Were the 1960s when it all went wrong?

We can all point to the decade when things really began to fall apart. Conservatives were distraught; liberals were exuberant. Anti-war sentiment, labor strikes, racial tension and ethnic conflict were provoking urban riots that led to a level of violence few people had ever seen before. The new emphasis on equality was exacerbating a breakdown in social, political and family authority. College campuses were descending into chaos, with mass expulsions the only way that school administrators knew how to respond. Church attendance, which had been high for most of the century, was plummeting, with especially the intellectual elites turning skeptically against the country’s religious heritage. Perhaps the most obvious expression of it all was the new sexual libertinism. As young people pushed the age of marriage back further and further sexual immorality, adultery and prostitution were noticeably on the rise, with illegitimacy rates reaching a level the country had never seen before. More and  more women were simply abandoning their marriages, giving expression to what one historian calls their “unprecedented social and sexual freedom.”

The 1960s were clearly a turning point in American history. And yet there is no going back. Older conservatives, those children who claimed for their parents the title of the “greatest generation,” are constantly annoying younger conservatives by their appeals to the way things once were. Younger conservatives tend to see that sort of attitude as a dead-end form of nostalgia at best, a culturally, politically, and theologically off-putting pessimism at worst. They are interested in looking forward, not backward.

But the description I just provided was not a description of the 1960s. I was talking about the 1790s-1800s, drawing from Gordon Wood’s chapter entitled “Republican Society,” in his magisterial Empire of Liberty. It is arguable that it was post-revolutionary America, not the 1960s, that witnessed the most godless period in American history. Indeed, in their classic The Churching of America 1776-2005 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark have pointed out that the rate of religious adherence around the time of the Revolution hovered around 20% of the population. Church attendance rates and the general acceptance of Christian morality was higher, of course, but not as much higher as you might imagine. By Finke and Stark’s math, American church membership has steadily risen from 1776 to the 21st Century, with current rates approximately triple what they were in the days of the founding fathers.

Of course things got better already in the early 19th Century, in significant part thanks to the Second Great Awakening. By 1850 church membership had doubled and church attendance had increased by even wider margins. A plethora of Evangelical organizations and societies sought to combat sin and evil in a myriad of forms, from slavery to alcohol to illiteracy to paganism to poverty. If America ever was a Christian nation, a benevolent empire, it was in this century, the same century that saw Americans who had two very different visions for the future of this country go to war against each other in the bloodiest conflict of the nation’s history.

But there is a lesson to be learned in all of this. In 1800 you could not have predicted the Christianization of the country that would take place in the following century any more than in 1900 you could have predicted the ongoing racial reconciliation of American society that began after the 1960s. In 1980 you could not have predicted the bloodless end of the Cold War any easier than today you can predict that America will stabilize itself financially and figure out how to maintain our democracy and social commitments in the context of the welfare state.

But one thing is clear. It is not by looking back longingly to the way things once were, pessimistically writing off the future of the country as hopeless, that the individuals and groups who helped move the country forward in all of these great moments of the past did what they did. These people did not operate with the sorts of assumptions that told them they had no hope of persuading the country because the rest of the people out there were somehow too morally degenerate to be reached. They didn’t live in a bubble, seeking frantically to hold onto their own little world while the rest of it went to pot.

History is not linear, whether for good or for bad. The only sensible way forward, for anyone, whether Christian or Muslim, white or Hispanic, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, is constructive, inclusive engagement – socially, religiously, politically. There are a lot of people telling us otherwise right now (and there were a lot of different people telling us otherwise in the last decade). We need to show them a better way.

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About Matthew Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga received his Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics and Society at Emory University. He is an adjunct professor at Oglethorpe University, and has also taught at Emory and Sewanee - the University of the South.

Posted on November 12, 2012, in 2012 election, American Founding, Conservatism, Culture War, Welfare State and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off.

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