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Three-Part Harmony

A new book shows how Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan prompted the American establishment to look beyond longstanding divisions and see Catholics, Protestants, and Jews as kin

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Three students at a U.S. Army chaplain school in 1942 (from left to right): Fred W. Thissen (Catholic), Ernest Pine (Protestant), and Jacob Rothschild (Jewish). (Library of Congress)

After he was elected president in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower made a famous statement of belief that nicely summarized the mid-century American creed: “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” There is something absurd about the way the second part of the sentence casually annuls the first: If you don’t care what people believe about God, how “deeply felt” can your own beliefs really be? What Eisenhower really seems to be saying is that religious people make good citizens—more bluntly still, that fear of God is needed to keep people in line.

This principle may or may not be true, but it has nothing to say about the truth or falsehood of any particular religion. Presumably, if Americans started sincerely worshipping Zeus or L. Ron Hubbard, they would get all the same civic benefits as if they were pious Jews, Catholics, or Protestants. The temptation to make a religion of religion, to recommend that other people believe doctrines one does not believe oneself, is a standing temptation for ideologues, especially on the right.

Yet the generosity of Eisenhower’s statement is even more striking than its awkwardness. When you consider how much blood has been spilled over questions of theology, there is something quite wonderful about the way Americans are so eager to give every religion equal credit for good intentions—or even to believe that good intentions are more important than theological correctness. And what is most amazing of all is the way Jews are automatically included in this consensus—in what Eisenhower went on to call “the Judeo-Christian concept.” The very term “Judeo-Christian,” which is now a cliché in American political discourse, represents a healing of a 2,000-year-old breach, an off-hand repudiation of the whole bloody history of Christian anti-Judaism.

When and how did America start to think of itself as a Judeo-Christian country, rather than what it historically has been, a Protestant one? That is the question Kevin M. Schultz asks in Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (Oxford), and he gives a very concrete answer. The change came about in the 1930s and 1940s, thanks primarily to the concerted effort of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, a lobbying and educational group founded in 1927. In fact, the first half of Tri-Faith America reads like a history of the NCCJ, as Schultz draws on archival material to show how the group developed its programs and understood its mission.

That mission was even clearer in the group’s original, unwieldy name, National Conference of Jews and Christians (Catholic and Protestant). For if one of its goals was to bridge the divide between Jews and Christians, the other was to stimulate good will between Protestant and Catholics—groups whose antagonism had been a far more important feature of American history. Indeed, from any reasonable point of view, Catholics posed a much greater challenge to the hegemony of American Protestants than Jews ever could: At mid-century, the population was estimated to be two-thirds Protestant, one-quarter Catholic, and 3 percent Jewish. To many Protestants, moreover, Catholics were inherently unsuited to democracy, because of their obedience to the Church and their communal clannishness. Not until the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 would this kind of hostility be wholly put to rest.

It is greatly to the credit of America’s mainline Protestant leaders, then, that in the 20th century they put the weight of the Establishment behind the “tri-faith” vision and against the forces of bigotry. The NCCJ had its origins as a reaction to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, with its anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic hatreds, and took new urgency from the rise of Nazism in 1930s Europe. Its most popular programs were the so-called Tolerance Trios, in which a priest, minister, and rabbi would tour the country conducting public discussions. The NCCJ’s head described these tours as a benevolent American “ ‘storm-trooping’ … in sharp contrast to Nazi precept and procedure.”

Anodyne as the Tolerance Trios sound, they did have to overcome some initial resistance, notably from the Catholic Church. Some bishops refused to allow priests to appear in a setting that suggested parity with ministers and rabbis. Yet the clergy who took part in the Trios went out of their way to minimize doctrinal differences. At one conference in the early 1930s, a priest told a Methodist questioner, “I would hope that you should become a Catholic. But as long as your reason and conscience truly lead you to do otherwise, you have as good a chance to get to heaven as any Catholic.” As Schultz notes, this was “a bit theologically soft regarding the Catholic position,” but for that very reason it was a good example of how the rhetoric of tolerance helped to produce the reality. The official NCCJ formula, “the brotherhood of men under the fatherhood of God,” nicely elided dogmatic differences.

World War II, Schultz shows, was when Tri-Faith America became official government policy. Privately, Franklin Roosevelt could be cutting about Jews and Catholics, once announcing that the United States was “a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.” But during the war, the political appeal of “brotherhood” was too obvious to ignore. Not only did it serve to tamp down ethnic and religious prejudices that could hinder the American war effort, but it provided a perfect foil to Nazi racism. “We are at war with a people claiming to be a ‘lordly race,’ ” said Henry Sloane Coffin, a leading American Protestant minister. “We must hold fast to our national unity by insisting that all men have one heavenly father who wills His Children to honor and serve one another as brethren.”

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, then, the NCCJ was given free access to the American military. Tolerance Trios visited camps and bases; soldiers were issued pamphlets with titles like “A Faith for Young Men in the Armed Forces” and “Why We Are at War.” Perhaps the most concise and moving statement of tri-faith unity was the “prayer card” issued to every soldier, containing Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish prayers to be read to a dying man. The kitschiest example, on the other hand, may have been the football game at Ft. Benning described by Schultz in which the marching band formed into a Star of David and played a rousing version of “Ein Keloheinu,” before reforming as a cross and playing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

The NCCJ representative at that game noted happily that “the massed thousands cheered wildly and warm-heartedly this gesture of good-will.” But then, he wasn’t exactly a neutral party. Schultz’s institutional focus on the NCCJ means that he has little to say about how its propaganda was actually received by citizens and soldiers and what kind of concrete impact it had on bigotry. (Tom Lehrer, the musical satirist, offered an astringent view in his song “National Brotherhood Week”: “It’s fun to eulogize/ The people you despise/ As long as you don’t let ’em in your school.”)

Schultz’s treatment of the intellectual and theological dimensions of the subject is also fairly summary. Inevitably, Schultz mentions Will Herberg, whose 1955 book Protestant-Catholic-Jew “affirmed the arrival of Tri-Faith-America,” but he has less to say about Herberg’s critique of this concept as “religiousness without religion … a way of sociability or ‘belonging’ rather than a way of reorienting life to God.”

His focus in the second half of the book is, rather, legal and sociological. If World War II enshrined “the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God” as an American principle, the 1950s and 1960s saw Americans wrestle with its limits and contradictions. For one thing, Schultz emphasizes, the divisions among Protestant, Catholic, and Jew were far easier to talk about than the gulf between black and white. The NCCJ faced periodic pressure to broaden its mandate to include civil rights issues; but while many of its members were sympathetic to the cause, the organization itself remained highly cautious.

Still, Schultz argues in his last chapter, “From Creed to Color,” that the tri-faith emphasis on “brotherhood” and “the Judeo-Christian heritage” helped to prepare the ground for the civil rights movement, by giving it “a language to tap into.” In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Schultz notes, Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the tri-faith formula when he referred to the day “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.”

Yet other postwar developments helped to expose the fault lines in the tri-faith alliance—in particular, the conflicting agendas of Jews and Catholics. While both of these groups wanted to fight discrimination from the Protestant Establishment, they had different visions of what America should be. Jews, as a small and historically persecuted minority, understood America as a secular country, where Church and State were totally separate. Thus, Jewish plantiffs and lawyers helped to litigate the landmark Supreme Court cases that barred school prayer in the early 1960s, and Jewish organizations strongly objected to plans to include a question about religion on the 1960 census. Catholics, Schultz shows, came down on the other side of both issues. As a large and well-established group, they welcomed a recognition of their numbers and wanted a role for religion in public life.

Such disagreements, heightened by Jews’ memories of Catholic persecution, tested but did not break the tri-faith consensus. Today, as Schultz observes, the major divisions in American life cut across religious boundaries. On issues like abortion, homosexuality, and school prayer, conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Jews have much more in common with one another than with their liberal coreligionists.

But the real test for the tri-faith model, which Schultz barely addresses in his book, will be the assimilation of new religious groups into the “Judeo-Christian” model—above all, Muslims. From Ground Zero to Orange County, the last year witnessed a series of revolting demonstrations of anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States, reminiscent of the kind of bigotry that Jews and Catholics once faced. Tri-Faith America shows that our religious diversity has been a process of mutual accommodation: As “foreign” religions become less dogmatic and distinctive, Americans stop seeing them as alien or threatening. With luck, the same benevolent process will allow us, a few generations from now, to talk blithely of America’s Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage.

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Forest says:

There’s one minor difference between Islam and the other 2 religions. No one has attacked the USA in the name of the other 2 religions. When you ignore a problem, as you do in your last paragraph, it doesn’t make it go away.

Ron Veelik says:

It takes America time to do it’s laundry. We are still in a time of national debate. We will be hanging out a lot of dirty laundry for public inspection, and that is a good thing. Deep ill feelings held under wraps explode. Urban riots are an example of that.

It’s good we speak our feelings in this forum, then examine what we say.

The KKK and others perhaps were a catalyst of this process. At the 20Th century we came to understand that we are all not alike, and that was/is wonderful we can enjoy each other better that way. (know any good Mexican restaurants?).

In time we will know that if his name is Mohamed or William , Hes our son now, hes buried in American soil.

mark bernheim says:

the article notes mostly in passing the connection of this tri-part religious tolerance with the Civil Rights movement after 1954. is it not possible that the official openness of the US government may have come out of a realization that to win the world war and then the anticipated battle for supremacy with Communism after, it would be far better to have a united nation rather than a divided, unjust one in which the groups being held back would/could have reason not to support the system denying them? that is, the ‘cold war’ itself hardly came as a surprise, and for the millions of black Americans to get their first ‘victory’ of significance in 1954 at the height of the fear of Communism, is this coincidental? just as the supposed religious tolerance of the previous decades could serve as a unifying force for the effort needed to defeat Fascism….

Lucidity says:

Cross-burnings and lynchings were attacks on the USA. They were often conducted in the name of religion.

At one time or another, in one place or another, terrible acts of violence have been done in the name of almost every organized religion that exists, with the three Abrahamic faiths coming in at the top of the holy war sweepstakes. Though I understand why it’s a temptation, in the suffering and anger after 9/11, for us Americans to demonize Islam across the board, in doing so, we simply become the hate-filled zealot whom we fear. This mirroring of the worst in each other is an ancient, tragic story that still has us in its grips.

Katie Hanley says:

I think Eisenhower may have been paraphrasing Thomas Paine from an ill-remembered class in school – “Every religion is good that teaches man to be good; and I know of none that instructs him to be bad.”

Read more:

Also, sorry to be mundane, but there were a diversity of protestant “faiths” at the time of the founding of the United States, and they were not all very kind to one another, much less civil. (Take Pennsylvania – Moravians, Lutherans, churches in the Reformed Traditions of Zwingli, Calvin, and others – all coexisted and not always peacefully.)

Doug Greener says:

I don’t know about this Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage thing. It sounds forced and phony to me. I’m guessing now that it will never be. After all, what about the Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc. They are as part of America as the Moslems. The point is, the country at its founding had Jews (since 1654) as part of its social, economic and religious framework. George Washington himself wrote in defense of Jewish freedoms, for God’s sake! Our heritage is truly Judeo-Christian. The other religions are just add-ons.

For another look at how World War II redefined America as Judeo-Christian, read “GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation” by Deborah Dash Moore (2004). A great and inspiring book.

As a teenager I was active in NCCJ in New York City. Although the youth organization was overwhelmingly white, it was quite mixed in terms of religious affiliation, and the young people came from all over the city (except Staten Island.) We had folk sings, parties and political discussions. And NCCJ operated a camp, a citizenship type camp with lots of guest speakers, discussions, role playing, singing, etc. The camp involved high school seniors and college students. At the 1961 camp sessions, the guest speakers included Black college students who had been sitting in all across the south to integrate lunch counters and some who had participated in Freedom Rides. That year many NCCJ college students left camp and headed south to work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. So NCCJ was our introduction to student activism and the civil rights movement. For many of us NCCJ was a life-changing experience.

Pete says:

To Forest: you are absolutely correct. We ignore the dangers posed by militant Islam at our own peril. Another crucial difference between Jews and Christians on one side and Muslims on the other: Jews and Christians do not wish to replace secular government with their own religious laws as a matter of faith. And to the person who claimed (a favorite argument on the left) that all religions are guilty of violence: religion has been, especially in the United States, an overwhelming force for good. Christians stopped slaughtering people in the name of their religion before the end of the Middle Ages. I.E., more than 500 years ago. It is only moral relativism and a broken moral compass that allows a comparison between Judaism and Christianity with a religion that still calls for death by stoning, dismemberment of limbs and the occasional acid to the face. Not to mention the complete subjugation of women and non-Muslims in countries ruled by Islam. There is a huge, and important difference, between acts carried out by individuals in the name of religion and acts carried out by large groups of people, or nations, in the name of a particular faith.

LarryLinn says:

I served as an infantryman in combat with the 25th Infantry Division. In my platoon were men of various religious beliefs. Those differences were respected, but never an obstacle. When the bullets and mortars flew at us, we all did our best, and we all aided one another.

Ilbert says:

I attended a camp sponsored by the National Conference of Christian and Jews in 1955 and 1956 called Anytown U.S.A. in Southern California, just before I started and the first year of highschool. At that point, the emphasis was on getting young people to mix with people of different racial and religious backgrounds. It was quite radical at that time, white kids and black kids together at a camp. Is the dislike of Muslims, where it exists, based upon their race or ethnicity or some disagreement on how to interpret a holy book we all use as the basis for establishing communal ethics? That debate is going on between the Sunnis and Shias. The conflict between Muslims and Christians (and Jews) presents a different problem since these two groups source material actually espouse a set of ethics that differ significantly. It bothers me when intelligent people go utopia on me and refuse to acknowlege the real issues. When Hamas accepts Israel’s right to exist, talk to me about singing “Cum Ba Ya My Lord” with my fellow Muslim.

Ginny Winsor says:

To Pete: You stated that “Jews and Christians do not wish to replace secular government with their own religious laws as a matter of faith.” Some of the most passionate Christians and Catholics that I know ARE striving to put into law their faith-based issues, especially when it comes to women’s rights (abortion control of their own bodies)and tolerance of people who are different (homosexual, bi-sexual and transgender individuals.) Historically in our country, these same Christian/Catholics enslaved people of color – a brutal act of war against those people while claiming biblical rights to do so. I think we are still at war with one another based on Christian religious beliefs. Yes, there is overwhelming good from the majority of Christians and Jews and Catholics and Muslims and all faith based people – even those who deny a holy entity – but “we” have perpetrated some horrendous acts over the centuries continuing into today.

Pete says:


Your statement “Historically in our country, these same Christian/Catholics enslaved people of color – a brutal act of war against those people while claiming biblical rights to do so” is myopic. While there were certainly Christians who “enslaved” many “people of color,” and used their religion to justify their behavior, religion was also the overriding theme of abolitionists in this country. Religion played a very large and crucial role in ENDING slavery. Your argument is another of the left’s favorite examples of logic gymnastics. Some people have done some bad things in the name of religion, so all religion must be bad. Interesting too that you mentioned, people of color, gays, lesbians etc. etc. etc. as victims (the left loves it victims) of Christians/Catholics, but you failed to note that Catholics themselves were reviled by many in the Protestant majority for many years. So is your problem with some people’s bigotry or with religion itself?

Additionally, our laws are heavily based (particularly initially) on Judeo-Christian ideas and there has always been an element of religiosity in America’s system. The point I was making in my last post, and this is a crucial difference, is that Jews and Christians do not have a desire to completely replace our system, in its entirety, with either religion’s legal system. Furthermore, as you must know, Jews don’t even proselytize, so there is no desire there, unlike Islam, for the rest of the world to become Jewish. In fact, it is a Jewish commandment that all people set up courts and apply basic principles of justice, but, for non-Jews, that system does not have to be a Jewish one. It is the exact opposite of Islam.

Ginny says:


“Religion played a very large and crucial role in ENDING slavery.” Yes, we Quakers worked hard to end slavery, long before the Southern religious folk went to war over it.

“Your argument is another of the left’s favorite examples of logic gymnastics. Some people have done some bad things in the name of religion, so all religion must be bad.” Aren’t you doing that in condeming all Islam? Have you had a conversation with with any non-terroristic Muslins lately to see what their religion really teaches?

“Catholics themselves were reviled by many in the Protestant majority for many years.” I had been unaware of the depth of this until I did some research after reading the article. I guess I don’t understand your point here. It supports the fact that all religions have their differeces but that doesn’t make everyone in the religion bad.

“So is your problem with some people’s bigotry or with religion itself?” My problem is with bigots and heretics who espouse one method of behavior and live their lives by a different standard – not walking the talk.

“…is that Jews and Christians do not have a desire to completely replace our system,…” No the Fundamental religious folk are currently trying to squash other people’s beliefs one at a time by writing laws that impose their beliefs and deny others the right to live and practice their beliefs.


Rich says:

What Eisenhower may have been thinking was something like :

1. Religion asserts that there is a natural order in the universe

2. Natural order implies natural law.

3. Natural law implies the existence of natural rights.

4. Natural rights provide a basis for legal rights, and therefore legal equality, which is essential to a functioning democracy.

Of course, all of these propositions are debatable.

Carlo says:


the people who fought slavery were trying “to impose their beliefs” on other people: the belief that all men are created equal and that no human being can be “owned by another.” In turn, in the West that belief was a direct result of centuries of Christian teaching (I challenge you to find anything similar, for instance, in the pre-Christian Greek-Roman world).

So, I find you accusation that defenders of unborn children are trying to impose their beliefs on other people to be, at best, superficial. People are entitled to act upon their deeply held moral convictions.

VHJM van Neerven says:

Dear Mr. Kirsch, dear readers,

In spite of all the bickering in the comments, I wholeheartedly hold on to your belief:
“As “foreign” religions become less dogmatic and distinctive, Americans stop seeing them as alien or threatening. With luck, the same benevolent process will allow us, a few generations from now, to talk blithely of America’s Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage.” History can give us strength in this belief and I love your contribution: If it happened once, it can happen again.
So yes, the Klan and its spawn can rise again; but so can a 3-faith or n-faith conference. I don’t see why any religion should remain an add-on and what’s more, I don’t want to see it that way. Let us start from there and stay the course. One World, One Heaven might well be our new formula.



Pete, showing how far ideological indoctrination among American culture warriors has gone: “Christians stopped slaughtering people in the name of their religion before the end of the Middle Ages. I.E., more than 500 years ago. ”
It must be marvelously comforting for a Christian to think that “Christianity” has been turning the other cheek for 500 years, even if it requires something resembling total ignorance, or denial, of the numerous great and lesser wars and other depredations pursued with religious justification uppermost. I guess the Thirty Years War, the Conquest, the Taipei Rebellion, and the various Serbian wars – just to perform a brief survey – were completely non-sectarian and secular affairs. What’s even more useful is to pretend that the incredible bloodiness of Western history over the last 500 years has nothing to do with the “religion” – whatever is meant by that peculiar term – of the participants, but to deny the same consideration to “Islam.” The psychological splitting involved becomes excruciating when we turn to the fate of Israel: Somehow, the resort to arms in defense of the Jewish state is something merely, but absolutely just, and somehow thoroughly secular on the part of Israel and its defenders, but the aspirations for an Arab state next door is religious fundamentalism at its most retrograde. There is no one acting without religion in the world, but some of us may be barbarous enough to pretend that we act strictly on behalf of absolute, obligatory, compulsory, obvious, and universal truth, but never “faith” or “belief,” of course.

SSJPabs says:

“As “foreign” religions become less dogmatic and distinctive, Americans stop seeing them as alien or threatening.”

Well that’s the kicker. What if they can’t become less dogmatic or distinctive?

Eddie Hagler says:

The original settlers at Plymouth Rock in North America did so primarily to be able to worship God as they see fit. That is to say without restraint from the government.

This carried over into the Bill of Rights wich prohibits Congress from making a law respecting the establishment of a religion, in other words no state church for the U.S.A.

So the basic understanding is that all faiths (I belive the founding fathers would of meant Christian faiths) were allowed to practice as they saw fit. Unfortunately this was also extended to all other religions (except those that tended to want to violate laws)

So you had presidents making such absurd statements. But then all religions tend to corrupt themselves and liberalize anyway. This makes for watered down religion that tends to get along to go along.

As for the KKK, give me a break, they were just bitter southerners who wanted to put all other races beneath their feet and have to violate the principals of christianity to practice their hate.

dave says:

Islam is a proselytizing religion, Judaism isn’t. It took generations before Jews were accepted into the American mainstream. And let’s be honest, it was when the horrors of the Holocaust were exposed that a critical mass of Americans changed their hardened attitudes about Jews.

The notion that this is a Judeo-Christian-Islamic country seems preposterous. What about Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindu, and other groups who are part of the new demographic. Why does Islam get to go to the top? It’s perverse logic that stems from the fact that Islam and “Judeochristianity” are currently in conflict, and therefore, according to this logic, the only solution is that all three get along happily ever after, and the only way to achieve this is for the Muslims to be co-equals with the Judeos and the Christians; never mind those Sikhs, Buddhists, and Hindi who somehow get along in America without needing to command respect by blowing things up and loudly demonstrating for their “rights”.

Does anyone remember the aftermath of 911? Surveys showed that Muslims, even in America, were in denial. A majority didn’t thing Muslims did it. A larger number thought “the Jews” somehow did it. I believe the numbers were similar for both worldwide Muslims and American Muslims on these points.
And after that denialism, there was never a real mea culpa or critical self-examination from American Muslims, instead their institutions went straight into defensive mode.

I remember a recent American President who was elected by the right wing, pro-life constituancy, who, when the USA was attacked by a terrorist group sponsored by Pakistan, did all in his power to revenge himself on a “rogue” Iraqi (Saddam Husain)who “took a shot at his pa”. So 100,000 of Iraq’s citizens paid for the attack on the Twin Towers.

re my previous reply: paid with their lives.


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Three-Part Harmony

A new book shows how Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan prompted the American establishment to look beyond longstanding divisions and see Catholics, Protestants, and Jews as kin

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