Monday, November 20, 2017

America’s Religion in the 1950s: In “God” We Trust

Here's a link to a shorter version of this that appeared in Touchstone...

The title of Will Herberg's classic 1955 book, 
Protestant, Catholic, Jew (PCJ) is odd, memorable, and descriptive. Herberg describes three "ways of belonging" in 1950s America with respect to religion—through the three dominant religious groups: P, C, and J.[1] In the past, I’ve focused most of my thoughts on P, but he helpfully describes C and J at length too.[2]

PCJ had been on my reading list for a long time—as a prominent discussion of American religion in that unique decade. But I wrote a journal article on a classic book about family from 1947 (Carle Zimmerman's Family and Civilization) which touches on some of the same themes. (This journal article also devotes a lot of attention to Z's book.) So, Herberg's book moved to the top of the pile. 
Over the years, I've read and reasoned myself into much of what Herberg describes—the prevalence of an American Civil Religion (ACR), built on varying senses of religion. So, on the one hand, I can't believe it's taken me so long to read PCJ. On the other hand, it's comforting to know that I gained my (apparently-accurate) sense of the decade without direct help from specialists. (My primary blog posts on this topic: a review of Revolutionary Road here; a review of Biblical Literacy here; miscellaneous posts here, here, here, here, and here; and a few posts on the surprising immorality of WWII soldiers: here, here, and here.)
Herberg's goal is to explain the immense religiosity of the 1950s (almost everyone was a "believer" of some sort), but the relatively light religious meaning which often accompanied the religiosity. In other words, he documents a "yes, but..." with respect to religious membership, belief, and practice—and seeks reasons for the paradox.
Herberg cautions against explaining it away too quickly—particularly as bogus religion. "The paradox is there and it would be misleading to try to get rid of it by suppressing one or the other side of the apparent contradiction...They are honest, intelligent people who take their religion quite seriously." (15) And so, he works to develop the two sides of this strange coin. 
Yes, we're religious!
Herberg devotes all of chapter 4 to the "yes" part of the paradox. He notes that the data are not especially reliable. But the measured changes are significant; the statistics all tell a similar story; and they comport with the popular sense of these times. In a word, "the trend is so well-marked that it overrides all margins of error." (60)
Herberg describes the basic metrics of religious belonging and identification. Church membership and surveys on perceptions of one's "active membership" were at historically high levels. (Tellingly, the latter was significantly greater than the former!) Also up: Sunday School enrollment and church construction, particularly in the suburbs (61-63).[3] The Scriptures were distributed at record rates and 80% thought that the Bible was the "revealed word of God." (13-14) 
Religious leaders were well-respected, ranking third after business and government leaders in 1942 and first in 1947. Books, mass media, and intellectuals (from popularizers like C.S. Lewis to professional theologians [66]) treated religion as popular and respect-worthy. Universities started or extended their "Religious Studies" programs. “Even if much of the interest in religion is vogue or fashion, the fact that vogue or fashion now runs in favor of religion rather than against it is surely itself a fact of considerable importance for our understanding of the time." (68) 
Negatively, few people identified as atheists or even agnostics. There weren't any popular atheists—the likes of which we see today and saw in the first third of the 20th century. "It is a far cry indeed from the 1920s, when religion and the churches were in retreat, faith was taken as a sign of intellectual backwardness or imbecility, and the initiative had passed to the 'emancipated debunkers and the superstititions of the 'Babbitts' and the 'Bible Belt'. That age has disappeared without a trace...[it is] well-nigh impossible to imagine what those days were like..." (66)
All of this was as difficult to imagine for a 1950s sociologist as it is for an observer today. "The new status of religion as a basic form of American 'belonging'...has led to the virtual disappearance of anti-religious prejudice, once by no means uncommon in our national life...Religion has become part of the ethos of American life to such a degree that overt anti-religion is all but inconceivable." (276)
"Godless" was "a powerful epithet"—as a signal of opposition to the “godless Communists” and their threat to us.  And "at least nominal public acceptance of religion tends to be a pre-requisite to political success." (65) All except one Senator reported a religious affiliation (although five merely listed "Protestant"). Religion of some sort was nearly universal and generally expected as a cultural norm.
But not usually that kind of religious!
Herberg devotes all of chapter 5 to the "but" part of the paradox. He opens with survey data on nearly-universal "belief in God", but then notes that the question is superficial and asks what “belief” means (85). Christ's birth was rated 14th among important events in world history. Half of those surveyed could not name one of the four Gospels. "The Bible can hardly be said to enter into the life and thought of Americans quite as much as their views on divine inspiration and their eagerness to buy and distribute it might suggest." (14)
Americans also saw themselves as virtuous—a form of works-righteousness—while not imagining that religion would have any "real effect" on their ideas or conduct in politics or business (86). In sum, Herberg compares this to "a kind of secularized Puritanism, a Puritanism without transcendence, without sense of [our] sin or judgment [against us]." (94) The religion which "prevails among Americans today has lost much of its authentic Christian (or Jewish) content...It is this secularism of a religious people, this religiousness in a secularist framework, that constitutes the problem posed..." (15) How to explain it? 
Late in the book, Herberg concludes: "It is only too evident that the religious characteristic of America today is very often a 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. What should reach down to the core of existence, shattering and renewing, merely skims the surface of life, and yet succeeds in generating the sincere feeling of being religious." (276) 
The American Way of Life and American Civil Religion
Religion must be defined to some extent negatively—as eschewing certain beliefs, avoiding certain behaviors, and even, as opposition to “the other.” (87-88) This certainly fits the political context of the 1950s, with its concerns about the Communists. (Consider McCarthyism, the “Red Scare”, and Alger Hiss vs. Whittaker Chambers—all difficult phenomena for moderns to fathom.) Herberg notes survey data, where Americans were asked when they "obeyed the law of love under certain special conditions": 90% said yes with respect to another religion; 80% with respect to race; and 78% with respect to business competitors. Most interesting: only 27% said yes about Communists (89). 
Of course, a refusal to love Communists doesn't fit Christianity or Judaism, but it lines up nicely with an American Civil Religion (ACR)—what Herberg labels "the American Way of Life" (AWL). At an institutional level, this faith calls for democracy, the Constitution, free enterprise, "equalitarianism," and economic competition. At a personal level, this faith emphasizes self-reliance, merit, character, sincerity, and thrift. It relies on optimism—a hopeful focus on education, progress, and the future (92, 94). It is idealistic and moralistic—with "its symbols and its rituals, its holidays and its liturgy, its saints and its sancta..." (92) 
In other words, the AWL was "essentially an idealized description of the middle-class ethos." (94) It's noteworthy that most Americans have traditionally seen themselves as middle-class—at least until recent years, as the growing social problems of the lower income classes have become much more prominent (a la Charles Murray in Coming Apart).
Understanding the 1950s as an Outlier vs. the Norm
Another surprising observation is that the 1960s were not the start of a long downward trend for American religion after centuries of exceeding popularity. Instead, the 1950s were a surprising aberration in our country's religiosity. We've always been a relatively religious people, compared to other countries (at least in the West). But the 1950s were a dramatic increase from previous decades, not the end of a long period of closely following God. 
In particular, the early-20th century featured considerable antagonism toward religious faith (including some famous atheists)—in light of the claims of Evolution, the scholarship of biblical criticism, the popularity of Progressivism, as well as the allure of materialism, the opportunity for increased mobility, and a frequent desire to live outside of God's will. 
"Religion is taken very seriously in present-day America, in a way that would have amazed and chagrined the 'advanced' thinkers of half a century ago, who were so sure that the ancient superstition was bound to disappear very shortly in the face of the steady advance of science and reason. Religion has not disappeared; it is probably more pervasive today, and in many ways more influential, than it has been for generations. The only question is: What kind of religion is it?" (281)
Prior to the 20th century, religious faith was not as significant either. Consider basic historical norms—the popularity of saloons and brothels; the frontier and the Wild, Wild West; the treatment of Indians and slaves. Religion and religious community were necessarily fractured as the frontier was being settled and as transportation was a challenge outside of the cities.[4]
"Religious and moral conditions of frontier life were everywhere described as deplorable." (117) The Kentucky legislature got rid of its chaplain in 1793 (117). Church membership was 10-15% at the beginning of the 19th century; grew generally (but at varying rates) throughout the century; and was about 36% by the start of the 20th century. It was 46% by 1926 and then 60% in 1953 (61). 
On Cause and Effect
Herberg argues that both sides of the paradox emanate from the same set of factors (73-77). In moral terms, the decades coming into the 1930s were a mess in many ways. Then, the U.S. experienced the terrible years of the government's decade-long Great Depression and our time in World War II. Emerging from all of this, what did people want and what in their context drove them to some sort of religious faith?
-Striving for peace and normalcy—after emerging from one eschatological threat (World War II) and quickly entering another (against the "godless" Communists);
-reaching for meaning and even transcendence, including some legitimate religious revival[5];
-a correlative post-war emphasis on marriage and family[6];
-greater income and the temptations of materialism in the post-WWII healthy economy;
-the strength of the African-American church in the face of continued persecution[7]; and
-the decline of secular faiths such as politics and science/progress.
All of these would seem to be a compelling part of any explanation.[8] But Herberg focuses on the dynamics of immigration—either because it was a novel, complex argument that required lengthy explanation or he saw it as the primary determinant. In a word, the third generation of immigrants—after immigration flows had been drastically reduced—led to a perceived need to “belong” and an embrace of religion as a means to that end.
Herberg opens his case here by noting that nationalism is a relatively new idea (24). The development of and a greater emphasis on nationalism creates psychic and sociological trouble for immigrants. Who are they? How do they fit? Language, ethnicity, and religion were obvious possibilities. The first generation was prone to focus on country-of-origin (25-28), while the second generation was more focused on their new country (28-35). For the latter, religion was generally of less interest—and prospectively, something to be rebelled against. 
But the perspectives and struggles of the third generation are at the heart of Herberg's story. How do they see themselves? They're American, but perhaps not fully. They have a background that could be ignored or downplayed, but is this ideal? They don't see a need to rebel against the first generation—and ironically, might choose to rebel against the second generation by returning to religion. And they're about as prone as “natives” to follow the AWL/ACR—part of which is adherence to a religion. The most likely candidate was the religion of one's grandparents. And so, in the search for identity, religion (of a real or civil sort) became quite attractive. 
Beyond that, Herberg notes the dynamics of immigration reform—that a continuation of open immigration had obscured these waves, by adding succeeding waves.[9] With the great reduction in immigration around the turn of the century, this final, large 3rd-generation—which came of age in the 1950s—added considerable impetus to embracing religion as a key part of a greater existential need to belong.
Faith in What? 
In the 1950s, Eisenhower and Congress added “In God We Trust” to the money and “under God” to the Pledge. But which “God” did we trust? Under which God was our nation’s faith? As Herberg restates his thesis and concludes, he wonders if the faith of what might be called “the non-religious religious” is about faith in faith (281). He sees American faith as "so innocently man-centered. Not God, but man—man in his individual and corporate being—is the beginning of the spiritual is not man who serves God, but God who is mobilized and made to serve man and his purposes...In this kind of religion [there is] no sense of transcendence..." (284-285) 
A related problem: religion is used to serve other values rather than vice versa. For the AWL, faith is valued because it helps "promote ideals and standards that all Americans are expected to share...Secularization of religion could hardly go further." (96) In contrast to the state-sponsored churches in European countries, "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 AWL, and therefore in itself an aspect of religious belief." (98-99)[10]
But this must lead to trouble: "Civil religion has always meant the sanctification of the society and culture of which it is the reflection”; it is “incurably idolatrous”; and it “validates culture and society, without in any sense bringing them under judgment." (279) It "comes to serve as a spiritual reinforcement of national self-righteousness and a spiritual authentification of national self-will...The temptation is therefore particularly strong to identify the American cause with the cause of God" (280)—particularly with respect to anti-Communism and especially in the 1950s. "In its crudest form, this identification of religion with national purpose generates a kind of national more mitigated versions, it sees God as the champion of America." (280)
Herberg connects this religiosity to ACR: "This American culture-religion is...the common ground of the three 'faiths' or a kind of super-religion...the civic religion of the American people." Eisenhower famously enunciated this: "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don't care what it is." (97) At least on the surface, the implications are obvious and troubling for people of (true) faith. Herberg notes that this "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 AWL." (97) Ike’s comment and his popularity indicate the pervasiveness of this view in 1950s America. 
Herberg argues that "It is but one more step, though a most fateful one, to proceed from 'the religions of democracy' to 'democracy as religion' and consciously to erect 'democracy' into a super-faith above and embracing the three recognized religions." (101) Or from C.S. Lewis: “Let him begin by treating [politics] as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘Cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favor of” a preferred political position.[11]
To the truly faithful, this should be seen as idolatry—and of a particularly invidious sort. But the nature of a dominant idolatry within a culture is that it can be immensely difficult to discern, avoid, and oppose. 
Implications and Next Steps
What can one expect from this approach to religion—then or now? First, general and modest ethical behaviors and "the good life" become more important barometers of faith than creed, theology, or specific and demanding forms of ethical conduct. This opens the door to various "social gospels" and multiple forms of "the Prosperity Gospel." (96-97)[12]
Second, it follows that the disciple-making model of ministry exemplified by Jesus will be diminished or discarded. “Teaching them everything” Christ commanded—as in the Great Commission—will prove optional. Becoming “thoroughly equipped” for “every good work” will be left to the professionals or the especially pietistic.[13]
Third, to the extent that there is a god involved, he's often the god of Deism or the even-mushier, contemporary god of "moral therapeutic deism" (MTD) posited by Christian Smith. (For a connection of MTD to The Shackclick here. For a discussion of the contemporary dominance of MTD and ACR, click here.) In any case, this is clearly not an abiding faith in the Trinitarian God of Christianity (or any other “true” version of religious faith). 
Fourth, “religion thus becomes a kind of protection the self throws up against the radical demands of faith." (276) We still see a good bit of this in churches today. Herberg’s sense here is reminiscent of one line of argument in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters—the idea of being innoculated from the faith by dabbling in tepid and reduced versions of it. 
Fifth, an interesting (and potentially troubling) correlation: "a marked disparagement of 'forms' whether theological or liturgical." (96) We see this in the reforms of Vatican II; the rapid growth of non-denominational churches; and the emergence of seeker-sensitive churches. By itself, downplaying liturgy or formal religion is not inherently troubling. But the move has its downsides and is more bothersome if it's driven by improper, underlying motives.
Sixth, all of this is reminiscent of Joseph in Egypt and the particularly-Jewish question of the extent of the "Egyptianization" of Joseph.[14] For any true believer, how does one remain “holy” in the world without removing ourselves from it? How can we be “in” but not “of” the world?
Seventh, the renaissance of “true faith” becomes more likely as its false cousin fades—for example, in light of the contemporary cultural changes resulting from our transition to a “post-Christian” world. In a Christian worldview, there are tremendous advantages to the diminishment of false religions such as civil religion, materialism, Progressivism, and so on. When the false fades, the truth is easier to see. This gives significant optimism for the years to come.
Herberg provides a hopeful ending from a non-academic angle that I’ll use to wrap up this review. While he brings sociological theory and his research skills to bear on these questions, he's quick to note as a caveat that all of this may be transcended by the primary subject—our mysterious relationship with a majestic and unfathomable God (16). From his concluding paragraph: "Even the more conventional forms of American religion, for all their dubiousness, should not be simply written off by the man of faith...Nothing is too unpromising or refractory to serve the divine will...[God] is surely capable of turning even the intractabilities and follies of religion into an instrument of His redemptive purposes." (286-287)

[1] At the time, P was 68%; C was 23%; and J was 4% [59]. At first, one might wonder why the Jews get their own chapter as such a small percentage. But in addition to their disproportionate impact on culture and society, Herberg makes a compelling case in chapter 8 that their particular journey in American culture carried disproportionate weight in setting up the 1950s religious milieu.  A contemporary survey by the Pew Foundation in 2013 indicates that about one-third of Jews (by ethnicity) are Christian (by religion). See:
[2] Herberg devotes Chapters 6-8 to each major group separately. He spends Chapters 9-10 on a compare/contrast and the interactions between the three: on class (228), education and urban/rural (229, 249), white vs. blue collar (230), and religious beliefs (235-236).
[3] The church building explosion later had differential effects for Catholics and Protestants. With greater barriers to exit, when “demand” declined (especially in urban settings), Catholics were less prone to close parishes and more likely to suffer through the attendant problems.
[4] Herberg makes a number of interesting claims about 19th century American religion: The Great Revival (1795-1810) "devastated" the Presbyterians "just as the Great Awakening" 60 years prior "made inroads into Congregationalism." (118) In 1830, "the third of the great evangelical denominations appeared, the Disciples of Christ. This group was entirely American...arose as a secession from the Presbyterians." (119) "Mormonism ran directly counter to the basic pattern of frontier religion: it was hierarchical, collectivistic, in its own way highly theological." (124)
[5] Herberg pairs Charles Templeton with Billy Graham and describes other "revivalists" as those who "speak the language of individualistic piety, which in lesser men frequently degenerates into a smug and nagging moralism." (134) Templeton would soon became an atheist—part of Lee Strobel’s narrative in The Case for Christ.
[6] This ran counter to Zimmerman’s short-run predictions—or postponed his predictions to a longer-run—in Family and Civilization.
[7] Herberg explained religious segregation as driven in large part by internal desires among African-Americans and (correctly) predicted it would last a long time: "influential groups of Negroes have developed a strong interest, emotional and social, in the maintenance of separate Negro churches, and these churches play a more creative role in the lives of the masses of Negro Americans than does any other segregated institution." (129)
[8] Herberg also discusses David Reisman's three types of character structure (directing ourselves inward, toward tradition, or toward the other). Reisman saw the 1950s as a time of "other-directed" in the sense of great concern about peer groups—and thus, a tendency or even a passion for conformity (70-72). This seems to fit the times, but also seems like a "just-so story."
[9] Herberg notes America's diversity—"the most diverse in racial and cultural origins of any in the world" (91)—for policymakers, a practical reason to pursue state vs. federal policy. And he argues that "Unlike American Protestantism, Catholicism in America never was a religious movement...a foreign church or rather a conglomeration of foreign churches, recruited from successive waves of overseas immigration..." (150)
[10] Herberg compares the Catholic "claim to be the one true and universal church" with a "deep-lying, though often unarticulated conception of American social reality...[but they] could not help but regard American society as intrinsically pluralistic and his own church as one among several." (166) This also points to the more compelling understanding of "separation of Church and State": the government may not do anything that implies “the pre-eminence or superior legitimacy of one church over another." (99)
[11] C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, Letter #7.
[12] “Social gospels” could range from being nice to one’s neighbor (as the sum of one’s religion) to Prohibition and an avid embrace of government programs to the help the poor. “Prosperity gospels” could range from an understanding that the “abundant life” is largely material—to the perennial temptation for churches to measure success in terms of bodies, baptisms, buildings, and budget.
[13] See: Ephesians 4:11-16, Matthew 28:19-20, II Timothy 3:16-17, and Ephesians 2:8-10.
[14] This is one of many reasons why Jews do—and Christians should—see Judah as at least a co-hero of the "Joseph story." (I've been thinking that my next book on the Bible might be Genesis 37-50 about our Judah/Joseph moments.) For another provocative but cleaner Biblical example, see: Daniel 1-6.


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