In 1955 a Jewish sociologistrnnamed Will Herberg published a book that caused a stir in religious circles. Thernbook’s title was Protestant, Catholic, Jew, and its premise was that by therntime of the postwar religious boom then going strong in America, the country hadrnbecome religiously tripartite.
Most people probably took this as welcome affirmationrnfrom social science of the toleration and mutual acceptance accompanyingrnreligious pluralism that by then were well along in becoming established partsrnof American life.
That, however, was a simplistic reading of Herberg. Hisrnfurther point, one he by no means welcomed himself, was that Protestantism,rnCatholicism, and Judaism in the U.S. had been reduced to expressions ofrnbasically the same “great overarching commitment”—a commitment to the AmericanrnWay of Life. Now, he added, all three were at risk of losing their distinctivernreligious identities in the great American melting pot.
I thought of Will Herberg and his book when I heard ofrnthe passing of Billy Graham, the famed American evangelist who died last monthrnat the age of 99. Graham was a sincere believer and by all accounts anrneminently decent man. His personal commitment to Christ and Christianity wasrntransparently evident and highly edifying. Undoubtedly he did a great deal ofrngood.
But along with all the pluses, Billy Graham also was a dernfacto embodiment of the broad-based,rnnon-dogmatic, undifferentiated version of religion that Herberg, who wrote asrnGraham’s star was on the rise, had in view in warning of the growingrnassimilation of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews into American secular culturernin a process that involved a thinning out of religious identity.
Mainline Protestants had of course been first to travelrnthat particular road, even as evangelicals and fundamentalists were retreatingrninto largely self-imposed cultural isolation following the disaster of thernScopes ‘Monkey Trial’ trial in 1925. But by the mid-1950s the Catholics, Jews,rnand, increasingly, popular evangelicals like Graham were catching up with thernmainline Protestants while, as Herberg put it, “losing their capacity to resistrndissolution in the culture.”
Much has changed in the world of American religion sincernthen. The religious boom has long since faded. Other religious bodies, notablyrnincluding Muslims, have become a presence on the American religious scene. Andrnthe number of religiously non-affiliated Americans has risen dramatically.
But one thing hasn’t changed. The constant is ongoingrncultural assimilation, and the accompanying loss of religious identity, thatrnwas and today continues to be a central part of the American religiousrnexperience, described by Herberg as “essentially the ‘Americanization’ ofrnreligion in America, and therefore also its thorough-going secularization.”
To make his point, Herberg quoted a remark attributed tornPresident Dwight Eisenhower: “Our government makes no sense unless it isrnfounded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Tornwhich Herberg added: “And why didn’t he care what it was? Because, in his view,rnas in the view of all normal Americans, they ‘all say the same thing.’”
Much was said in praise of Billy Graham after his death,rnand much that was said was well deserved. But along with praising Graham thernindividual Christian, one must also express reservations concerning the limitationsrnof the version of culturally assimilated religion he stood for.
Protestants, Catholics, and Jewsrnhaven’t yet worked out a viable response to the challenge of culturalrnassimilation in secular America. And Billy Graham, for all his decency and personalrncommitment, was not much help in doing that.