Book Review

Schultz Replies To Beuttler’s Review Of Tri-Faith America

[Editor’s Note: Fred Beuttler’s review of Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise appeared here on April 12.]

First, I’d like to thank the editors for allowing me to respond to Fred Beuttler’s warmly positive review of my book Tri-Faith America. Coming from him, a positive review means a lot.

And Beuttler nicely highlights the story I tell in the book, which mostly concerns a rhetorical victory in transforming the nation’s image of itself, and then the struggle to live with the social and political ramifications of that new national image. The demise of the idea that America was “a Protestant nation” was no small thing; it was bound to have repercussions. And while the first half of my book tells the story of how the pluralist rhetoric of Tri-Faith America came to national prominence in the years surrounding World War II, the second half dissects how those ideas worked themselves out in the 1950s and 60s on school boards and in social fraternities, suburbs, courts, and etiquette guides. It is a story of ideas in action.

While Beuttler appreciates all this, he does, however, call me out for downplaying divisions within Protestantism, especially considering we now know that it was during these mid-twentieth century years that conservatives were sharpening their swords, preparing for battle. Fair enough. And Beuttler concludes that “even though there is no longer a Protestant Establishment, America will always be a nation of protestants [meaning dissenters].” Also fair enough. There is a rich history of Protestant dissent in American life and, while I most certainly don’t ignore it in my book, perhaps I should have done more to illuminate those distinctions rather than rely on the idea that Protestantism existed as a somehow unified force.

The reason I chose not to do this, though, is important to the midcentury story I tell. It is this: The very advocates of Tri-Faith America–those struggling to end the rhetoric of “Protestant America” and create a new, more tolerant nation–were consciously downplaying those divisions themselves. In their efforts to bring forward a vision of America beyond Protestantism, they found it easier–rhetorically and politically–to disengage from sectarian battles in order to show the true promise of pluralism and tolerance. Call it willful ignorance if you like, but the decision was theirs, not mine.

As I’ve been reading through the rich and burgeoning literature on the rise of the Religious Right and the reconfiguring of America’s religious sociology since the 1960s, I’m struck by how much internal Protestant dissent was in fact bubbling up during the peak years of Tri-Faith America, the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. But what surprises me is not the fact that the dissent existed, but instead the fact that many, many Americans, and especially key power players on the American scene, were so eager to dismiss it.

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Kevin M. Schultz
Assistant Professor of History and Catholic Studies
University of Illinois at Chicago (MC 198)
927 University Hall
Chicago, IL 60607-7109

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Whether ecumenicalism is progressive or reactionary depends on context. When I was a kid in the 50s and 60s, liberal Jews, Protestants, and Catholics favored the Tri-Faith idea, but for many years now the net effect of hyphenated religiosity has been to strengthen the hand of the cultural warriors inside each faith. Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Evangelicals help the authoritarian, obscurantist wing of the Catholic church squelch opposition and undo Vatican II The right-wing Catholics return the favor.

  2. Jim,
    Good point, and you are exactly right. In some ways, that’s one finding of Wuthnow’s _Restructuring of American Religion_ and is also the context of many of the major “non-denominational” Protestant churches that dot the land. Ecumenicalism cuts both ways, but in the midcentury years it most certainly indicated a progressive stance toward a more general tolerance and a more liberal America. It seems 1962 and 1963 were key years in fomenting the opposition to which you refer.
    Kevin

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