He was brought up in a secular Jewish family in Manhattan, and became a communist, a follower of Jay Lovestone in the American Communist Party. He later turned away from Marxism and became a religious conservative, founding the quarterly Judaism with Robert Gordis and Milton R. Konvitz. During the 1960s he was Religion Editor of the conservative journal National Review, and taught at Drew University.
Protestant, Catholic, Jew
His essay, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, created a sociological framework for the study of religion in the United States. Herberg demonstrated how immigration and American ethnic culture were reflected in religious movements and institutions.During the 1950s, this book, as well as the essay Judaism and Modern Man, set out influential positions, on Judaism and on the American religious tradition in general.
Herberg also wrote that anti-Catholicism is the anti-semitism of secular Jewish intellectuals.
Cut flower culture
Herberg is credited with coining the phrase "cut flower culture" to describe the spiritual rootlessness of modern European and American societies. This epithet is typically taken to imply that these societies cannot long survive without being regrafted onto their Judeo-Christian roots. In Judaism and Modern Man, Herberg writes ...
The attempt made in recent decades by secularist thinkers to disengage the moral principles of western civilization from their scripturally based religious context, in the assurance that they could live a life of their own as "humanistic" ethics, has resulted in our "cut flower culture." Cut flowers retain their original beauty and fragrance, but only so long as they retain the vitality that they have drawn from their now-severed roots; after that is exhausted, they wither and die. So with freedom, brotherhood, justice, and personal dignity — the values that form the moral foundation of our civilization. Without the life-giving power of the faith out of which they have sprung, they possess neither meaning nor vitality.
Opposition to the Civil Rights Movement
In his September 7, 1965 National Review article, "'Civil Rights' and Violence: Who Are the Guilty Ones?", Herberg wrote:
"It did not come easy for us in this country, under the weight of the vast influx of immigrants and the residual effects of the frontier tradition, to consolidate a secure internal order based on custom and respect for constituted authority; but finally we managed. This internal order is now in jeopardy; and it is in jeopardy because of the doings of such high-minded, self-righteous “children of light” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates in the leadership of the “civil rights” movement. If you are looking for those ultimately responsible for the murder, arson, and looting in Los Angeles, look to them: they are the guilty ones, these apostles of “non-violence."For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery, they have been cracking the “cake of custom” that holds us together. With their doctrine of “civil disobedience,” they have been teaching hundreds of thousands of Negroes ... particularly the adolescents and the children ... that it is perfectly alright to break the law and defy constituted authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance; in protest against injustice. And they have done more than talk. They have on occasion after occasion, in almost every part of the country, called out their mobs on the streets, promoted “school strikes,” sit-ins, lie-ins, in explicit violation of the law and in explicit defiance of the public authority. They have taught anarchy and chaos by word and deed ... and, no doubt, with the best of intentions ... and they have found apt pupils everywhere, with intentions not of the best. Sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind."
Contributions to Conservatism
Herberg was also a prominent traditionalist conservative and wrote for traditionalist publications as Russell Kirk's Modern Age . He was also a frequent contributor to William F. Buckley, Jr.'s National Review magazine.