor rights arguments. It was this “usurpation of the religious high ground” by Martin King and others in the movement, which helped create “a broad white acceptance of American pluralism.” While he does not make it explicit, Schultz implies that this new religious creed was the necessary foundation for the successes of the Civil Rights movement.
Schultz concludes with warnings of a return to a “Protestant America,” complaining of how the new religious right in the 1970s and after have co-opted the concept Judeo-Christian, in a “visceral reaction” to the anticipated trajectory of where he sees the Tri-Faith ideal headed. For he notices the cultural shift from pluralism to secularism, one symbolized in the new name of the NCCJ. “Since the late 1970s, there has been a remarkable transition in the country’s religious sociology,” he says, unfortunately emphasizing “sociology” rather than the significance of ideas. However, he rightly points out that, instead of the divisions between the three faiths of democracy, as had been the case from the 1920s to the 1960s, “by the 1970s conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Jews all began to feel they had more in common with one another than with their co-religionists who happened to be liberal.” This is probably the most significant shift in the religious and cultural landscape since 1960, and this ideological divide between liberalism and conservatism will lead to increasing polarization, not along lines of religion or race, but rather of ideas, as people seem to be sorting themselves out on cultural lines.
Schultz sees the success of the Tri-Faith ideal in formulating “principles of group communalism, group rights, and religious privacy,” helped usher in the second disestablishment of religion,” and softened the ground for the Civil Rights movement. “But whatever else they accomplished, perhaps their most significant victory was to limit the appeal of a return to Protestant monism, something Everett Clinchy might have been most proud of.”
But this is where Schultz’s perspective fails, I think, for there simply was not a “Protestant monism” in the mid-twentieth century, when Clinchy’s own denomination was shattered in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, an ideological disruption that has persisted into the present. It may be understandable from a Catholic or Jewish perspective, but the very idea of “Protestant monism” does not reflect religious reality at least since the Great Awakening, if not the days of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. The story Schultz is telling is the opening up of the Protestant Establishment, which did exist in the mid-twentieth century, to the Tri-Faith ideal, and then to a secular establishment as at present.
It may be that the assumption of Protestant monism is not the right narrative – certainly it is operative at some level, but it may obscure more than it clarifies. An establishment center, surrounded by numerous outsiders, may be different than a model of constant religious competition, of a churning pluralism as a tradition of religious dissent. America may have been a “Protestant nation” in mid-century, as Franklin Roosevelt saw it, although the patrician Roosevelt would doubtless have overlooked the varieties of fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and other religious groups, who, while Protestant, were certainly not part of an “establishment.” But Protestantism has never been unified in America. The closest it has come to that was for not even twenty years, in the early days of the Federal Council of Churches. In fact, Protestantism is sort of like what John Dewey thought of “religion” – there is no such thing, only “religions.” Protestantism, born in dissent, has always bred further dissenters.
This anomaly is clearly seen at where Kevin Schultz currently teaches, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where I myself was once on staff. There never has been a “religious studies” department at UIC, but it was the first public university in the country to have a “Catholic Studies” program, to go along with Jewish Studies. Yet, conceptually, it simply would not make sense to have a “Protestant Studies” department there. What would such a program look like?
Indeed, the Four Chaplains story is a more revealing one than Schultz lets on. The four chaplains had met at Harvard in the Army Chaplain School, in 1942. That same year, a group of evangelical Protestants had formed an organization to counter perceived discrimination against theological conservatives in the military chaplaincy, which was then controlled by the Federal Council of Churches. The Christian Century style of mainline Protestantism obscured the vast divisions that were at place in American religion. The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy had shattered any consensus between the wars, driving more conservative Protestants out of mainline institutions, as they formed their own. Certainly there was a Protestant establishment that was roughly coterminous with the Federal Council, but there were also a large group of dissenters. The two Protestant chaplains were familiar with both Protestant traditions, the mainline and the evangelical. One of those martyred chaplain’s father was Daniel A. Poling, whom Schultz calls a “fiery conservative Protestant,” and who called himself an Evangelical. He would more than likely be at home in the modern religious right. Yet it was Poling who helped build a Chapel of Four Chaplains, as Schultz mentions.
So it may be too much for Kevin Schultz to claim that the development of a Tri-Faith America leads to an end of Protestant monism. For since American beginnings, official truth enforced by an establishment has been met by dissent – that is the true tradition, of a small ‘p’ protestantism. That is even true within Roman Catholicism, where “Americanism” was earlier seen as a heresy. The book Tri-Faith America ends with a note to an increasing religious diversity, as a Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and new agers become a larger part of American religious pluralism. But, just as with Catholics, one can predict that these faith traditions, as they live in a culture of American religious freedom, will increasingly breed dissenters.
It may be that, one day, Protestant Christians, or Christians of any variety, may cease to be a majority in America. But even though there is no longer a Protestant Establishment, America will always be a nation of protestants.