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Billy Graham and the Americanization of religion

Why I thought of Will Herberg and his book Protestant, Catholic, Jew when I heard of the passing of Graham, the famed American evangelist.

Mourners line up Feb. 28 to pay final respects to the Rev. Billy Graham lying in honor in Capitol Rotunda in Washington. (CNS photo/Aaron P. Bernstein, Reuters)

In 1955 a Jewish sociologist named Will Herberg published a book that caused a stir in religious circles. The book’s title was Protestant, Catholic, Jew, and its premise  was that by the time of the postwar religious boom then going strong in America, the country had become religiously tripartite.

Most people probably took this as welcome affirmation from social science of the toleration and mutual acceptance accompanying religious pluralism that by then were well along in becoming established parts of American life.

That, however, was a simplistic reading of Herberg. His further point, one he by no means welcomed himself, was that Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism in the U.S. had been reduced to expressions of basically the same “great overarching commitment”—a commitment to the American Way of Life. Now, he added, all three were at risk of losing their distinctive religious identities in the great American melting pot.

I thought of Will Herberg and his book when I heard of the passing of Billy Graham, the famed American evangelist who died last month at the age of 99. Graham was a sincere believer and by all accounts an eminently decent man. His personal commitment to Christ and Christianity was transparently evident and highly edifying. Undoubtedly he did a great deal of good.

But along with all the pluses, Billy Graham also was a de facto embodiment of the  broad-based, non-dogmatic, undifferentiated version of religion that Herberg, who wrote as Graham’s star was on the rise, had in view in warning of the growing assimilation of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews into American secular culture in a process that involved a thinning out of religious identity.

Mainline Protestants had of course been first to travel that particular road, even as evangelicals and fundamentalists were retreating into largely self-imposed cultural isolation following the disaster of the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ trial in 1925. But by the mid-1950s the Catholics, Jews, and, increasingly, popular evangelicals like Graham were catching up with the mainline Protestants while, as Herberg put it, “losing their capacity to resist dissolution in the culture.”

Much has changed in the world of American religion since then. The religious boom has long since faded. Other religious bodies, notably including Muslims, have become a presence on the American religious scene. And the number of religiously non-affiliated Americans has risen dramatically.

But one thing hasn’t changed. The constant is ongoing cultural assimilation, and the accompanying loss of religious identity, that was and today continues to be a central part of the American religious experience, described by Herberg as “essentially the ‘Americanization’ of religion in America, and therefore also its thorough-going secularization.”

To make his point, Herberg quoted a remark attributed to President Dwight Eisenhower: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” To which Herberg added: “And why didn’t he care what it was? Because, in his view, as in the view of all normal Americans, they ‘all say the same thing.’”

Much was said in praise of Billy Graham after his death, and much that was said was well deserved. But along with praising Graham the individual Christian, one must also express reservations concerning the limitations of the version of culturally assimilated religion he stood for.

Protestants, Catholics, and Jews haven’t yet worked out a viable response to the challenge of cultural assimilation in secular America. And Billy Graham, for all his decency and personal commitment, was not much help in doing that.

About Russell Shaw 156 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.

9 Comments

  1. All are not similarly talented. One person plants, another waters, another harvests. Mr. Graham’s calling from God was obviously to call people to Jesus. He did that extremely well. It is for others to be the teachers, and for the individuals to find their way to the Church established by Jesus over 2,000 years ago.

    • While gushing praise for Billy Graham, one should also remember that he was the first to show that millions could be made peddling religion to the masses. He also believed that the murder of pre-born children could be justified in the cases of rape and incest, a demonic political position if ever there was one.

      • Not sure this piece is “gushing praise”. Regardless, it should be noted that Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) often preached to crowds of 10,000 or more, and Billy Sunday (1862-1935) is estimated to have preached to over 100 million people face-to-face, mostly without modern technology/amplification. Graham, of course, looked to both for inspiration, although his own style differed in various ways. Your point about abortion is well taken; it is, alas, a common position for many (but not all) Evangelicals.

  2. The responsibility of the success or failure of authentic Catholicism in the United States (or anywhere else) rests squarely with the Church leadership.

    As goes the Church, so goes the culture – not the other way around.

  3. The state has a stake in making sure those under its power assimilate its ideology to keep it in place. Who can resist the power of the state, and how?

  4. What happened to ecumenism? St. Pope John Paul II encouraged its use. The concern is the conflict between evangelism and ecumenism. How can I honor another’s faith if my mission is to convert him?

  5. A fascinating piece to appear on a Catholic website since all most recent Catholic voices seem as ‘assimilation’-oriented as Graham, even given the Church’s unique clams to authority. It seems to raise as many questions in my mind as it answers… The impression I get is Graham was so successful that Church leaders felt compelled to keep up.

  6. And then there was John Vianney who probably preached to hundreds of thousands without ever playing center field or travelling outside his parish – just on account of his sanctity.

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