We are rapidly approaching the fortieth anniversary of a paradigmatic event in the history of American evangelicalism.
Beginning on June 12, 1972, around 85,000 young Americans (mostly high schoolers and collegians) assembled in Dallas, Texas, for what became known as Explo ’72 (short for “spiritual explosion”).
Historians in recent years have paid a surprising amount of attention to Explo ’72. I highlight the event in my history of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Darren Dochuk and Daniel Williams both found new material on Explo in their respective histories of evangelical political activism.
What initially intrigued me about Explo ’72 was that Richard Nixon had dearly wanted an invitation, in order to co-opt the gathering for political purposes and show that he could appeal to at least a small percentage of young Americans. Campus Crusade for Christ organized the event, and Crusade’s founder/president Bill Bright occasionally dabbled in conservative political causes. Nixon asked to come to Explo, but Crusade’s staff ultimately rebuffed his offer. The president did send a telegram, calling for a “deep and abiding commitment to spiritual values,” ironically during the week of the Watergate break-in.
Despite Nixon’s absence, journalists noticed the “conservative” atmosphere at Explo. Surveys showed that most students favored Nixon over McGovern. The attendees cheered the banner of South Vietnam during a procession of international flags. Military personnel in attendance also received hearty cheers.
Still, Explo ’72 is not really memorable for its political overtones or implications (though it did influence several future Republican politicians, including Mike Huckabee). In my mind, Explo vividly illustrates just how dramatically evangelicalism had changed in the previous five years.
In 1967, most evangelicals kept the cultural changes gaining momentum on college campuses at arm’s length. Bill Bright and Campus Crusade in particular had a reputation for clean-cut, cultural conservatism. Bright loathed long hair and rock music. He wouldn’t let male staff members grow out their hair (well, maybe an inch or two beyond their early-1960s crew cuts), and he put a halt to one Crusade musical group’s experimentation with “hard rock.”
By 1972, however, Campus Crusade had made its peace with the Jesus Movement. Bright decided that it was more important to win a new generation of young Americans to Christ than to fight a losing cultural war over music and hair. Those who attended Explo ’72 raised their index fingers upward to show that Jesus was the “one way” to heaven. Every night, Christian rock music had the delegates in the Cotton Bowl swaying and singing before Bright or Billy Graham took the stage.
The week ended with a “Jesus Music Festival” featuring Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Larry Norman. Perhaps 200,000 came to hear an all-star cast of Christian musicians. (Norman did not cut his hair for the performance). I’d love to get my hands on the “Jesus Sound Explosion” LP recorded at Explo ’72, but at least youtube makes available Norman’s “Sweet, Sweet Song of Salvation” and Johnny Cash’s brilliant performance of “I See Men as Trees Walking.” I could listen to that all day long.
Fundamentalists staked out Explo ’72, decrying the rock music, long hair, and too-skimpy attire of some attendees. And they had a point — cultural accommodation can go too far, and evangelicals had rapidly covered a great deal of ground in that respect. However, my own study of Explo ’72 left me with great respect for Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ. [Thank goodness they didn't end up inviting Nixon]. Fifty years old, at an age at which many individuals become more leery of change, Bright changed his mind about a few ephemeral matters. Had he not done so, his organization would have lost much of its momentum.
Also, many of Bright’s own staff members had not embraced his vision for Explo ’72 when he first announced it. Bright had a penchant for hatching entirely unrealistic plans and then expecting his overworked staff to turn them into reality. Explo could have flopped. It was no easy task getting 80,000-plus young people to Dallas to fill the Cotton Bowl. Not all of Bright’s plans succeeded. But this one did, tremendously. Explo ’72 accelerated the national and international growth of Campus Crusade, became a life-changing week for thousands of young Americans, and did indeed generate the “spiritual explosion” that Bill Bright had envisioned.