Monday, November 8, 2010

Look Back in Anger: The 1960s and Evangelical Conservatives

Randall Stephens

The rightward turn of voters in the 2010 elections and the traction that conservative candidates have gained has a variety causes. Certainly, a number of Americans are unhappy with health care reform, unemployment, and a president that they feel is far too liberal. But one group, white conservative Christians, is particularly up in arms.

The Pew Research Center reports that "Two of the largest religious groups in the electorate followed the same basic voting patterns in the 2010 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives as they have in prior elections: white Protestants voted overwhelmingly Republican and religiously unaffiliated voters cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Democrats. . . . However, among all white voters who describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians -- a group that includes Catholics and members of other faiths in addition to Protestants -- 78% voted Republican in 2010, compared with 70% in the last midterm election."

At least since the 1960s, many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have felt besieged by new currents in the larger American culture. The upheaval of the swinging sixties shocked and frightened believers. Evangelicals and fundamentalists were horrified by campus riots, the counter culture, and what they saw as the excesses of the liberal political establishment. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Christianity Today, the chief magazine of American evangelicalism, published article after article on the terrors of the Left and the end of Christian civilization. Their world, so it seemed, was crumbling around them. (See Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt and Dan Williams recent God's Own Party for excellent insight into these and earlier developments.) The 1970s bestselling work of nonfiction, Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth, wove an evangelical end-times drama out of the explosive issues of the age. (Though Jesus People wore beads and Roman sandals and grew their hair "all long and shaggy," as Merle Haggard put it, they were in step with the apocalyptic temper of the times and drank in the anti-60s brew of the day.)

James Dobson, one of the most influential evangelical leaders of the modern era, described this anti-1960s view bluntly in 2008. Much of the wickedness of modern society, Dobson thundered, could be traced to that era of moral decline. The so-called Summer of Love in 1967 unleashed a whirlwind of hedonism and vice, he said. In his multi-million selling parenting manual, Dare to Discipline (1970), Dobson wrote: "In a day of widespread drug usage, immorality, civil disobedience, vandalism, and violence, we must not depend on hope and luck to fashion the critical attitudes we value in our children. That unstructured technique was applied during the childhood of the generation which is now in college, and the outcome has been quite discouraging. Permissiveness has not just been a failure; it’s been a disaster!"

Long after the bong smoke and tear gas have cleared, conservative American Christians--some in the Tea Party and many more who are happy enough with the Republican Party--continue to register post-60s fears. A number want to reclaim their America from secularists and godless liberals. They fear that an overpowering government wants to curtail their rights to raise their children as they see fit. They worry that their freedom to express their religious beliefs in the public sphere continues to come under attack. In other words, many are uncomfortable with a post-60s pluralism that has reshaped the nation and with a secular notion of the public good.

Such concerns are not lost on savvy politicians. Christine O'Donnell, Sarah Palin, Rand Paul, Ken Buck, and a host of others are intimately aware of constituents' fears. When such candidates lash out at secular experts and laud commonsense Christianity, they know perfectly well that they are tapping into a powerful counter ideology, one that has been decades in the making.


Steve said...

I liken the lack of comments on this smart piece of writing to a middle school dance - is everyone afraid to comment on such a political piece?

The post is brilliantly written! I wonder if the the Conservative Fundamentalist Evangelical is limited to that generation however. I'm part of Generation Y and it seems that we are less religious than those before us. USA today released a poll, which found that 72% of Millennials are 'more spiritual than religious'.

Also, as a Christian, I hope the era of "God Hates Fags" and those who want to enact their form of Leviticus into law disappear with their generation. They are totally counter not only to the teachings of Jesus but also the whole point of his crucifixion and resurrection (for those believe in that, of course).

Randall said...

Steve: I think there is good evidence showing some of these over-heated political issues are hotter with an older generation of Christians.

Here's a 2009 Newsweek piece on why young evangelicals voted for Obama: and here's some Pew data on the increasing acceptance of homosexuality:

Anonymous said...

I spent my teen years and early twenties in the San Francisco Bay area, chiefly in Berkeley. The most important point I would like to insist on is that the events of the '60s and '70s did not unite the Boomer generation against its parents, but split that generation into two halves, each intensely hostile to the other. Nor has that hostility at all lessened over the years; rather, they passed it on to the next generation, as much as they were able.

In transmission from one generation to the next (generation X), the flash-points of hostility were transformed, and religion or the lack thereof became a shibboleth. As the Boomers die off and generation X becomes truly old, succeeding generations will find new flash-points of hostility, new shibboleths.

Yet the most important point remains: from decade to decade, it has been a conflict within each generation, not between different generations, each of which finds its own reasons for hostility.

So the ever-diminishing role that traditional religions play in American culture does *not* herald an end to the conflict.

Rather, what may end it someday is what has already lessened the old conflict between "Yankees" and "Confederates," which was still alive and well in my boyhood. (Indeed, I was already married with children when the last Black born a slave in this country finally died, in the early 1970s.) The animosity produced by the War between the State somewhat lessened when the last soldier who fought in that war finally died, lessened even more with the passing of the last people who heard stories of that war from the men who fought it. When those who heard these stories at second hand pass on, it will become only a grace-note in the conflict we now live with, which began in the '60s.

So our current conflict will lose much of its power once everyone who experienced the '60s and '70s at first-hand is dead, will lose even more once their children have passed from the scene, and eventually fade, or become a minor theme in some new clash within generation Y or the next generation after Y.

At least that's how it looks to me. I know it is scant comfort to those who are impatient to build a better world. "The mills of the Gods grind slowly . . ."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Acid, amnesty and abortion, as they put it back then.

Until then, the Christian cognoscenti took care of politics for the family---the academic, the erudite, the articulate. The evangelical, "enthusiastic" types were happily disengaged from this world, their eyes focused on the next.

Someday, instead of studying the Religious Right like bugs in a bottle, someone will write about the other half of the continuum, the Christian cognoscenti who folded before [or into] the counterculture and left the traditional Christian "worldview" without a coherent voice in the polity.

Yes, there were good reasons to not offend their political allies of the left, Great Society "social justice" and of course Vietnam. Still, the end result has been that there's not an ounce of daylight between the Christian and secular cognoscenti.

This left the job of articulating the Christian "worldview" to the previously politically apathetic evangelicals. Politics is one thing, but the cultural assault on society via politics was something else entirely.

As Peter Wehner points out, unfortunately, they used their evangelical language, which sounded harsh, judgmental and even apocalyptic [Hal Lindsey!] to mainstream ears.

As a result, the Christian cognoscenti were appalled and embarrassed to be associated with their more "enthusiastic" Christian brethren, so much so that signalling agreement with them on sexuality, dope, the family, or even anti-communism was not something they, to borrow Chesterton, would be specially anxious to touch with a barge-pole.

And so, here we are. I wasn't initially particularly taken with Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner's thesis, but in the context of this good blog and others like it, it makes better sense to me now.

Where the Religious Left [and they didn't call it that; there was no Religious Right] once was the public voice for Christianity in the polity, today there is little that is distinct from mere humanism---except what's directed unappreciatively at the Religious Right, it seems to me. And the formerly silent evangelical wing is now the loudest, for ill or good. [Ill and good, by my reckoning.]

Gerson and Wehner suggest that a gentler, more "Christian" tone is necessary, and is indeed in process, as the old lions of the Religious Right like D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell die, or like Robertson and Dobson, head out to pasture. Further talk of America being punished by hurricanes for its wickedness is not on the menu.

It's the relevance of the Christian cognoscenti I wonder about. The academics will continue to speak to each other and write for each other and hold conferences with each other, but the world---and the Christian world---continues to spin 'round more without them than around them.