May 9, 2005
-- Martin E. Marty
Talk about irrelevance: Think of Will Herberg's Protestant-Catholic-Jew when it was published exactly fifty years ago. Talk about relevance: Think of the same book in its golden jubilee year (there will be celebration publications). In the foreword to a 1983 reprint, I called it a classic, and still would today. Whoever seeks perspective on contemporary religion would do well to reach back to the world of Herberg, which at times seems as if it comes from America's middle ages.
Talk about irrelevance: Herberg, who taught in a United Methodist seminary (at Drew University), was also writing Jewish existentialist theology, but without reference to the Holocaust, which ended just ten years before he published. Zionism was a thing of the past, and the birth of Israel received only a few lines. He quoted Jacob B. Agus (1954), claiming that "with the establishment of the State of Israel, the zeal of American Zionism was spent." To put it more decisively, "bourgeoisification" and suburbanization were taking over. Changes came later, with the Six-Day War in 1967, too late for Herberg.
Talk about irrelevance: Pentecostalists received four or five lines, as a quoted Assemblies of God minister distanced himself because of the book's "extremist attitudes." Fundamentalism went unmentioned. Evangelicalism in Herberg's eyes was a nineteenth-century movement ("nothing like the earlier movement to evangelize America has appeared") and Billy Graham received just one line of notice. Southern Baptist growth received two lines, but Herberg's Baptists were mainly nineteenth-century northerners. "Negro Churches" were treated better, with three pages.
Talk about irrelevance: Find a woman's name in the index. Did I miss one? Militant secularism made a brief appearance, but secularism for Herberg took the form of vapid and casual worldliness, not reflective intellectual commitment.
Enough. From here on, let's talk about relevance, for these reasons among others: 1) Herberg did more than anyone else to make "sociology of religion" a popular, accessible subject, thus making room for experts and specialists. 2) He noticed that Protestantism no longer held unquestioned hegemony and certainly not monopoly. Fifty years later, that is becoming even statistically true. 3) He anticipated the preoccupation with religion and ethnicity, opening the sluice gates in the dam (or perhaps breaking the dam) for expressions of identity by Asian-, Native-, African-, Hispanic/Latino/Latina-, and the varieties of Euro-American religious clusterings. 4) Herberg saw how urgent the question of personal and social identity had become. "Who am I?" for him meant "To which cohort of believers, behavers, and belongers do I belong?" 5) Yes, mark him down as an early discerner of the impulse by citizens to be Americans by swimming in three (and later, more) pools of faith communities. No one was simply an American. 6) His "civic faith" paralleled Sidney E. Mead's "religion of the republic," Robert N. Bellah's "civil religion," and the "religion-in-general" on which I published, under Herbergian influence, three years later. "Public religion," in many hands, is another parallel. 7) He really nailed Americans for wanting to "prefer" or "adhere" or "be numbered among," but not be deeply committed to, or informed about, particular theological motifs and claims. 8) Herberg's religious Americans were busy adapting to their environment, becoming "worldly." They still are, now with different casts of characters.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.