American Religious Sociology, by Will Herberg

The very title of this book arouses suspicion. The author, who claims to be writing a treatise on sociology, is far from being a professional sociologist. On top of this, he is an enthusiastic advocate of religion. There is always the danger that such a person will be ignorant of important facts, and that he will bend those he does know to fit his theological predilections. Will the attempt to combine theology and sociology, the reader wonders, result in bad sociology and inferior theology?

These doubts are resolved in the first pages of the book. Mr. Herberg’s sociology is both respectable and highly suggestive. And his theology is as impressive as always; he is perhaps the only Jewish lay person in the country who writes authoritatively about current problems of Jewish belief. One must admire this effort to join the absolutistic bent of the theologian with the relativistic frame of reference of the social scientist. Perhaps Mr. Herberg’s example indicates that those who are interested in the scientific study of religion must not themselves be “religiously unmusical” (to use the apt metaphor by which Max Weber, the famous German sociologist of—among other things—religion, characterized himself).

Commentary readers are already familiar with Mr. Herberg’s view that much of what is happening in contemporary American religion is the result of social forces that have played upon the second- and third-generation descendants of the immigrants of the last one hundred years. Mr. Herberg holds that ethnic separateness has become meaningless to these elements, and even threatening, for they fear any alienation from the general community. They are not, however, afraid to keep their religion. Mr. Herberg emphasizes the “acute malaise” of the second generation; but their children of the third generation, feeling secure in their Americanism, can afford to remember their heritage, at least on the religious level. The author believes that the third generation has indeed returned to religion, and that the contemporary religious revival is very much related to this. Through his religion—Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish—the second- and third-generation American finds a place for himself in American life; it is even the means by which he identifies himself as an American. This process of identification through faith has not only helped to preserve religion, it has also helped individuals to keep alive the bond between themselves and their forebears—between their Old World past and their present.


Mr. Herberg is of the opinion that most Americans—over and above their adherence to one of three particular religious groups—have a notion of an underlying religious unity. This unity, he thinks, results from the fact that people believe each of the three major religions to be a different representation of the same “spiritual values”—the values which are sometimes sloganized as “the American Creed.” What the author is suggesting here is that we have a national religion with three creedal variants. One demonstrates his loyalty to the national religion by identifying with one of the creeds: “. . . being a Protestant, a Catholic or a Jew, is understood as the specific way, and increasingly perhaps the only way, of being an American and locating oneself in American society.” Mr. Herberg goes so far as to claim that “the same basic values and ideals, the same underlying commitment to the American Way of Life, are promoted by parochial school and public school, by Catholic, Protestant and Jew, despite the diversity of formal religious creed. After all, are not Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, in their sociological actuality, alike religions of democracy?” Mr. Herberg does concede the existence of inter-religious tensions, but he points out that “the interfaith movement has emerged as one of the most vigorous and extensive enterprises on the American scene; above all, the interfaith idea has become one of the accepted aspects of the American Way of Life.” And “interfaith in the American sense is America’s answer to the problem of religious divisiveness in a society structured along religio-communal lines.”

In his epilogue, however, Mr. Herberg makes abundantly clear his dissatisfaction with the quality of contemporary American religion: “Yet it is only too evident that the religiousness characteristic of America today is very often a religiousness without religion, a religiousness with almost any kind of content or none, a way of sociability or ‘belonging’ rather than a way of reorienting life to God. It is thus frequently a religiousness without serious commitment, without real inner conviction, without genuine existential decision. What should reach down to the core of existence, shattering and renewing, merely skims the surface of life. . . . Religion thus becomes a kind of protection the self throws up against the radical demand of faith.”

But Catholic-Protestant-Jew can only be as good as the research upon which it is based. And unfortunately the state of knowledge in the fields of ethnic group behavior and religious attitudes is limited. In the absence of fuller research, the temptation is to make too much of what is presently available. Mr. Herberg cannot be charged with neglecting evidence; he is perhaps rather to be taxed with making too much of certain pieces of research. Marcus Hansen’s essay on The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant should be thought of as a suggestive piece of scholarship, not the last word on the subject; and Ruby Jo Reeves Kennedy’s notion of a triple melting pot of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew is, after all, drawn from a study of only one American community.

Others will have their own quarrels with Will Herberg. Workers in the field of inter-group relations will view the religious revival in quite a different light: they will see its divisive rather than unifying aspect. And there will be many to take sharp issue with Mr. Herberg’s view of Catholicism, feeling that this element of the triple melting pot, far from contributing to a “national religion,” aspires ultimately to impose on fellow Americans a censorship of a kind basically un-American. But the individuals who will feel most challenged by Protestant-Catholic-Jew are the sociologists of religion. They cannot but be impressed by this effort, if only because it will remind them of their own failure to provide enough of the sociological raw material upon which such a work of synthesis and interpretation must needs be based.

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