Will Herberg was an historian of American religion and a sociologist in the mid-twentieth century. Herberg published Protestant, Catholic, Jew in 1955. This book examined the increase in American religiosity and church membership after WWII. Herberg argued that the majority of Americans defined themselves either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. But, these American did not focus too much on creeds and theologies. Instead, they promoted religion as Americans’ faith in faith. Herberg called this the “American Way of Life.” Herberg’s work foregrounded the relationship between religion and nationalism, what scholars today refer to as American Civil Religion.
In the 1950s, Americans appeared more religious than ever before. According to recent polls, the majority of Americans identified themselves as either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. Church membership numbers had increased dramatically. Money spent on church construction also increased. Polls also suggested that Americans recognized religious leaders as the ones doing the most good for the country. Religion and the church gained respectability in American social life and politics. American used religion to talk about the “Godless” Communists. Americans also expected public officials to “testify to [their] high esteem for religion. Herberg argues that Americans recognized “religion as a ‘value’ or institution” in American life. Moreover, religion gained a new intellectual prestige in cultural life. Philosophers and theologians were successful in selling their “religious books” as many of them made the best-sellers lists. Religious ideas and topics were also popular in journals of literature, politics, and art. What did this new esteem of religion mean?
Herberg argued that despite people’s profession of religion, they were not actually more religious in any denominational or creedal sense. Rather, Americans’ increased religiosity was evidence of a common religion. Herberg defined America’s common religion as “the American Way of Life.” Robin M. Williams Jr.’s defined “common religion” as common ideas, rituals, and symbols that supplied an overarching sense of unity. According to Herberg, “The American Way of Life is, at bottom, a spiritual structure, a structure of ideas and ideals, of aspirations and values, of beliefs and standards; it synthesizes all that commends itself to the American as the right, the good, and the true in actual life.” The American Way of Life was “an organic structure of ideas, values, and beliefs that constitute a faith common to Americans and genuinely operative in their lives, a faith that markedly influences, and is in influenced by, the ‘official’ religions of American society.” The American Way of Life provided an undergirding unity among Americans with a particular value system as its center. This center upheld certain characteristics as foundational to American life: democracy, the Constitution, free enterprise, equalitarianism, economic competition, high mobility, idealism, individualism, “deeds, not creed,” progress, self-reliance, character, optimism, moralism, and activism. This American Way of Life “is, of course, anchored in the American’s vision of America.” Americans looked to the Puritans who defined America as “the new Israel” and “the Promised Land.” The American Way of Life was also a middle-class way of life. American perceive themselves as a middle-class people. Most importantly the American Way of Life had been shaped by American Protestantism.
Hererg argued that historical religions in America had been “Americanized” and imbibed these qualities. The American Way of Life had secularized Judaism and Christianity so that they had become “integrated as parts with a larger whole defined by the American Way of Life.” The American Way of Life promoted the belief of faith in faith. Americans held a common religion based on the elevation of religion as a value. Americans believed in the goodness of religion in general. Herberg attributes the seeming increase in piety, religiosity, and church membership to Americans’ participation in the American Way of Life. Practicing individual religion was a ritual in the American Way of Life.
For Herberg, the American Way of Life was detrimental to Judaism and Christianity. Herberg argues that the American Way of Life looked like the “civic religion of the American people.” According to Herberg, “civic religion has always meant the sanctification of the society and culture of which it is the reflection, and that is one of the reasons why Jewish-Christian faith has always regarded such religion as incurably idolatrous. Civil religion is a religion which validates culture and society, without in any sense bringing them under judgment.” Herberg calls for Americans to recognize the wrong in the American Way of Life, of common religion. He urges Americans to separate common religion from “real” religion. The American Way of Life opposes major tenets of the Jewish-Christian faith. The American Way of Life is too man-centered. There is no sense of the transcendent God and there is no sense of the “nothingness of man.” The American Way of Life promotes a religion that mobilizes God to serve man, instead of mobilizing man to server God. The American Way of Life does not call man to seek humility or his consciousness. Rather, “it is something that assures him about the essential rightness of everything American, his nation, his culture, and himself; something that validates his goals and his ideals instead of calling them into question…[it] offers him salvation in easy terms instead of demanding repentance and a ’broken heart.” For Herberg, the American Way of Life was “a strong and pervasive idolatrous element” in America. American civic religion had co-opted the Jewish-Christian faith in America. American civic religion was at odds with American religions. American civic religion was immoral and bad for the American people.