Every society has some over-arching religious structure, Will Herberg argues, echoing many social scientists (Protestant, Catholic, Jew, 87-90). What unites Americans is clearly not our particular religious creeds. Rather, it is what Herberg calls the “American Way of Life.”
He offers this splendid description: “It would be the crudest kind of misunderstanding to dismiss the American Way of Life as no more than a political formula or a propagandist slogan, or to regard it as simply an expression of the ‘materialist’ impulses of the American people. Americans are ‘materialistic,’ no doubt, but surely not more so than other people, than the French peasant or petty bourgeois, for example. All such labels are irrelevant, if not meaningless. The American Way of Life is, at bottom, a spiritual structure, a structure of ideas and ideals, of aspirations and values, of beliefs and standard; it synthesizes all that commends itself to the American as the right, the good, and the true in actual life. It embraces such seemingly incongruous elements as sanitary plumbing and freedom of opportunity, Coca-Cola and an intense faith in education – all felt as moral questions relating to the proper way of life. The very expression ‘way of life’ points to its religious essence, for one’s ultimate, over-all way of life is one’s religion” (88-9).
For those who doubt the existence of such a thing, Herberg offers an effective response. He cites a Ladies Home Journal survey (some years ago!) that asked Americans to state honestly the conditions under which they operated, and did not operate, by the law of love. The figures are remarkable: Americans are remarkably loving people. Fully 90% said they would love a person of a different religion; 78% even said they loved business competitors. As Herberg wryly notes, “These figures are most illuminating, first because of the incredible self-assurance they reveal with which the average American believes he fulfills the ‘impossible’ law of love” (89). What is even more revealing, he goes on to say, is where that love reached its limit. Only 27% would love someone of a “dangerous” political party, and only 25% could love an “enemy of the nation.”This differential makes perfect sense if Americans are operating according to the American Way of Life. The survey reveals “how seriously Americans take transgressions of the law of love in various cases. Americans feel they ought to love their fellow men despite differences of race or creed or business interest; that is what the American Way of Life emphatically prescribes. But the American Way of Life almost explicitly sanctions hating a member of a ‘dangerous’ political part (the Communist part is obviously mean here) or an enemy of one’s country, and therefore an overwhelming majority avow their hate.” What guides American loves and hates is not the ‘“Jewish-Christian law of love,” which is “formally acknowledged.” What is actually operative is the American Way: “Where the American Way of Life approves of love of one’s fellow man, most Americans confidently assert that they practice such love; where the American way of life disapproves, the great mass of Americans do not hesitate to confess that they do not practice it, and apparently feel very little guilt for their failure” (89-90).
A few notes: First, Herberg’s discussion explains the apparent contradiction between American tolerance and the viciousness of American public discourse and politics. The shouting heads that dominate our public debates are not anomalies, but express something of the essence of America. Second, it also explains the brutality of our military operations. When al Qaeda threatens our Way of Life, it seems perfectly reasonable to discuss bombing a large portion of the world “back to the Stone Age.”
Finally, Herberg’s analysis bodes ill for the future. For what happens when the country splits in two, and each half of the country claims to be the embodiment of the American Way? What happens when each side sees the other as a basic threat to America, and therefore as a proper object of loathing? What happens when the American Way of Life no longer provides a cultural consensus, when every item in our national creed is deeply contested? What happens when our civil religion no longer has the power to keep us civil?