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PETER: And now to a story of cultural perception of religion and the legal change it sparked.
BRIAN: We begin in the 1910s and ’20s, when many Americans still saw the country as a Protestant nation. Discrimination against Jews and Catholics was widespread. Country clubs posted signs that said, no dogs or Jews allowed. When a Catholic ran for president in 1928, he was greeted with burning crosses at campaign stops.
ED: By the 1920s and 1930s, a group called the National Conference of Christians and Jews began to push back. The NCCJ brought together Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to advocate for a more pluralistic understanding of American religion. Their slogan was, the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God.
BRIAN: One of the NCCJs signature programs in the 1930s was its tolerance trios. Each trio sounded like the start of a joke. A rabbi, a Protestant minister, and a Catholic priest would travel across the United States. They stopped at hundreds of towns to talk to the public about faith. These scripted conversations were called trialogues.
KEVIN SCHULTZ: One of the questions that the Protestant minister would ask the rabbi is, don’t the Jews simply want to take over all the economic organizations in the United States?
BRIAN: I get asked that every day, Kevin.
KEVIN SCHULTZ: Right.
ED: This is Kevin Schultz, a historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He says that the trialogues were explicitly designed to debunk stereotypes that Jews control the country’s banking system, say, or that Catholic politicians were just the Pope’s puppets. For many Americans, it was the first time they had ever seen a non-Protestant.
BRIAN: The NCCJs work was effective. And its focus on a tri-faith America, not just a Protestant America, became especially appealing during World War II. With Nazi Germany on the horizon, there was a real reason for Americans to want to be tolerant.
KEVIN SCHULTZ: So if Hitler is a bigot and a racist who’s trying to recreate this perfect order based on a single Aryan image, what Roosevelt and the United States did more generally was try and create an image of itself as a more tolerant place that was embracing its own differences. And of course, in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, the color line was still a very difficult issue to navigate, which one could argue it still is. But it was especially so in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.
But an easier tolerance and easier pluralism dealt with religion in no small part because of the work that the National Conference of Christians and Jews had done in the 1930s with their tolerance trios and things like that. So during the war effort, the NCCJ is invited to go to every single military installation, not only in the United States, but around the world, and preach their gospel as it were to 9 million soldiers. And there’s some fantastic stories of the military actually openly embracing this vision of good Americanism.
There’s one story, one of my favorites, takes place in Fort Benning, Georgia. The tolerance trios had been there on the base for almost a week. And it was their last day. They were going to take off the next morning. And as a token of their appreciation, at the half-time of the flag football game that the base was putting on, the marching band came on. And the announcer said, and to honor the NCCJ, who’s been on our grounds for the last week, we perform the following two songs.
And so the marching band starts playing, “Ein Keloheinu,” which is a song on the uniqueness of God, a Jewish songs. And the band forms the Star of David. And the rabbi looks at the Star of David and starts crying, supposedly, according to the story.
BRIAN: This has got to be the first marching band Star of David, right, in sports annals?
KEVIN SCHULTZ: And then once that song is over, the marching band goes into motion again to form a giant cross. And they start playing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” And according to the rose-colored glasses of the NCCJ practitioners who were there, all the soldiers in the stands stood up and clapped for many minutes while the priest, the rabbi, and the minister all cried watching this honor that they had been bestowed.
BRIAN: Kevin, do you think that this kind of exposure to the language of the Judeo-Christian tradition endures after World War II, leaves some kind of lasting legacy?
KEVIN SCHULTZ: I absolutely do, I think, in part because 9 million soldiers had been exposed to this kind of language. And it really does help fashion a new idea of what America is. After the war, it becomes well recognized that we are a Judeo-Christian nation, whatever that may mean. But what it certainly must mean is that it’s no longer good Americanism to discriminate against Catholics or to discriminate against Jews or to punish people for what religions they believe in.
BRIAN: You’ve argued that that foundation, the Judeo-Christian foundation, creates the catalyst for what will become a more secularized state. Could you explain how that works?
KEVIN SCHULTZ: Sure, absolutely. Once a lot of Americans recognize that we’re no longer a Protestant country, for example, once you have things like Emily Post’s Etiquette Guide talking about how you should respond to an invitation to a circumcision if you don’t happen to be Jewish. Or should you send Christmas cards to non-Christian people? The answer, by the way, is yes, you should. But you should refrain from sending explicit cards that detail the nativity or any Christian message.
BRIAN: I’m glad I have time to operate on this advice before I send my cards out, Kevin.
KEVIN SCHULTZ: We try to help. But once this becomes the standard operating procedure for American life, all of a sudden, people look at all these arenas of American life– schools, business practices, housing. And they say, how can we live in an environment that is chock full of these subtle discriminations when we have this new conception of what the United States is? And not only do people have this awakening, but they actually call their lawyers. And they sue on behalf of this new idea. And most of the activity happens around schools.
BRIAN: And these are public schools, I’m assuming.
KEVIN SCHULTZ: Yeah. They’re all public schools, of course, because that’s the arena where Catholics, Jews, and Protestants will meet. And the result is by the early 1960s, so many cases had come before the various courts that the Supreme Court had decided that the United States was confronting an issue about separation of church and state.
The country didn’t want to be overtly anti-religious. That wasn’t following the best American traditions. But it also had a hard time in an increasingly plural nation deciding what religions to honor. So they were really faced with two choices. We can either honor all religions. Or we can honor publicly none.
BRIAN: So in a way, pluralism succeeded. But in its very success, the multiplicity of religions it seems led the court to simply slam the door on any religion at all in the schools.
KEVIN SCHULTZ: Absolutely. And that’s one of the great ironies of this. It’s perhaps best illustrated by this court case from 1962, Engel versus Vitale, where a tri-faith organization, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, got together in New York State and put together a prayer that they thought would represent and acknowledge all three of their faiths. And it began by, Almighty God was the phrase they used. And then they went on to thank the Almighty God for his good graces.
That prayer was challenged. And it went all the way to the Supreme Court. And by 1962, the Supreme Court recognized that despite the fact that it was a tri-faith arrangement to come up with this prayer that it was not good at all for the state, as represented by the schools, to endorse any kind of prayer. So in an effort to initially make Protestants better Protestants, Catholics better Catholics, and Jews better Jews, which was one of the NCCJs early missions, they actually opened up the door for a nation that was safe for all faiths and, as we’re seeing increasingly today, people of no faith at all.
MALE SPEAKER: Ladies and gentlemen, church and state.
BRIAN: Kevin Schultz is a historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a fellow at the Tanner Institute for the Humanities at the University of Utah. His book is called, Tri-Faith America.