(Mid-century Modern) Protestant Catholic Jew (Will Herberg)


Reading for the first time Will Herberg’s classic Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (1955), I was surprised to see so many interesting things. To start, I’ll only say that the most obvious problem with the book is the least interesting precisely because it’s so obvious. That would be the rigid way that the three “major” formations said to define the American religious landscape at midcentury are regarded as fixed and stable. One would also have to point to the “strangeness” that the author hangs over Buddhism, which not too long after the book’s publication itself developed as an American religion, or rather developed as a form of what Harold Bloom called “the American religion,” and which Herberg refers to here as “the American Way of Life.” As friends Russell McCutheon, Aaron Hughes, and Craig Martin over at the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) will surely appreciate, the book’s biggest problem is the gross combining of sociology and history with blatant theologizing. More subtle perhaps is the likelihood that this kind of theology reflects a kind of modernism, a modernist principle of intellectual construction based on the distinction between a core inside and an external shell.

About that shell, here are some things I picked up.

Religious Secular: Herberg draws out the paradox that the more “religious” America seems to get, the more secular that culture turns out to be (chapter 1, cf. p.40). One could make the same point vice versa. The more secular the culture gets, the more religious America becomes. Alas, part of what Herberg means by this is to lament that the more religious American Protestants, Catholics, and Jews become, the more distant they grow from the centrality of traditional religious faith and depth. This focus on core depth is part of the deep theological and conceptual problems that undergird Herberg’s analysis. But the point is finely drawn that secularism was generated by the very conditions that make for religious renewal. Alert to both sides of the coin, Herberg calls this secularism within a religious framework, or the secularism of religious people (p.271).

Religion in America: I sort of knew this about the postwar scene, but Herberg makes it very clear that the turn to religion in the 1950s was a very sudden phenomenon. It’s only now that a certain kind of religion becomes a default part of American national culture, unlike the situation in the 19th century when there was more room for atheism and for other forms of free-thinking in matters of religion. What was not so clear to me, prior to reading Herberg, is that it is only now, in the place of old ethnic identity formations, that the very notion of “the religious community” comes into its own only now as a new form of social identity (p.31). One observes how so much has been made to hang in modern and contemporary Jewish thought and culture upon a neologism, a fiction or simulacrum.

Ethnicity & Post-Ethnicity: I’m thinking of Shaul Magid’s book American Post Judaism, and also Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm. Herberg makes the point that ethnicity was a sudden-emergent phenomenon, a modern construct that imposed a linguistic and national consistency for emergent immigrant communities, who’s original sense of place back home was local and village-based (pp.12-16, 40). Already in 1955, the rapid uptick in religious identification after World War II is presented by Herberg as post-ethnic. Herberg argues that ethnic identities, which aren’t even that old, undergo a rapid process of disintegration as early as the 1950s. Herberg anticipates the point made by Magid that ethnicity has no future in America. American religious formations such as Judaism are post-ethnic. To this I would add that it might be right to say that traditional religion was pre-ethnic.

Politics: Herberg’s politics and the politics of the liberal religion about which he writes is liberal anti-communist. Critics have long since noted, with some disdain, that the rise in religion is identified as a moral and political bulwark against “godless communism,” a phrase actually used by Herberg. But it’s also true that Herberg, like so many liberal theologians at that time, wrote withering things against “the American Way of Life.” They perceived it as equally godless, corporate, conformist, self-centered, self-satisfied and complacent. Anti-communist, Herberg was also “anti-American” in his critique of this American Way of Life and its “civic religion” and “‘laissez faire capitalism’” (pp.77, 263, 266).

Psychology: Reading David Reisman, Herberg distinguishes between two types of human subjectivity or what he calls “character structure.” The one character structure is inner directed. By this Herberg means individualistic, “work conscious,” “intent upon achievement.” Heretofore, this was the primary characteristic of American life. Herberg thinks that what’s new on the postwar scene is a new character structure, which is “other-directed.” This character structure is technological and intensely social. The other-directed person “operates with a kind of built-in radar apparatus which is ceaselessly at work receiving signals from the person’s ‘peer group’ and adjusting him [sic] to the situation indicated by these signals.” Bland and tolerant and cooperative, the primary concern of this type of person is “adjustment, not achievement.” Joining a religious community becomes a primary way for other-directed people to adjust themselves or to adapt vis-à-vis a social environment (pp.57-8).

Theology: If only Herberg had stopped at that, but the theology pushed by him is unpleasant and scolding. Addressed in high prophetic dudgeon, he asserts God and mystery, awe and ambiguity as the primary values and concerns of traditional Judaism and Christianity. (It’s a claim that may not even be true except perhaps for religious elites). These inner directed traits are presented as the answer to the sinful moral relativism and the sinful social conformity ailing America at midcentury, including Communism, Eisenhower, Cold War nuclear jitters, social anomie and consumer capitalism. Including its religion, the American Way of Life is presented as “religiousness without religion,” at odds with the religion people profess, a bromide, without content, superficial, apolitical, empty, hedonistic, irrelevant, and chummy because of its anthropocentric, utilitarian character (pp.3, 72, 260, 262, 269). Reflecting what Herberg called the “transmutation” of Judaism into Protestant prototypes, the theology is pure Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Technology: I never know what to say about this kind of hectoring philosophy and theology. On what basis can one can say anything so sweeping in judgment about and against the inner lives of other people, especially en masse?  Instead of trying to understand the phenomenon, perhaps to understand the American religion as a form of modern folk religion, the sociologist of religion has set out to judge it according to Protestant religious standards that are posed as “core” over against what’s presented as a thin social shell. What Herberg saw but did not appreciate in other-directed religion is religion as a kind of technology, a network principle of connectivity binding people into a body receptive to “signals.” What’s of note here is how the other-directed character structure would eschew the very model of a core versus a shell. It’s pure surface, religion as artifice and apparatus, that Herberg has trouble grasping.

Hope: Hope would rest in “religion that goes far beyond the demands of mere social “‘belonging.’” For this, Herberg looks to young people, i.e. to university students. He’s not sure what form this might take. “[O]nly the future can tell,” but he’s confident that “[t]hese stirrings are there,” these “deeper stirrings of faith,” “not always easily identified as religion.” Stirrings. Herberg concludes his sociological study confident that a transcendent God can transform the follies of religion into an instrument of His redemptive purpose” (pp.271-2). How right Herberg was. With the word “instrument,” again we see technology intruding into religious thought. One smiles to think about all kinds of folly, about the future impact of the student movement and the drug culture, the alteration in consciousness and the future impact of LSD on the emergence of American religion in the 1960s and early 1970s. About the effect of technology on, or rather in American religion, we are only now beginning to see more clearly what this might look like than Herberg was able to judge some seventy years ago.

[PS for more along the same lines,  consider this article “The Postwar Revival of the Synagogue: Does it Reflect a Religious Reawenking?” As friend Martin Kavka reminds me, Herberg published it in Commentary (April 1950) and Herbeg mentions it in P-C-J pp.208-9n.65). You can read the article here. In the footnote, Herberg claims that “the religious significance of Passover has entirely disappeared.” But how could one possibly verify such a claim? Also of note in the footnote is the nod to the ultra-orthodox and the article about Lubavitch from 1957. Along with Eli the Fanatic these might be one of the first moments when liberal Jews start to notice the ultra-orthodox.

In the Commentary article, you can follow Herberg’s deployment of rhetorical figures such as “really” religious, “deep need,” “meaning,” “saving faith,””total existential commitment,” “ultimate reality,” “return to religious essentials.” All these mark Herberg’s intense anxiety about the lack of “inner direction” in postwar American Judaism. He complains about the “unreality” of conventional religion, which in itself is a strange comment. How can something real (real enough) be “unreal” and might that “unreality” say something true about the virtual character of all religion, including “authentic” religion after which the sociologist hankers? That Herberg even had to ask about the “real character of the current revival” suggests a significant conceptual blockage.

Myself I would see as more supple the view of many of their contemporaries expressed by Rabbi Jacob Agus, whom Herbeg cites. “Rabbi Agus voices the thinking of many in his conclusion that ‘Jews can be satisfactorily integrated within the American nation only as a religious community”—with the qualification, however, that it is a ‘religious community’ broad enough somehow to include even those Jews who are indifferent or hostile to religion.” Or what Herberg himself states, “Nothing in the way of belief or practice—not even the belief in God or the practice of the most elementary mitzvot—may be taken for granted among synagogue members.”]

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to (Mid-century Modern) Protestant Catholic Jew (Will Herberg)

  1. dmf says:

    sociology is deeply haunted by theo-logoi, not often to good ends.

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