Very few people today remember who Will Herberg was. If his name is recognized at all, it is probably as the author of Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1955), a popular evocation of America’s “triple melting pot” whose thesis has become a part of the sociological language of our time. Yet Herberg, who died eleven years ago, was undeniably one of the most interesting Jewish intellectuals of the last half-century, and one, moreover, whose journey from Marxism to Judaism, and from the political Left to the political Right, resonates with peculiar aptness today. The recent publication of Harry J. Ausmus’s book-length study of Herberg’s writings1 affords an opportunity to ponder the life and thought of this once better-known figure.
Herberg was born in 1901, in the same Russian village in which his father had been born before him. By the time his family arrived in the United States, in 1904, Herberg’s parents, whom he would later describe as “passionate atheists,” were already committed to the faith that mankind’s salvation lay in socialism. Curiously, both his father, who died when Herberg was ten, and his mother held the American public-school system in “contempt.” Although he attended Brooklyn’s Public School 72 and Boys High, Herberg’s real education took place at his parents’ kitchen table. A precocious and versatile student, by the time he was a teen-ager Herberg had learned Greek, Latin, French, German, and Russian. Graduating from high school in 1918, he later attended CCNY and Columbia University, where he studied philosophy and history, apparently without ever completing the course work for an academic degree.
Herberg inherited and acted upon his parents’ commitments. Entering the Communist movement while still a teen-ager, he subsequently brought to radical politics a theoretical erudition that, through his contributions to left-wing journals in the 20’s and early 30’s, helped to elevate the intellectual standards of American Marxism. While less prolific than Max Eastman or the novelist John Dos Passos, Herberg was perhaps the most “catholic” of Marxist polemicists, writing regularly on an amazingly diverse number of topics, from Edmund Wilson’s views of proletarian literature, to Sidney Hook’s explication of Marx on revolution, to the relationship between Freudian psychoanalysis and Communist thought.
Herberg’s attachment to Communism was no mere affectation; so earnestly did he embrace the Marxist “faith” that, as Ausmus points out, he even sought to square it with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Indeed, perhaps his boldest contribution to the radical thought of the period lay in his effort to reconcile Marxism with, on the one hand, the new Einsteinian cosmology, which had gone virtually unnoticed among radical writers in America, and, on the other hand, with Freudianism. For Herberg, both Marxism and the theory of relativity were “scientifically true,” and as for Freudianism he wrote in the 30’s that the “world of socialism—to which nothing human is alien and which cherishes every genuine manifestation of the human spirit—lays a wreath of homage on the grave of Sigmund Freud.”
In the 1920’s Herberg’s allegiances within the Communist movement lay with the group headed by Jay Lovestone, followers and supporters of Bukharin, who were eventually to be ousted from the party by Stalin in 1929. At that point Herberg became a staff member and editor of the Lovestonite paper, Workers Age, many of whose contributors would later become bitter anti-Stalinists. As the 1930’s progressed, however, Herberg found himself increasingly disenchanted not just with the party but with Marxism itself. There were the usual milestones along the path: the Stalinist purges, the Communist betraval of the Popular Front during the Spanish Civil War, the Russian invasion of Finland, and especially the Stalin-Hitler nonaggression pact of 1939. For Herberg, as for many of his generation, this last dispelled any remaining belief that “only a socialist government can defeat totalitarianism.”
But his final break with orthodox Marxism represented more than just a change in political loyalties. As he would confess years later, Marxism had been, to him and to others like him, “a religion, an ethic, and a theology; a vast all-embracing doctrine of man and the universe, a passionate faith with meaning.” Not that Herberg was about to abandon the values that had first attracted him to revolutionary activity. Rather, “My discovery was that I could no longer find basis and support for these ideals in the materialistic religion of Marxism. . . .” Something else was wanted to replace the failed god of Marxism and to fill the inner spiritual void which had left Herberg “deprived of the commitment and understanding that alone made life livable.” It was then he chanced to read Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, a book that was profoundly to change the course of his life.
More than any other American thinker of the 1930’s and 1940’s, Niebuhr related theology to politics through a realistic assessment of human nature that seemed, and not just to Will Herberg alone, inescapably relevant in a time of the breakdown of the Communist faith. In the writings of Niebuhr, Herberg discovered a compelling theological position from which to derive his own post-Marxist, but still essentially liberal, faith. “Humanly speaking,” he would later write, Niebuhr’s work “converted me, for in some manner I cannot describe, I felt my whole being, and not merely my thinking, shifted to a new center. . . . What impressed me most profoundly was the paradoxical combination of realism and radicalism that Niebuhr’s ‘prophetic’ faith made possible. . . . Here, in short, was a ‘social idealism’ without illusions, in comparison with which even the most ‘advanced’ Marxism appeared confused, inconsistent, and hopelessly illusion-ridden.”
So thoroughly did Herberg fall under the spell of Niebuhr’s thought that by the time he met him personally—Niebuhr was then teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York—he was contemplating becoming a Christian. After several discussions with Niebuhr, Herberg did in fact declare his intention to convert, but Niebuhr counseled him instead to explore his own religious tradition first, and directed him across the street to the Jewish Theological Seminary. There, Herberg undertook instruction in Hebrew and Jewish thought.
Herberg was inspired by what he learned. In Judaism he found, after years of searching, a faith that encouraged social action without falling into the trap of utopianism—and also, more importantly, a religious edifice that satisfied his own hunger for orthodoxy. Throughout the 1940’s, while earning a living as the educational director of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Herberg met regularly with rabbis and students at the Seminary and at his own home, developing and explicating his emerging theology of Judaism. “In those early days,” says one of those students, “when the naturalistic theology so brilliantly expounded by Professor Mordecai Kaplan was the main intellectual influence in Jewish religious circles, we were fascinated by Herberg’s espousal of the orthodox ideas of a supernatural God, Messiah, and Torah, expounded with fervor and yet interpreted in a new way.”
Out of these intellectual encounters, and out of several essays published in COMMENTARY and elsewhere in the late 1940’s, came Herberg’s first major work, Judaism and Modern Man, an interpretation of Judaism in the light of existentialist philosophy which appeared in 1951 and was highly praised by Jewish scholars. (Niebuhr himself believed that the book “may well become a milestone in the religious thought of America.”) Although Judaism and Modern Man made Herberg’s reputation as a theologian, it did not lead to the academic position that he then actively sought for himself. After 1948, when his duties with the ILGWU diminished, he offered courses on a part-time basis at the New School for Social Research, served briefly as the editor of the new quarterly journal Judaism, but earned much of his income from free-lance articles and reviews and from lectures on college campuses and to synagogue and church groups far and wide. At least some of his energies were also devoted to the research and writing of Protestant-Catholic-Jew which, upon its publication in 1955, brought Herberg the recognition he had long sought and a full-time academic appointment at Drew University, a Methodist institution in New Jersey, where he would teach until his retirement in 1976.
When Herberg published Judaism and Modern Man, he still considered himself very much a liberal, albeit of the fervently anti-Communist variety. Throughout the first half of the 1950’s he continued to publish regularly in the New Republic, New Leader, COMMENTARY, and Christian Century. As the decade wore on, however, Herberg began increasingly to identify himself with political conservatism. He became part of that remarkable group of ex-Communists and ex-Trotskyists around William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review, a group that included James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, Freda Utley, Max Eastman, and Whittaker Chambers. As religion editor of National Review, and as a frequent contributor to other conservative journals like Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age, Herberg spent the ensuing years calling repeatedly for a reassessment of the prevailing liberal consensus concerning church-state separation, and more generally, for a positive role for religion in American life.
By the time of his death in March 1977, Will Herberg was nowhere near so well known as he had been fifteen or twenty years earlier. The grip over American intellectual life that the Left had achieved in the 60’s was only just beginning to show perceptible signs of loosening, while the neoconservative movement, which Herberg (despite his negative attitude toward Zionism and Israel) in many ways presaged, was still in the process of consolidation. Added to this was the fact that Herberg was not easily classifiable as a thinker. A Jewish theologian, a sociologist of American religion, a political conservative—he eluded the usual categories. Today, although Protestant-Catholic-Jew is still considered, among those who know it, a classic work in American religious sociology, and although some historians (like George H. Nash) regard Herberg as an important architect of conservative thought in the postwar period, in general his influence and his legacy remain opaque.
Unfortunately, Harry Ausmus’s intellectual biography does not do much to clarify matters. Useful for its detailed review of Herberg’s writings, the study disappoints as a critical evaluation of his thought. To be fair, Ausmus himself notes in his preface that all he is attempting here is “an objective and mostly uncritical presentation.” Still, so objective and so uncritical is this survey that it offers the reader little if any true understanding of its subject. Ausmus fails, for example, to place Judaism and Modern Man within the broader framework of the “new Jewish theology” of the 1950’s or of other significant trends and developments in postwar thought. Nor does he analyze Herberg’s role as a conservative political intellectual from the perspective of the emerging “New Conservatism” of the 1950’s or of the National Review circle. Though early in the book he presents a kind of “Who’s Who” of the American intellectual Left, as seen through Herberg’s experience of it, the latter part of the book contains no comparable portrayal of the dominant personalities and issues of the postwar American Right. Throughout, there is no discussion whatsoever of what other scholars—including John P. Diggins, George H. Nash, Seymour Siegel, Arthur A. Cohen, and Judd Teller—have written about Herberg.
Nor does the book succeed as a biography. Some of the details of Herberg’s life “had to be deleted for reasons of economy,” and the reader gets little insight into Herberg’s personality or character. Although Herberg was by all accounts a brilliant and impassioned teacher, Ausmus tells us nothing about his career at Drew, where he was lionized by students and professors alike. On the psychological level, Ausmus also scants the very curious and perplexing questions of why Herberg, whom Martin Marty has called a “very skilled reinventor of his autobiography,” fabricated a college degree and a doctorate he never earned, and invented an American birthplace to obscure his East European origins. Furthermore, one gains almost no insight from Ausmus into Herberg’s relationship, such as it was, with the Jewish community, or into his positive aloofness from Zionism.
To get at these questions one needs to turn back to the work. In an article in COMMENTARY in January 1947, “From Marxism to Judaism,” Herberg had called for “a great theological reconstruction” of Judaism, arising from the thought of such contemporary Catholic and Protestant figures as Jacques Maritain, Karl Barth, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Judaism and Modern Man represents Herberg’s own attempt to pursue this task of theological reconstruction by offering a new existentialist interpretation of historical Judaism as it is embodied in the biblical-rabbinic tradition. While the book deals systematically with God and man, reason and revelation, social ethics, the meaning of Torah, and the destiny of Israel, Herberg meant it to be more than a “neutral, objective handbook on the Jewish religion”; it was, in his own words, also “a confession of faith and declaration of total commitment” on the part of one “whose trust in the idols of modernity has broken down and who is now ready to listen to the message of faith.”
At the time, Herberg’s existentialist approach struck a responsive chord among many, within the Jewish community and beyond, who were searching for “enlightened” forms of spiritual inspiration. Judaism and Modern Man was greeted with enthusiasm by respected Jewish reviewers; Rabbi Milton Steinberg went so far as to say that Herberg had written “the book of the generation on the Jewish religion.” Others, however, were less enthusiastic; and with reason.
For one thing, Herberg’s theology seemed in crucial respects to owe more to Christianity than to Judaism. Thus, in Judaism and Modern Man, which he described as “avowedly Niebuhrian in temper and thought,” Herberg sought to formulate a “new Jewish theology” predicated upon a less optimistic image of man, upon a greater recognition of human sinfulness and human limitations. Elsewhere he wrote appreciatively of Niebuhr’s rediscovery of the classical doctrine of “original sin, which is one of the great facts of human life . . . at the root of man’s existentialist plight.” Yet the doctrine of original sin as a theological category is neither inherent in nor central to Judaism. Even though one may discover, as Herberg does, passages from the Talmud that in isolation convey the impression of a sin-preoccupied culture, the overall emphasis of traditional Judaism is far from the theological pessimism to which Herberg, following Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, subscribes. As a result, whatever vogue it may have enjoyed at the time of publication, Judaism and Modem Man has had little to say over the years to Jews in search of fresh formulations of their faith.
Moreover, those within the Jewish community who might have been attracted to the element of affirmation in Herberg were put off by his antipathetic views on Zionism and the state of Israel. Central to Herberg’s understanding is the notion that Jewish nationalism represents “the most radical perversion of the idea of Israel,” an idea that he connects instead with the “unperformed task” of redemption that the Jews are called upon to fulfill in the world. Ironically, this denigration of Jewish nationalism has more in common with the anti-Zionist ideology of classical Reform Judaism, which Herberg disdained, than with the neo-Orthodox religious thought of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig to which he so often paid homage. To compound the irony, this same concept of the “unperformed task,” of a special Jewish “mission” to the nations, served then and continues to serve as the rationale behind much of the Jewish political and theological radicalism of our time—the very sort of radicalism Will Herberg had come profoundly to reject.
Whatever the reason, the state of Israel never played the role in Herberg’s religious thought that it did in that of Emil Fackenheim, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, and other postwar theologians. Quite the contrary: “For the state of Israel, however highly we may regard it,” maintained Herberg, “is, after all, but another community of this world. . . .” That he did not deem it necessary to revise these views even after the Six-Day War of 1967 remains one of the more curious facets of his intellectual career, and another wedge between him and otherwise sympathetic readers.
Herberg’s theological writings, finally, had little impact within the secular world of which he had once been a part and to which he continued to address his appeals. His call in COMMENTARY for “a great theological reconstruction” met with a positively inhospitable reception among his fellow Jewish ex-Marxists at Partisan Review and Dwight Macdonald’s magazine Politics. These were, for the most part, cultural modernists who had—to put it mildly—little interest in theological reflection and much less in personal affirmation of religious belief.
To these secular critics, like Irving Howe, Herberg’s commitments bespoke a “new failure of nerve,” and his call for a religious revival represented “an escape from the responsibilities of political life and the uncertainties of worldly experience.” Sidney Hook and Daniel Bell also attacked Herberg’s belief that democracy rests on “religio-philosophical” truths about man’s fallibility, or that religion might offer a bulwark against totalitarianism. His “defeatist” retreat to religion found little support among most of the contributors to Partisan Review‘s 1950 symposium on “Religion and the Intellectuals,” and not surprisingly, the appearance of Judaism and Modern Man the following year went unnoticed in Partisan Review and other important journals of the secular Left.
Herberg’s most famous book remains, unquestionably, the 1955 Protestant-Catholic-Jew. In writing it he sought to account for a paradox. On the one hand, no culture had ever been so thoroughly committed to materialist consumption as was postwar America, a place where people lived as if religious teachings and spiritual values were nonexistent. On the other hand, all around one saw signs of religious revival, at least on a superficial level. There was the spectacular rise of Billy Graham; the addition of the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance; the printing of “In God We Trust” on certain postage stamps. President Eisenhower had unexpectedly opened his inaugural address with a prayer, and had given a nationally broadcast speech on the need for religious faith. The best-selling book in America in 1953 and 1954 was The Power of Positive Thinking, by the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale. Church construction was booming, and church membership rising dramatically.
American Jews, too, seemed to be participating in this national religious revival. Postwar synagogue building eclipsed anything that had been seen in the 1920’s and 1930’s. New congregations sprang up all over the United States. The American-born children of Jews who had never thought about their Jewishness, or who had done so only to reject it, suddenly found themselves joining and even organizing synagogues in small towns and suburbia.
To Herberg, all this suggested the formation of a society in which religious affiliation, rather than class or ethnicity, had become the primary social determinant. In order “to belong” in American society, one had to belong to a religious community. Moverover, contrary to established sociological belief, America was not one melting pot, but rather a triple melting pot; to be an American in the 1950’s meant to be identified with one of the “three great religions of democracy”: Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism.
There is much that was, and is, striking in this thesis—not least, in retrospect, Herberg’s daring elevation of Judaism to coequal status in the national drama with the two great branches of Christianity. Indeed, one cannot help feeling that Herberg’s saying so helped in some measure to make it so: published on the heels of celebrations in 1954 of 300 years of Jewish settlement in North America, Protestant-Catholic-Jew served as a kind of “scientific” legitimation of the arrival of American Jews as partners on the national religious scene, bolstering Jewish self-respect and altering for the better the perceptions of American Jews held by their non-Jewish neighbors.
Nevertheless, Herberg’s analysis is open to serious question. His claims about the eclipse of ethnicity, for example, were hardly borne out by developments of the next two decades. “The perpetuation of ethnic differences in any serious way is altogether out of line with the logic of American reality,” he wrote in 1955, yet only a few years later Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan were demonstrating, in Beyond the Melting Pot, the falsity of Herberg’s statement. Or again, for the sake of his overall analysis Herberg dismissed the fundamentalist Protestant “fringe” sects in the United States—“they become very minor denominations, hardly affecting the total picture”—despite the fact that during the 1950’s close to ten million American Protestants were defining themselves as evangelical Christians and even as Herberg was writing new evangelical sects were arising and older ones were undergoing revitalization. Less than five years after the publication of Protestant-Catholic-Jew, the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset could note that such fundamentalist sects were “far stronger today than at any time in the 20th century,” and that the much-heralded growth in church membership was taking place precisely among these “fringe sects,” rather than within the traditional Protestant “mainline” denominations in which Herberg placed so much stock.
If one tries to account for the peculiar lack of resonance of Will Herberg’s name today, these and other weaknesses in his work both as a theologian and as a sociologist must figure prominently. But to stop with those weaknesses is to miss what was fresh and even compelling about Herberg’s views at the time, and what still recommends them today. The glue that held it all together was Herberg’s emerging political conservatism.
The touchstone of Herberg’s conservatism was a political historicism rooted in the conception of natural law as formulated by Edmund Burke (whom Herberg had begun to read at the suggestion of Niebuhr). Burkean conservatism regards traditional religion as the very basis of political culture, without which the maintenance of social order is an impossibility; drawing upon this view, Herberg argued for the necessity of religion as a “civilizing force,” one that would enable the American body politic to survive as a moral entity in the postwar world.
It was Herberg’s neo-Burkean approach to matters of religion and state that led to his close association with National Review, and in particular to the conviction, shared with Whittaker Chambers, that the struggle between Soviet Communism and the free world was, in fact, the struggle of atheism against religion. At home, of course, the problem was not so much Communism as secular liberalism, and as the religion editor of National Review Herberg took it as his special task to criticize systematically the established liberal consensus on issues of church and state; in so doing, he made probably his most significant contribution to postwar conservative thought.
The position Herberg espoused was predicated on the argument that the authors of the Constitution never intended to erect a “wall of separation.” The “establishment-of-religion” clause of the First Amendment had been profoundly misunderstood: although the Founding Fathers did not want to favor any single religion, they were not against helping all religions, or all religion, equally. “Neither in the minds of the Founding Fathers nor in the thinking of the American people through the 19th and into the 20th century,” wrote Herberg, “did the doctrine of the First Amendment ever imply an ironclad ban forbidding the government to take account of religion or to support its various activities.” In the last few years this argument has been advanced with greater confidence than it once was; it is worth recalling that, outside of the legal community, Herberg was one of the first American intellectuals to articulate it.
Herberg was especially vocal in his criticism of liberal American Jews and their insistence that religion be kept rigidly distinct from public life. Jewish survival, in the liberal reading, was most secure where the wall separating religion and state was strongest, and maintaining the wall meant maintaining a steadfast opposition to any and all religious symbols or practices in public institutions. In several articles published during the 1950’s and 1960’s, Herberg urged the liberal Jewish “establishment” to reassess this position. “The American Jew must have sufficient confidence in the capacity of democracy to preserve its pluralistic . . . character without any absolute wall of separation between religion and public life,” he wrote in 1952. And a decade or so later, frustrated by liberal Jewish support for the 1963 Supreme Court decisions banning the Lord’s Prayer and Bible reading in the public schools, he entered a plea for a restoration of religion to a place of honor in American public life:
Within the meaning of our political tradition and political practice, the promotion [of religion] has been, and continues to be, a part of the very legitimate “secular” purpose of the state. Whatever the “neutrality” of the state in matters of religion may be, it cannot be a neutrality between religion and no-religion, any more than . . . it could be a neutrality between morality and no-morality, . . . [both religion and morality being] as necessary to “good government” as “national prosperity.”
“The traditional symbols of the divine presence in our public life,” Herberg warned, “ought not to be tampered with.”
Needless to say, the warning went generally unheeded within the Jewish community. Some Jewish leaders publicly dissociated themselves from Herberg’s views; in the words of one liberal critic, Herberg was “certainly the most stupid Jew I’ve ever heard of.” It has taken another two decades—which happened to be the politically and religiously fateful ones of the 60’s and 70’s—for Herberg’s critique of the secularizing tendencies of American Jewish liberalism to find wider echoes in the internal politics of the Jewish community (where, today, the influence of the Orthodox is anyway more strongly felt).
Of course much has intervened to make this argument a more respectable one, perhaps above all the willingness of many Americans of all denominations and walks of life to assert the link between public morality and religious belief. From a self-consciously Jewish standpoint, such figures as Irving Kristol, Murray Friedman, Milton Himmelfarb, and the late Seymour Siegel have argued forcefully that an American political culture uninformed by religious beliefs and institutions itself poses a danger to the position and the security of Jews. If even today this view can hardly be said to represent the mainstream Jewish consensus, which for the most part remains committed to the old doctrine of separatism, at least it commands greater intellectual force and weight than ever before. In this it owes something, however unrecognized and unacknowledged, to the example of Will Herberg.
1 Will Herberg: From Right to Right, by Harry J. Ausmus, Foreword by Martin E. Marty, University of North Carolina Press, 275 pp., $29.95.