If there is a standard, or ideal, American cultural-political type to which all of us are expected to conform (by a process known as “Americanization”), it is also inescapable that the American social scene is one of the utmost diversity. At one time it was thought that this diversity was essentially an ethnic one. But now, Will Herberg writes, we may very well have to look for the sources of American diversity elsewhere, as ethnic differences gradually dissolve.
The immigrant who came to this country by the millions in the latter part of the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries was expected sooner or later, either in his own person or through his children, to give up virtually everything he had brought with him from the “old country”—his language, his nationality, his manner of life—and to adopt the ways of his new home. Within broad limits, however, his becoming an American did not involve his abandoning the old religion in favor of some native American substitute. “[In this country] from the very beginning, we did not really expect a man to change his faith.” This fact, to which George R. Stewart calls attention in his American Ways of Life, is of immense significance for understanding mid-20th-century America. It is a fact of the historical and sociological order, not of the theological; the immigrant was not expected to change his faith upon arrival in this country, not because Americans were indifferent to religion or were committed to theological views which called for non-interference in religious matters, but because almost from the beginning the structure of American society presupposed diversity and substantial equality of religious associations. Not only was the immigrant expected to retain his old religion, as he was not expected to retain his old language or nationality, but such was the shape of America that it was largely in and through his religion that he—or rather his children and grandchildren—found an identifiable place in American life.
As soon as the immigrant family arrived in the New World it got caught up in a far-reaching double process. On the one hand, the conditions of American life made for the emergence of the ethnic group, in terms of which the immigrant identified himself and was located in the larger community. On the other hand, however, the formation of the ethnic group at the center of immigrant life was from the very beginning accompanied by its dissolution at the periphery. The ethnic group emerged to define and express the immigrant’s curious combination of foreignness and Americanness; but his children, the moment they entered school, the moment even they were let out on the street to play with children of other tongues and origins, began to escape the ethnic-immigrant life of their parents. Their language, their culture, their system of values, their outlook on life underwent drastic change, sometimes obviously, sometimes imperceptibly; they were becoming American, assimilated, acculturated, no longer fully at home in the immigrant family and ethnic group, though not yet fully at home in America. Though this double process was operative from the very beginning, the “negative” aspect was not visible so long as large-scale immigration continued; all phases of ethnic life flourished, societies spread and increased in membership, foreign-language publications grew in scope and circulation, cultural institutions prospered. But this prosperity and expansion at the center could not halt the disintegration of ethnic group life that came with the growing Americanization of the second generation.
These conflicting cultural demands made on the second generation engendered an acute malaise in the sons and daughters of the immigrants. Frequently, the man of the second generation attempted to resolve his dilemma by forsaking the ethnic group in which he found himself. As Marcus L. Hansen writes in The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant: “He wanted to forget everything,” this man of the second generation, “the foreign language . . . the religion [of his immigrant parents] . . . the family customs. . . . The second generation wanted to forget, and even when the ties of family affection were strong, wanted to lose as many of the evidences of foreign origin as they could shuffle off.”1 The great mobility of American society encouraged this process, and was in turn spurred by it. As the second generation prospered economically and culturally, and moved upward in the social scale, assimilation was speeded; the speeding of assimilation stimulated and quickened the upward movement.
First to go was the foreign language and the culture associated with it. Religion too was affected, though not so explicitly. The second generation developed an uneasy relation to the faith of their fathers: sometimes this meant simply indifference; in other cases, a shift to denominations regarded as more “American.” In most cases, however, the ties with the old religion were never completely broken.
The immediate reaction of many of the second generation was escape. But enough of this generation always remained in the ethnic group to provide a permanent nucleus around which the incoming masses of immigrants could gather and organize their lives in the New World. Through the 19th and well into the 20th century, the ethnic group throve and flourished.
Then came the stopping of immigration, first as a consequence of the world war, and later through the restrictive legislation of the 1920’s. Almost at once the hitherto hidden effects of the assimilative process became evident. “The total halt to immigration after 1924 severed the last remaining ties [of the immigrants and their children] to the Old World. Without addition from across the ocean, memories of transatlantic antecedents faded. As the second, and in time, the third generation grew to maturity . . . the old customs grew unfamiliar in the bustle of American life,” writes Oscar Handlin in The American People in the Twentieth Century. The various activities of the ethnic group began to shrivel and disappear; the ethnic group itself, in its older form at least, became less and less intelligible and relevant to American reality. It was the end of an era.
But if it was the end, it was also the beginning. The final drying-up of the stream of immigration, which cut the ground from under the ethnic group, coincided with the emergence of the immigrant community’s third generation. The last wave of the “new” immigration had begun in the 1870’s; by the 1920’s, grandsons and great-grandsons of the earlier immigrants were becoming increasingly plentiful. During the years of large-scale immigration, the third generation had either not yet appeared, or, where it did exist, could hardly influence the ethnic picture in any important way. But now the third generation’s outlook and temper became increasingly determinative. Not even the momentary upsurge of ethnic nationalism in the 1930’s, and again under the exigencies of the postwar years, could materially change the new picture.
Marcus Hansen forcefully formulated his “principle of third-generation interest” in these terms: “what the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember.” “After the second generation,” Hansen points out, “comes the third. . . . [The members of the third generation] have no reason to feel any inferiority when they look around them. They are American-born. Their speech is the same as that of those with whom they associate. Their material wealth is the average possession of the typical citizen.” The third generation, in short, really managed to get rid of the immigrant foreignness, the hopelessly double alienation of the generation that preceded it; it became American in a sense that had been, by and large, impossible for the immigrants and their children. That problem, at least, was solved; but its solution paradoxically rendered more acute the perennial problem of “belonging” and self-identification. They were Americans, but what kind of Americans? They could not be simply “shapeless integers of a homogeneous mass,” Oscar Handlin observes. “They desired a sense of identity that would explain why they were different from ‘One Man’s Family.’ They wished to belong to a group.” But what group could they belong to? The old-line ethnic group, with its foreign language and culture, was not for them; they were Americans. But the old family religion, the old ethnic religion, could serve where language and culture could not; the religion of the immigrants, with certain necessary modifications, was accorded a place in the American scheme of things that made it at once both genuinely American and a familiar principle of group identification. The connection with the family religion had never been completely broken, and to religion, therefore, the men and women of the third generation now began to turn to define their place in American society in a way that would sustain their Americanness and yet confirm the tie that bound them to their forebears, whom they now no longer had any reason to reject, whom indeed, for the sake of a “heritage,” they now wanted to “remember.” Religious association now became the primary context of self-identification and social location for the third and also for the bulk of the second generation of America’s immigrants, and by this time America’s immigrants were, by and large, America’s people.
But in thus becoming the primary context of social location, religious association itself underwent significant change. All of the many churches, sects, and denominations that characterize the American religious scene continued to thrive. But “increasingly religious activities fell into a fundamental tripartite division that had begun to take form earlier in the century. Men were Catholics, Protestants, or Jews, categories based less on theological than on social distinctions” (Handlin). A new and unique social structure was emerging in America, the “religious community.”
In the early 1940’s, Ruby Jo Kennedy undertook an investigation of intermarriage trends in New Haven from 1870 to 1940. She published her findings in the American Journal of Sociology for January 1944 under the significant title, “Single or Triple Melting Pot?” These findings singularly illumine the development we have been studying.
Mrs. Kennedy sought to answer certain central questions:
- To what extent do individuals marry within their own culture [i.e., ethnic] groups? Which groups seem least and which most inclined to in-marriage? Is ethnic endogamy becoming more or less prevalent with the passage of time? What variations appear between the several ethnic groups in this regard . . . ?
- When out-marriage does occur, is group preference discernible? That is, when individuals of any ethnic group marry out, do they demonstrate pronounced likes and dislikes for specified other groups? What reasons can be discovered for these preferences?
- How does religious affiliation influence tendencies toward in- or out-marriage?
The years 1870, 1900, 1930, and 1940 were isolated for detailed examination. The ethnic groups that came in for consideration were the British-American, the Irish, the German, the Scandinavian, the Jewish, the Italian, and the Polish. Altogether, records of 9,044 marriages in the four selected years were subjected to classification and analysis, and the relevant facts correlated.
“The large nationality groups in New Haven,” Mrs. Kennedy found, “represent a triple division on religious grounds: Jewish, Protestant (British-American, German, and Scandinavian), and Catholic (Irish, Italian, and Polish). . . .” In its early immigrant days, each of these ethnic groups tended to be endogamous; with the years, however, people began to marry outside the group. Thus, Irish in-marriage was 93.05 per cent in 1870, 74.75 per cent in 1900, 74.25 per per cent in 1930, and 45.06 per cent in 1940; German in-marriage was 86.67 per cent in 1870, 55.26 per cent in 1900, 39.84 per cent in 1930, and 27.19 per cent in 1940; for the Italians and the Poles, the comparable figures were 97.71 per cent and 100 per cent respectively in 1900, 86.71 per cent and 68.04 per cent in 1930, and 81.89 per cent and 52.78 per cent in 1940. But “while strict ethnic endogamy is loosening, religious endogamy is persisting. . . .” Members of Catholic stocks married Catholics in 95.35 per cent of the cases in 1870, 85.78 per cent in 1900, 82.05 per cent in 1930, and 83.71 per cent in 1940; members of Protestant stocks married Protestants in 99.11 per cent of the cases in 1870, 90.86 per cent in 1900, 78.19 per cent in 1930, and 79.72 per cent in 1940; Jews married Jews in 100 per cent of the cases in 1870, 98.82 per cent in 1900, 97.01 per cent in 1930, and 94.32 per cent in 1940. “Future cleavages,” in Mrs. Kennedy’s opinion, “will therefore be along religious lines rather than along nationality lines as in the past. . . . Cultural [i.e., ethnic] lines may fade, but religious barriers are holding fast. . . . When marriage crosses religious barriers, as it often does, religion still plays a prominent role, especially among Catholics,” in that such marriages are often conditioned upon, and result in, one of the partners being brought into the religious community of the other. “The traditional ‘single melting pot’ idea must be abandoned, and a new conception, which we term the ‘triple melting pot’ theory of American assimilation, will take its place, as the true expression of what is happening to the various nationality groups in the United States. . . . The ‘triple melting pot’ type of assimiliation is occurring through intermarriage, with Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism serving as the three fundamental bulwarks. . . . The different nationalities are merging, but within three religious compartments rather than indiscriminately. . . .2 A triple religious cleavage, rather than a multilinear nationality cleavage, therefore seems likely to characterize American society in the future.” The very meaning of the word “intermarriage” (as applied to whites) has undergone a significant change. A generation ago, it still meant ethnic intermarriage (Abie’s Irish Rose); today, it regularly means religions intermarriage (Protestant-Catholic-Jewish).
Yet though the “religious community”—the term we have given to what Mrs. Kennedy calls a religious “cleavage” or “compartment”—began rapidly to emerge as the primary context of self-identification and social location, it would be misleading to conclude that the old ethnic lines had disappeared or were no longer significant. The older identifications continued to enjoy a vitality, but their form changed as the third generation began to make its mark on the ethnic picture. Formerly, religion had been merely a part, and to some a dispensable part, of the ethnic group’s culture and activities; now the religious community was becoming primary, and ethnic interests, loyalties, and memories were more and more absorbed in and manifested through this new social structure.
In politics, half-forgotten, half-buried ethnic allegiances and prejudices still play a sizable part, as Samuel Lubell and others have shown. But in politics, too, the party managers are beginning to think in terms of Catholic, Protestant, and Jew, subsuming many of the older ethnic distinctions under this new tripartite pattern.
A revealing illustration of the new tendency to think in terms of these religious categories even where ethnic considerations are central is provided in the way we envisage the problem of minorities and minority discrimination. It is obvious that such discrimination operates primarily on ethnic or “racial” grounds, not only in the case of Negroes but also, for example, in the case of Jews who are barred from certain clubs and resorts, and of second- and third-generation Italian Americans who meet with difficulties in gaining admission to certain colleges and professional schools. There is a vague recognition of this fact in the familiar formula which calls for “no discrimination on grounds of race, religion, or national origin”: “race” referring to Negroes, “religion” to Jews and Catholics, “national origin” to ethnic stocks of the “new” immigration (from Eastern and Southeastern Europe). Yet when a joint committee is set up to fight such discrimination, it is not set up as a committee of representatives of ethnic groups, say Poles, Italians, and French Canadians, along with Negroes and Jews; on the contrary, the committee is almost certain to be composed of Negroes, Jews, and Catholics, with Protestants coming in for support and good will. It is assumed that through the Jewish and Catholic communities the various ethnic groups with a grievance will find expression and representation. The Catholic Church in particular is conceived as a kind of over-all institution embracing and representing the major ethnic groups (aside from Jews and Negroes) that still suffer from discrimination. And so it happens that a thoroughly American priest of remote English or Irish ancestry will come forward as spokesman for ethnics of altogether different origin and background. If Oscar Handlin is right, as he probably is, in asserting in these pages (“Group Life Within the American Pattern,” November 1949) that “the influence of ethnic origin . . . extends also deep into the lives of folk for whom the decisive migration [was] made by ancestors many generations back, it must be added that characteristically and increasingly this influence comes to expression through the religious community.” But then the religious community itself, as a social institution, tends to “revolve about an ethnic rather than a dogmatic axis.”
The religious community we have been describing is a complex structure with aspects both sociological and religious.
Sociologically, as we have seen, the religious community has emerged under compelling circumstances to serve as a context of self-identification and social location in contemporary American life. “Religious community” in this usage refers not so much to the particular denominations, of which there are scores in this country, but to the three great divisions, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. (In some parts of the country, where there are very few Catholics and Jews, social location may be established in terms of the major Protestant denominations.) America is indeed, in Mrs. Kennedy’s terminology, the land of the “triple melting pot,” for it is within these three religious communities that the process of ethnic and cultural integration so characteristic of American life takes place. Only George R. Stewart’s term “transmuting pot” would perhaps be more appropriate than “melting pot,” since in each of these communities, though what emerges is a “new man,” he is cast and recast along the same traditional “American” ideal type. It is our general conformity to this ideal type that makes us all Americans; it is our membership in one of a diversity of religious communities that gives us our distinctive place in American society. And in the basic diversity of religious community most other diversities tend to be defined and expressed.
We can restate all this by saying that, while the unity of American life is indeed a unity in multiplicity, the pluralism that this implies is of a very special kind. America recognizes no permanent national or cultural minorities; what Europe knows under this head are in this country regarded as foreign-language or foreign-culture groups whose separateness is merely temporary, the consequence of recent immigration. Woodrow Wilson was sociologically wrong when he said that “America does not consist of groups”; of a certain kind of groups it does indeed consist. But he was surely reflecting the American’s understanding of himself when he added: “A man who thinks of himself as belonging to a particular national group in America has not yet become an American.”
America does indeed know and acknowledge the separateness of so-called minority “races,” but such separateness has always been associated with some degree of segregation and relegation to an inferior status. To the American mind an ethnic group that becomes permanent and self-perpetuating and resists cultural assimilation—in other words, what the European would call a “national-cultural” minority—would be regarded as an alien “race” and be confronted with the same problems and difficulties as face the Negroes and men and women of Oriental ancestry in this country. The only kind of separateness or diversity that America recognizes as permanent, and yet also as involving no status of inferiority, is the diversity or separateness of religious community.
For all its wide variety of regional, ethnic, and other differences, America today may be conceived, as it is indeed conceived by most Americans, as one great community divided into three big sub-communities religiously defined, all equal and all equally American in their identification with the “American Way of Life.” For the third generation, which somehow wishes to “remember” a background that the second generation was anxious to “forget,” and which is concerned with finding its place in the larger community but not at the expense of its Americanness, this tripartite structure of American society into religious communities is most welcome and intelligible. And no wonder, since it has been the work largely of this third generation.
Just as sociologically we may describe America as one great community divided into three big sub-communities, religiously we might describe Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism in America as three great branches or divisions of “American religion.” The assumption underlying the view shared by most Americans, at least at moments when they think in “non-sectarian” terms, is not so much that the three religious communities possess an underlying theological unity, which of course they do, but rather that they are three diverse representations of the same “spiritual values” American democracy is presumed to stand for (the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man, the dignity of the individual human being, etc.). At bottom, that is why no one is expected to change his religion as he becomes American;3 since each of the religions is equally and authentically American, the American is expected to express his religious affirmation in that form which has come to him with his family and ethnic heritage. Particular denominational affiliations and loyalties within each of the communities (only Protestantism and Judaism come into question here, since Catholicism has no inner denominational lines) are not necessarily denied, or even depreciated, but they are held to be distinctly secondary.
All this has far-reaching consequences for the place of religion in the totality of American life. With the religious community as the primary context of self-identification and social location, and with Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism held to be three culturally diverse representations of the same “spiritual values,” it becomes virtually mandatory for the American to place himself in one or another of these groups. It is not external pressure but inner necessity that compels him. For 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. It is something that does not in itself necessarily imply actual affiliation with a particular church, participation in religious activities, or even the affirmation of any definite creed or belief; it implies merely identification and social location. A convinced atheist, or an eccentric American who adopts Buddhism or Yoga, may identify himself to himself in terms of his anti-religious ideology or exotic cult, although it is more than likely that a Yankee turned Buddhist would still be regarded as a “Protestant,” albeit admittedly a queer one. But such people are few and far between in this country. By and large, all forms of self-identification and social location other than this religious one are either (like regional background) peripheral and obsolescent, or else (like ethnic diversity) subsumed under the broader head of religious community. Not to be a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Jew today is, for increasing numbers of American people, not to be anything, not to have a name; and we are all, as David Riesman points out, in Individualism Reconsidered, “afraid of chaotic situations in which [we] do not know [our] own names, [our] ‘brand’ names. . . .” To have a name and an identity, one must belong somewhere; and more and more one “belongs” in America by belonging to a religious community, which tells one what he is.
In the light of these considerations, one is moved to reflect on the curious nature of the religious revival under way in this country. For at the same time that there has been such a revival, a pronounced “trend toward secularism” is evident about which Oscar Handlin and others have written. How does it come about that Americans today are, in one way, more religious than they have been for a long time and are becoming increasingly so, and yet, in other ways, are more remote from the centrality of Jewish-Christian faith than perhaps they have ever been? On one level at least, the answer would seem to be that the American religious revival—indicated by a notable increase in religious identification, affiliation, and membership—is a reflection of the social necessity of “belonging,” and today the context of “belonging” is increasingly the religious community. No suggestion of insincerity is here implied, nor does what I have said preclude the operation of other factors lying closer to the heart of faith. Those who identify themselves religiously and join churches as a way of naming and locating themselves socially are not cynical unbelievers shrewdly manipulating false labels. They mean what they say when they call themselves Protestants, or Catholics, or Jews; it is the problem of the student of religious life to define just what it is they mean. And compounded with this underlying factor of social identification, though not always in harmony with it, there may well be other factors more authentically religious in the theological sense. In any case, it is now possible to understand how a religious revival resting on such a basis may be quite compatible with the prevalence and even growth of secularism. In a subsequent article, I shall attempt to evaluate religion in America, which has here been described more or less sociologically, in the perspective of faith.
1 This essay was reprinted in the November 1952 COMMENTARY.
2 Two major groups stand measurably outside this division of American society into three “melting pots”—the Negroes and the recent Latin-American immigrants (Mexicans in the South-west, Puerto Ricans in New York and other Eastern centers). Ethnic amalgamation within the religious community does not yet include them to any appreciable extent; their primary context of self-identification and social location remains their ethnic or “racial” group. (See C. Wright Mills, Clarence Senior, and Rose Kohn Goldsen, The Puerto Mean Journey and John R. Scotford, Within These Borders: Spanish-Speaking Peoples in the U.S.A.) There is reason to believe that with the cessation of large-scale Puerto Rican immigration and the emergence of an American third generation, this group will tend to break up into two distinct sections, one “white,” the other “colored” (defined by a complex of “racial” and socio-cultural factors), with each section moving toward absorption into the major divisions of the general community. The future of the Negroes in the United States constitutes a much more difficult problem, about which very little may be said with any assurance today.
3 This does not mean that every religion is so regarded. All religions, of course, enjoy equal freedom and protection under the Constitution, but not all are felt to be really American and therefore to be retained with Americanization. The Buddhism of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, for example, is definitely felt to be something foreign in a way that Lutheranism, or even Catholicism, never was.