Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise

By Stahl, Ronit Y. | American Jewish History, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise


Stahl, Ronit Y., American Jewish History


Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise. By Kevin Schultz. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 209 pp.

In 1955, Will Herberg proclaimed "to be an American today means to be either a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew." (1) For Herberg, this statement merely evinced an observable reality. For Kevin Schultz, Herberg's characterization reflects the enduring power of a myth, a demographically unsubstantiated paradigm that nonetheless significantly influenced American values, self-conception, and behavior. In Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, Schultz unpacks "how that tri-faith image challenged the nation in unexpected ways, forcing it to alter the way power was meted out, who was deserving of social, political, and cultural recognition, and what that recognition would mean for the way the country conducted its business" (7).

The book consists of two separate sections. Part I explores the growth of the tri-faith idea and the efforts to implement the ideal from the 1920s-1940s, primarily through a history of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ). Part II uses five postwar case studies to highlight the effects of and strains within tri-faith pluralism in venues ranging from the suburbs and schools to the census and the civil rights movement.

In response to the rising tide of nativism, antisemitism, and anti-Catholicism in the early twentieth century, a cascade of "goodwill" efforts attempted to build coalitions across religions to stem discrimination. The most enduring and transformative organization, the NCCJ, emerged in 1927. As Schultz documents, the NCCJ was more than a "wary collaboration" among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. (2) Rather, it strove to "make Protestants better Protestants, Catholics better Catholics, and Jews better Jews" while explaining differences and highlighting similarities in order to diminish sources of conflict, animosity, and prejudice (33). Uniquely, NCCJ started as a tri-faith union, embedding the idea into its structure by insisting on Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish co-chairs.

"Tolerance trios" comprised of a minister, priest, and rabbi toured the nation during the 1930s and 1940s, showcasing the NCCJ's vision of religious pluralism. World War II provided the NCCJ with its largest-and often, most captive--audience. At military posts and in civilian communities, NCCJ-sponsored "Brotherhood Weeks" fostered unity by offering a "Judeo-Christian" rationale for war and evangelized a definition of democracy predicated on interfaith cooperation. Through tri-faith prayer cards, military chapels, comic books, radio addresses, ad campaigns, and movies, religious pluralism became both a normative description of and a prescription for American success in war, hot and cold.

Yet by the advent of the Cold War, unity supplanted equality as the primary meaning of "tri-faith" America. The ubiquitous tri-faith model strained against calls for racial justice, as leaders of the NCCJ had consciously resisted calls for racial inclusion in order to elevate their religious ideal. But as Schultz clearly demonstrates in Part II, diverging commitments also taxed the vision. For as much as Jews eagerly, Catholics gradually, and (most) Protestants willingly embraced the call for religious unity, they did not necessarily share identical endpoints. In particular, Catholics and Jews sought to vanquish "Protestant America" without losing their own identities. …

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