Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America begins with the story of a priest, a rabbi and two Protestant ministers. It might be the first line of a joke, but it's deadly serious. The four chaplains were aboard the U.S.S. Dorchester when it was sunk by a German torpedo in February 1943. They all went down with the ship, prayerfully, arm-in-arm after having given their life jackets to sailors who lacked them.
The sacrifice of the Four Chaplains represented something of a landmark in the history of American religious comity. These men were "celebrated ... as emblems of the new tri-faith nation." Yet, as Schultz shows, Americans were already prepared to appreciate the larger significance of their heroism because of the ecumenical groundwork that had been laid over the previous decade by the anti-prejudice proselytizing of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), which confronted a revitalized Ku Klux Klan and a swelling, virulent strain of Western antisemitism in the 1920s and 30s.
Schultz's assiduous research demonstrates that the NCCJ wasn'tmerely engaged in a half-ass exercise of holier-than-thou idealism. During WWII alone, the organization sponsored traveling "tolerance trios"--consisting of a rotating roster of priests, rabbis, and Protestant ministers--who visited nearly 800 military installations and addressed 9 million Americans. This was missionary work on a par with the massive evangelizing and Bible distribution efforts undertaken by American Protestants during the Civil War.
In the early postwar period, such everyday features of American culture as films, manners, and educational programming were shaped by the tri-faith model that the NCCJ had so carefully cultivated. Postwar liberalism was in turn infused with the mostly tolerant and religiously derived moral imperative that went by the name of the "Judeo-Christian tradition."
Upon this somewhat narrow foundation, postwar Americans would adopt broader conceptions of tolerance that included a larger range of religious groups. Religious bigotry and discrimination certainly didn't disappear, but they were largely driven from public life by the early 1960s. Though groups such as the NCCJ proved slow to promote civil rights for African Americans, the trope of inclusion that they popularized resonated throughout the 1960s. Meanwhile, before the Judeo-Christian tradition was appropriated by the Religious Right in the 1970s, it was employed by Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders to discredit racist institutions and policies in the 1950s and 60s.
There were deep, intangible costs accompanying the triumph of the tri-faith ideal, which Schultz details. Among them was the loss of communal identity by Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Also endangered were some of the vibrant, distinctive traditions within each of these larger faith categories. Prophecy withered as ecumenism bloomed.
Still, Schultz provides us with an unapologetically progressive account. He makes clear how profoundly important religious differences were to early twentieth-century Americans and how tirelessly some worked to transcend, or at least mediate, them. Tri-Faith America gives religious tolerance its due as a crucial component of postwar liberalism. In this, it represents a sharp rebuke to the fashionable idea that American religious freedom and religious tolerance have been little more than subtle exercises in coercion