Despite the fact that the history of the United States is incredibly well-documented, many of us labor under various misapprehensions regarding our nation’s past. This seems especially true of America’s religious history. Lately it seems as if there’s been an inundation of pundits, amateur historians, and demagogues trying to frame us into a reductive (Protestant) Christian mold, painting a picture of harmony and piety that endured until the post-60s culture wars started raging. This sort of narrative leaves little room for religious minorities and outsiders to understand their own experiences, or draw accurate lessons from history. While recent books by Leigh Schmidt, Chas Clifton, Courtney Bender, and others, have taken the time to explore religious perspectives outside of this paradigm, there’s still a great need to deconstruct and analyze just how our current ideas about American religiosity were formed.
Kevin M. Schultz, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois in Chicago, in his new book “Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise,” recounts how goodwill and interfaith groups in the early 20th century battled a rise of nativistic politics, antisemitism, and anti-Catholicism to forge the notion of a “Judeo-Christian” America and ultimately (and somewhat unintentionally) usher in a sweeping disestablishment of religion in the United States. A look at how toxic religious nativism can be avoided in favor of pluralism, and how mistrusted religious minorities navigated an America dominated by Protestant Christianity. I think Schultz’s book should be required reading, especially for religious minorities currently struggling for equal treatment in American culture. I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with Kevin M. Schultz about the book, exploring how a new religious image of America was formed in the 20th century, how religious conservatives today exploit that image, and what lessons religious minorities today can take from this period in history.
What prompted you to write “Tri-Faith America?” It certainly seem very relevant to the state of religion and politics in America today. Do you feel this is a bit of forgotten history?
When I wrote “Tri-Faith America,” I wrote it purely as a piece of history. I was interested in the debates about pluralism and “getting along” that took place during World War II, or more generally after the 1930s, when class differences dominated American politics, and before the 1960s, when the civil rights movement thrust race so dramatically into the national consciousness.
As I began to investigate the question, which was in fact not very often investigated, it became increasingly clear to me that battles between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were vitally important to Americans of that era. These debates dominated the development of the suburbs, the Supreme Court cases, the census, what should be taught in schools, and even the make-up of Little League teams.
It was only after I discovered all these debates that I saw how they fit into the question about whether or not America is a Christian nation, a debate that, as your question suggests, is relevant to the state of religion and politics today. Many of the actors in my story were saying things like “We need a broader, more inclusive, and more accurate conception of the American nation.” Given the limits of the time, they adopted a “tri-faith” model, inviting Catholics and Jews to the table for the first time.
I think many people would be surprised at how manufactured our modern ideas of America as a “Judeo-Christian” country are, that we went from a status quo where, according to Franklin D. Roosevelt, “the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance,” to one where the commonalities between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were stressed and a united religious front seen as vital to our nation. It seems remarkable that interfaith and goodwill organizations were able to so quickly turn the United States away from the growing nativism of the times. I understand that WW2 was a great cultural unifier, but the momentum had begun even before that. To what do you ascribe the underlying success of this “tri-faith” effort?
First off, I think I’d disagree with the part of the question where you say “were able to so quickly turn the US away from nativism.” It took a lot of work!
But I think two things are at play in this transformation, a transformation from, to put it too simply, nativism to an acceptance of pluralism. First, and I don’t go into this much in my book, a lot of Americans were challenging the underlying structures of racism, things like the 19th century notion of the hierarchy of races, which of course always premised white Protestant superiority and then had all other groups lower in the hierarchy, with black people always at the bottom. Lots of Americans were challenging this idea in the first decades of the twentieth century–scientists, Leftist Jewish intellectuals, some progressive reformers, many folks in the labor movement of the 1930s, and my interfaith folks, who were demanding greater inclusion and a new national image.
Out of this mix arose the folks I study in the book, who worked hard to reconceptualize the predominate notion of what it meant to be an American. They went on the road, setting up little morality plays with a priest, a rabbi, and a minister on stage all jabbing each other, asking the hard questions–can a non-Catholic get to Heaven? Do Jews run the world? They went to Des Moines and Debuque. They filmed movie-shorts. Ironically, they were helped greatly by Adolf Hitler, who presented an image that Americans sought to avoid, and one way of doing so was by being tolerant of other faiths. The US Armed Forced supported it too, somewhat remarkably inviting these religious advocates on military bases all over the world, one of the only non-military groups to be given such access. Then the Cold War against those godless communists cemented the image of America as a land of religious pluralism.
So it took some time, and was the result of people working hard to create a new image of America.
One thing that struck me in your book is seeing Catholics as outsiders, as a somewhat suspect religious minority struggling to gain political and social parity with the nation’s Protestants. One quote in particular from Carlton J.H. Hayes (the first Catholic co-chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews) seemed particularly relevant: “I have always maintained that in this country Protestants have the major responsibility for assuring justice and true toleration to non-Protestants, not because they are Protestants but because they are [the] majority group.” With Catholics now the largest Christian denomination in the United States, I can’t imagine a prominent Catholic lay-leader repeating these words, or words very much like them. The idea of the politically dominant faiths in this country “assuring justice and true toleration” to smaller faiths now seems almost radical. Are shifts away from sentiments like these simply a by-product of success? Has tri-faith America lost the ethos of protecting religious minorities today?
Ah, but Catholics were the largest Christian denomination even then, although most Catholics take issue with the label “denomination.” Perhaps saying the largest group of Christians is better.
What changed was the nation’s perception of itself. Now, instead of having Protestants dominating the nation’s social and moral authority, most minority faiths are more or less tolerated and protected, and even to some extent endorsed. The addition of Muslim, Buddhist, and maybe soon a Wiccan chaplain in the military might be one example.
But this tolerance and pluralism came at a cost: conservatives of all stripes–Protestants, Catholics, and Jews–have seen all this tolerance as a sign of a secularizing society. The timing made this seem accurate–it began in the late 1960s and 1970s. So today, instead of having Catholics as a sizable minority demanding inclusion, now many Catholics see themselves as defending the last ramparts of Christianity and civilization. Any breech demands a response and minority faiths present a certain challenge–they might just be the camel’s nose in the tent.
An important split in post-war tri-faith unity was the differing visions of America’s religious future and the idea of pluralism. For Catholics, who were growing in prominence and influence, an “all-in” pluralism was endorsed, where every faith commingled (and competed) in the public square, but for the Jewish community, who were wary of Catholicism’s history of persecution in Europe, secularism seemed the best option. While legal efforts have raised the wall between church and state and helped bring about historic disestablishment rulings, this split over the role of religion in our public life now rages hotter than ever. Where do you think we are going? Will there be a re-establishment, or will post-war secular gains hold?
As a historian, I always hate to predict the future. And the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on religion in public life are awkward, but they do shine a little light. Basically the Supreme Court has said religious icons that are old–say, having “In God We Trust” on our money or “under God” in our pledge, both of which came in the 1950s–are okay. We’re honoring our past. But having new religious icons in public space–say, building a giant statue of the 10 Commandments in a courthouse–is a symbol of endorsement. This isn’t terribly doctrinaire or logical, but as a pragmatic decision, it makes some sense.
My notion is that as a society we will continue to create space for worshipers of all faiths, even secular humanists and atheists–and this is a direct follow up of Tri-Faith America. But alongside that, more and more people will be able to bring their religious perspective openly into the public sphere, and this won’t be automatic grounds for dismissal. The burden then, of course, is for religious people to be able to make secular arguments. The idea that same sex marriage is wrong because it contradicts your faith is fine, but why should everyone have to live to the standards of your faith? If you can create a secular argument for why same sex marriage should be outlawed, then there will be a conversation, and that’s the best we can hope for in a democracy!
While the forming of a Judeo-Christian consciousness had many benefits for future religious minority communities, most notably the idea that “there was no such thing as neutral advocacy of religion,” it also provided a language and framework for the conservative Christian activists of today. Today many of them off-handedly talk of our “Judeo-Christian” heritage, or invoke the post-war/early Cold War religious consensus as a period they’d like to return to. I was particularly taken aback by a quote from a Catholic newspaper that you highlight: “Non-Christian religious groups, prompted by the presence of many of their children in public schools, are seeking to dilute or to eliminate Christ from Christmas.” Rhetoric like that could have easily been placed in the mouth of many “keep Christ in Christmas” activists today. How much do conservative Christian activists owe to this period, and how much is their conception of history shaped by it?
Yes, I was struck by that too. A lot of the conversations I found in the archives could have happened on The Daily Show or Fox News last week. It was remarkable.
As for how much today’s conservatives owe to the formulations of middle of the twentieth century, I think the answer is “not much.” The reason is because they are ignorant of it. They think (as do lefties, I should add) that something called “Judeo-Christianity” has been around forever, when in fact it was more or less invented in the late 1930s to combat Hitler and to bring Jews into the fold of “good Americanism.” Well, the thinking then went, if we can’t be “Protestant” or even “Christian,” what’s next? Judeo-Christian? Okay, let’s go with that. It wasn’t quite this simple, but that was the progression of thought, and the effort was to increase inclusivity. Today’s conservatives, however, use “Judeo-Christian” as an exclusive term–to keep those secularists and atheists and Muslims and Hindus out–and that’s the real distinction.
As for bringing Christ back into Christmas, there is a long history to that complaint, going back to the early 20th century and basically the invention of mass marketing and advertising.
Today the splits in religion seem to be between liberal and conservative visions of America (and theology), not between Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. You note that the United State’s growing religious diversity since the 1960s has “made it difficult to refer to the United States as a ‘Judeo-Christian nation’,” though this growth hasn’t supplanted the “liberal-conservative divide.” Is America moving towards a post-Christian identity, religiously speaking, or do you think the conservative religious alliances will manage to hold back (or even reverse) this tide?
Good question, and again I hate to guess about the future. I do think it would take extraordinary circumstances for the United States to become a “Christian nation,” whatever that might mean (and few advocates bother to develop a vision). There just are too many diverse faiths in America and too many constitutional protections to kill off all our religious pluralism. Plus, if you look back to colonial Massachusetts, even those folks felt like they were living in un-Christian times. Recall that the great form of speech then was the Jeremiad. The threat of a coming American godlessness has a long, long history.
If you were to offer a lesson from the history of Tri-Faith America for religious minorities struggling today for acceptance and equal treatment, what would it be?
Histories lessons are always complicated because the events of the past happen in contexts that are very different from those that exist today. One of the things the advocates of “Tri-Faith America” did quite successfully, though, was to present a positive and forceful image of what it meant to be an American, one that made their position the obvious next step. They were fighting over the meaning of America, and they were using historical actors and historical antecedents to push their vision forward. Today’s conservatives are much better at this than today’s liberals. But religious minorities in the past have used the various languages of good Americanism to show they belong, and those arguments were very successful for the people I study too.
My thanks to Kevin M. Schultz for the interview, you can find “Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise” at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, Google, and other fine book (and e-book) sellers.