Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America

In the nineteen forties and fifties were a great age of interfaith, specifically the creation of the idea of tri-faith America and the idea of a Judeo-Christian synthesis. These ideas let Jews and Catholics enter white America and Protestant America. It also allowed a united stand against bigotry and created an anti-evangelical mission by preaching tolerance door to door. Interfaith dialogue was not about theology but about tolerance.

Tri-Faith America by Kevin Schultz shows how postwar Catholics and Jews used the new image to force the country to confront the challenges of pluralism. Should Protestant bibles be allowed on public school grounds? Should Catholic and Jewish fraternities be allowed to exclude Protestants? Should the government be allowed to count Americans by religion? Challenging the image of the conformist 1950s, Schultz describes how Americans were vigorously debating the merits of recognizing pluralism, paving the way for the civil rights movement and leaving an enduring mark on American culture. This book is important for all those trying to understand the interfaith issues of the 1960’s. (There is much nonsense on the topic on the web and gross misunderstandings).

President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it bluntly, if privately, in 1942-the United States was “a Protestant country,” he said, “and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.”
In Tri-Faith America, Kevin Schultz explains how the United States left behind this idea that it was “a Protestant nation” and replaced it with a new national image, one premised on the notion that the country was composed of three separate, equally American faiths-Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. Tracing the origins of the tri-faith idea to the early twentieth century, when Catholic and Jewish immigration forced Protestant Social Gospelers to combine forces with Catholic and Jewish relief agencies, Tri-Faith America shows how the tri-faith idea gathered momentum after World War I, promoted by public relations campaigns, interfaith organizations, and the government, to the point where, by the end of World War II and into the early years of the Cold War, the idea was becoming widely accepted, particularly in the armed forces, fraternities, neighborhoods, social organizations, and schools.

This book should makes us think about the current interfaith alliances. When Orthodox Rabbis are friendly with Evangelicals, Mormons, Catholic clergy, and Anglicans, then what does that alliance say about contemporary social needs? It is not theology at stake but a united social front. What is the social front trying to accomplish? Who is it allowing to enter the mainstream? What do they talk about? Not the issues of the 1950’s rather the issues of our decade such as maintaining faith in a projected secular world, and the need for religious values in the public sphere. What is gained by saying Orthodox Jew, Mormon, and Catholic clergy in one tri-faith breath?

And what is lost? Below is a book review of Kevin Schultz’s book by Northwestern Professor Chris Beneke who points out the loss of ideas such as distinction and prophecy. When the OU sees itself as one with Mormons and Evangelicals, what is lost from Judaism?

Judeo-Catholic-Protestant America—-Chris Beneke

Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America begins with the story of a priest, a rabbi and two Protestant ministers. It might be the first line of a joke, but it’s deadly serious. The four chaplains were aboard the U.S.S. Dorchester when it was sunk by a German torpedo in February 1943. They all went down with the ship, prayerfully, arm-in-arm after having given their life jackets to sailors who lacked them.

The sacrifice of the Four Chaplains represented something of a landmark in the history of American religious comity. These men were “celebrated … as emblems of the new tri-faith nation.” Yet, as Schultz shows, Americans were already prepared to appreciate the larger significance of their heroism because of the ecumenical groundwork that had been laid over the previous decade by the anti-prejudice proselytizing of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), which confronted a revitalized Ku Klux Klan and a swelling, virulent strain of Western antisemitism in the 1920s and 30s.

Schultz’s assiduous research demonstrates that the NCCJ wasn’tmerely engaged in a half-ass exercise of holier-than-thou idealism. During WWII alone, the organization sponsored traveling “tolerance trios”–consisting of a rotating roster of priests, rabbis, and Protestant ministers–who visited nearly 800 military installations and addressed 9 million Americans. This was missionary work on a par with the massive evangelizing and Bible distribution efforts undertaken by American Protestants during the Civil War.

In the early postwar period, such everyday features of American culture as films, manners, and educational programming were shaped by the tri-faith model that the NCCJ had so carefully cultivated. Postwar liberalism was in turn infused with the mostly tolerant and religiously derived moral imperative that went by the name of the “Judeo-Christian tradition.”

Upon this somewhat narrow foundation, postwar Americans would adopt broader conceptions of tolerance that included a larger range of religious groups. Religious bigotry and discrimination certainly didn’t disappear, but they were largely driven from public life by the early 1960s. Though groups such as the NCCJ proved slow to promote civil rights for African Americans, the trope of inclusion that they popularized resonated throughout the 1960s. Meanwhile, before the Judeo-Christian tradition was appropriated by the Religious Right in the 1970s, it was employed by Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders to discredit racist institutions and policies in the 1950s and 60s.

There were deep, intangible costs accompanying the triumph of the tri-faith ideal, which Schultz details. Among them was the loss of communal identity by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Also endangered were some of the vibrant, distinctive traditions within each of these larger faith categories. Prophecy withered as ecumenism bloomed.

Still, Schultz provides us with an unapologetically progressive account. He makes clear how profoundly important religious differences were to early twentieth-century Americans and how tirelessly some worked to transcend, or at least mediate, them. Tri-Faith America gives religious tolerance its due as a crucial component of postwar liberalism. In this, it represents a sharp rebuke to the fashionable idea that American religious freedom and religious tolerance have been little more than subtle exercises in coercion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s