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Protestant, Catholic, Jew
Not even an opinion anymore.

by Barnabas
November 12, 2003

Protestant, Catholic, Jew_Barnabas-Not even an opinion anymore
Ten percent of Protestants, 21 percent of Roman Catholics, and 52 percent of Jews do NOT believe in God
– A Poll Reported by Netscape News Network
In response to this item I typed “Protestant Catholic Jew Will Herberg” into my search engine to see if this very influential work from 1955 is still remembered. There were over 600 listings, but the first page gave me what I wanted. I learned that used copies of the book may now be had “from $1.48 and up.” I also found listed a brief and excellent critique of the concept by Monsignor Thomas J. McIntire on his parish’s web site.

Herberg was a sociologist. He was describing, not celebrating, the pervasiveness of this pattern of identification in American life By the 1950’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew had lost their meaning as terms definitive of certain historical, theological, and experiential realities.
  • Historical: Abraham, Jesus, the Protestant Reformation, the Bible.
  • Theological: God as personal, infinite, creative; Jesus of Nazareth as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God; Israel perceived as a holy nation, the church perceived as a “royal priesthood.”
  • Experiential: For Jews, circumcision as a religious rite; for Christians, baptism, by water and Spirit.
But by Herberg’s time, Protestant, Catholic, Jew no longer described your beliefs, practices, and “spiritual” experience, they named what you were. That Herberg’s analysis has survived in spades is proved by the recent poll question, “Do you believe in God?” Taken as historically, theological, and experiential terms, it is impossible for 10 percent of Protestants, 21 of Roman Catholics, and 52 percent of Jews to not believe in God - even if you take the carelessly written question to mean, “Do you believe there is a God?” If the terms have become ethnic or cultural subcategories, they are even less descriptively meaningful than “Republican, Democrat, Independent.”

What then do you call them? Well, if they no longer are identifiable by their beliefs and practices, I suppose you can call them Americans. Or you can distinguish as the groups themselves do: Religious Jews, Believing Protestants, Practicing Catholics. If any members of these groups professed not to believe there is a God, that would be newsworthy. What would a Jew be religious about, if not God? What would be worth believing within Protestantism, apart from God? And “atheistic practicing Catholic” is a weird concept indeed.

I’m being picky, but not just picky—I am being personal. I don’t want to be tagged with the Orangeman terrorists of Northern Ireland, to name just one example, who are identified as “Protestants” by a lazy media. It is as political operatives (or merely thugs) not as Protestants that they commit their atrocities. This use of the term is as irrelevant and inaccurate as would be identifying murder suspects by their religious denomination every time their names appear in the news.

Last, but hardly least, the increase in the Muslim population, and the increasing numbers among us who belong to religions without biblical ties, makes the Protestant-Catholic-Jew categories today sound like village thinking.

About the Author:
Barnabas heard Will Herberg in person once. It was memorable.

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