Forty Years On: American Megatrends

I am presently preparing some courses that I will teach at Baylor on “Late Modern” US history, defined as the era since 1975 or so. As I have asked before in a different context, what are the broad themes that we would expect in that era?

What are the most significant changes that have occurred in the US since, say, the mid-1970s? What, so to speak, are the megatrends? (Putting aside such symbolic incidentals as men’s hair length, smoking, and the size of car fins). If you imagine someone time traveling between the eras, what would strike them?

Put another way, if you watch a film or television program from the 1960s or 1970s, count the points that strike you as weird or different, especially in everyday interactions, behavior, and speech. What was not tolerated then but is quite normal and accepted today? Conversely, what did people then do without comment that today could get you arrested or thrown out?

So many such impressions are subjective, but a few obvious broad themes do emerge. Many of these ideas were present in the 1970s, at least in an avant-garde form, but subsequently they have become completely mainstream, and have in a sense become the dominant culture. Together, they constitute a remarkable revolution in the most basic assumptions of life – of family and intimate relationships, of work and residence, of thinking and speaking, of getting and spending. That is apart from a basic redefinition of ideas of nation and society, flag and politics, and the role of government.

Often, these changes have been so significant as to constitute a revolution, by which I mean change so vast that it is almost impossible for later generations even to imagine what the preceding “normality” actually was like.

I’ll be addressing these issues in the coming weeks, but here let me begin with one specific area of interest to me, namely changes in American religion. So many of these relate to larger trends that I will be discussing elsewhere, such as fundamental shifts in gender roles. How do these trends compare with what people might have expected or predicted at the time?

In no particular order, then:

Gender Revolutions

Religions of all kinds have been shaken, revived and/or transformed beyond recognition by the rise of new sensibilities involving gender and sexual identity. In the mid-1970s, ordaining women was a revolutionary and wildly controversial step for most denominations. Today, it is absolutely commonplace for many if not all traditions, Christian, Jewish and other. That gender shift echoes through so many aspects of religious life and thought, including theology, liturgy, and Bible translation.

In most cases, our hypothetical visitor from 1975 would be floored to walk into a place of worship and encounter female clergy.

Revolutions in Sexual Identity

Attitudes towards homosexuality and sexual identity have been transformed, obviously, with far-reaching consequences for religious movements of all kinds. Religious groups have had to confront gay-related issues in their own ranks, and also had to decide their attitudes to public policy. Same-sex marriage has represented a core index of changing attitudes. Among many other impacts, those issues represent a massive generational divide within even conservative religious movements. They also threaten to place religious organizations on a collision course with secular laws.

Our visitor from 1975 would not know what a gay rainbow flag looked like, as it was not invented till 1978. But once its meaning was explained, he or she would be beyond staggered to see so many churches displaying the emblem in various forms.

Shifts in Family Structure

This has many aspects, including a decline in marriage rates, a rise in people living alone, and a very steep decline in children living with both parents. All these affect the role of churches and their perceived functions, notably in defining the families they are trying to serve.

Abuse and Authority

It is difficult to imagine a time when child abuse issues were not a pressing concern for churches, but they were unheard of in the public sphere before the mid-1980s. Rising concern with abuse had multiple roots, but a major source was the shifting gender attitudes noted earlier, and the resulting perceptions of sexual dangers.

The clergy abuse crisis caused a stunning collapse in the authority and prestige of the Roman Catholic church, and transformed attitudes to clerical prestige. Obviously, media portrayals are only one part of the story, but the contrast in depictions before the 1980s with afterwards is simply night and day. We can only speculate how American history might have ben different if such scandals had not erupted, but it is at least possible that an untainted church might have organized more effectively against social and political changes, including same sex marriage.

Associated with the abuse issue has been the impact of new concepts of legal responsibility and the threat of litigation, which has transformed the treatment of children, not to mention the construction of church buildings (and those of other faith traditions). Insurance and risk management have become critical forces driving the life of religious institutions.

The Rise of the Nones

This is a controversial point. Over the past decade, the proportion of those claiming no religious affiliation has certainly grown, but the jury remains out as to what those figures actually mean. No religious affiliation certainly does not mean no religion, and many Nones seem to hold pretty standard religious attitudes. Also, the number of actual atheists in the US remains very steady and actually pretty much where it has been over the past century or so.

Part of the explanation is that people who a generation ago would have defined themselves as generically Christian now respond None, perhaps through reluctance to associate with conservative religious politics. Also, people who would once have responded Catholic now choose the None option, out of anger or disgust with the institutional church.

On both accounts, I would be very careful about associating the rise of the Nones with actual tendencies towards secularization.

Diversification within Christianity

The US has become massively more diverse in terms of ethnicity, race and national origin, especially with people stemming from Latin America, Africa and Asia. That influx has transformed Christian denominations of all kinds, introducing many new churches, and augmenting existing ones. Most affected has been the Roman Catholic Church, which continues to be by far the nation’s largest religious community. As the US moves toward majority-minority status, those trends will accelerate.

Robert P. Jones has written tellingly, if controversially, of The End of White Christian America – but that is utterly different from the passing of the very diverse Christian America that we have today.

Global Awareness

OK, I have a vested interest here, but Christian churches are much more conscious of the faith in other parts of the world. That has a rhetorical function, in suggesting the kinds of religion that are growing and succeeding, and also has a practical impact when US groups seek the protection and support of international allies. Both those themes become very important in denominational debates over gender and sexuality.

The Vanishing Mainline

Well, the Protestant mainline was never the “mainstream” of American religion, but the rapid numerical decline of mainline churches since the mid-1970s really has been impressive. The collapse is all the more awe-inspiring when set against the fast growing national population. The US in 1975 had around 220 million people, compared to 320 million by 2015. Even if mainline churches had grown in numbers by 50 percent or so since the mid-1970s, they would only be keeping their share of the religious market. Most have fallen dramatically in absolute numbers since then, never mind relative share.

That decline also echoes through the seminaries.

The Return of Tradition

From the standpoint of the mid-1970s, the most amazing thing might have been that traditional and conservative religious forms had not vanished, but had grown massively, and in many cases become the mainstream. This is true of evangelical and charismatic Christians, and of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. In both cases, demography accounts for part of the story, but not all.

On the Christian side of the equation, other beneficiaries have included Mormons, Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Mainstream Christians will likely reject the “traditional” label for such groups, still less orthodox, but they do represent distinctly traditional and high-demand forms of adherence and practice.

The Politics of God

This is less a megatrend than a story of rise and fall. In the mid-1970s, cross-faith alliances like the Moral Majority and the Religious Right were barely imaginable, but both enjoyed huge power in their day. Arguably, the heyday of conservative religious politics has passed, but on specific issues, it might easily return.

One positive consequence of the Culture Wars has been a radical change in interdenominational attitudes, especially when set against long American precedent. From the 1970s, conservative Protestants, Catholics, Mormons and Jews found they had common cause on many basic political issues, and that de facto alliance promoted the ongoing quest for cultural and theological common ground.

The Age of the Megachurch

New religious structures and assumptions, for example about weakening denominational loyalties. New ways of identifying and appealing to audiences, reflected by new institutions such as megachurches. New stress on individualized, personal, and subjective approaches to belief, worship and devotion, and a drift towards institutions that offer such forms.

As in other cases, these trends might not be wholly new in American history, but they have become more marked in recent decades.

 Language

This is a broad category, but so much of today’s familiar church-speak would need a lot of explanation to our visitor from the past. Look at a typical mission statement or bulletin, and see how many words or phrases might fall into that category. Inclusiveness, yes – but what else?

 

Next time, I will be looking at some of the trends that were widely predicted, but which failed to materialize. What are the main non-stories?

 

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