The Thee Decade: The 1970s Was More Than Bad Hair

The Thee Decade: The 1970s Was More Than Bad Hair June 24, 2015

The decade of the Seventies has a rather dismal reputation. In his creatively titled book The Seventies, Bruce Schulman chronicles the horrors: bad hair, vapid dance music, a rootless youth culture, Ford’s mysteriously exploding compact car called the Pinto, hostages in Iran, defeat in Vietnam, double-digit inflation and stagnant economic growth (called stagflation).

File:Pet rock.jpg
Pet rocks — courtesy of Rockfang at Wikimedia Commons

The American people, according to cultural critic Christopher Lasch, had slid into an unrepentant narcissism with little regard for the common good. Writer Tom Wolfe derisively called it the “Me Decade.” “The perfect Seventies symbol,” another critic complained, “was the Pet Rock, which just sat there doing nothing.”

But for evangelicals, the Seventies was a boon. Consider the following significant “evangelical moments”:

  • In 1970 Hal Lindsey published The Late Great Planet Earth. It sold more than 10 million copies by the end of the 1970s.
  • On July 4, 1970, Billy Graham delivered the flagship sermon for the prominent Honor America Day event.
  • In 1972, Dean Kelley published Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. He suggested that evangelicals were successfully “explaining the meaning of life in ultimate terms.”
  • In 1972 Campus Crusade sponsored a huge event in Dallas called Explo ’72 (also known as Godstock). An audience of 180,000 listened to Graham, Johnny Cash and Kris Kirstofferson. President Nixon tried (unsuccessfully) to join the lineup.
  • In 1973 Marabel Morgan wrote The Total Woman. In it she approvingly recounted a Southern Baptist woman who “welcomed her husband home in black mesh stockings, high heels, and an apron. That’s all. He took one look and shouted ‘Praise the Lord!’” The book made huge waves in popular culture.
  • In 1975 Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver converted and got the blessing of Billy Graham. He wrote a spiritual autobiography entitled Soul on Fire, a play on his earlier book Soul on Ice.
  • In 1976 Jimmy Carter burst on the scene as a real live born-again presidential candidate.
  • Charismatic preacher Ruth Carter Stapleton (Jimmy’s sister) got to be so famous that she addressed the West German parliament and hosted a $1,500-per-table Manhattan benefit.
  • In 1976 Newsweek declared it to be the “Year of the Evangelical.”
  • Tom Landry and Roger Staubach published spiritual autobiographies with an evangelical press.
  • In 1976 Tim and Beverly LaHaye wrote The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love, which sold half a million copies by the end of the decade.
  • In 1976 Former Nixon advisor Chuck Colson wrote the best-selling Born Again.
  • In 1978 Bob Dylan had “a born-again experience, if you want to call it that.”

Cover for<br /><br /><br /><br />
The Age of Evangelicalism<br /><br /><br /><br />
Forget the rise of the NAE, Youth for Christ, and the 1940s. The 1970s was where it’s at!

For a thicker description of these characters, check out Chapter 1 of Steven Miller’s terrific book Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years. Miller contends that evangelicalism was no longer a subculture. It was instead “an age” that stood for America itself. You should check out Miller’s book; it is the most entertaining and interpretively sophisticated account of recent evangelicalism out there.

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  • Guthrum

    I would say that it was the age of rapid growth in the Southern Baptist Convention. It seems that conservative denominations grew like fire. I remember one Baptist church nearby started a singles ministry that really took off. They had to expand and enlarge over the next ten years. Many other church leaders visited there to study their strategies. The success of the singles ministries says something about the family situation in that decade.
    That was also the time of the huge growth of tv ministries: Bakker, Swaggart, Schuler,Falwell, Roberts, Copeland and others. The rise and fall of those ministries is a big lesson in flawed evangelism, improper priorities, and hubris.
    There was also the “charismatic” movement that swept through denominations. I recall going to Sunday evening services that had guitar and drums, people raising their arms, and pastors talking without notes. I would see people in braided hair and jeans sitting next to people wearing suits. I think much of the contemporary music styles of today can be traced to that time.
    The later decades would see the rise of the emergent church, Calvinism, and the mega church. This decade will be remembered as the time when the powerful mainline denominations fell into disaster and virtual irrelevance.

  • stefanstackhouse

    The Seventies were the decade when most of the Boomers entered adulthood (myself included). They were a time when unprecedented numbers (both in absolute and proportional terms) went to college (myself included). Large numbers of us were ministered to by campus ministries like InterVarsity, Navigators, Campus Crusade, etc., and many came to faith in Christ (myself included). From there we moved out into the churches, communities, and world, with a transformative impact that went well beyond your brief list.

    To your list might be added Francis Schaeffer and his two film series, “How Shall We Then Live” and “Whatever Happened to the Human Race”. Schaeffer, his books, his L’Abri ministry, and his two film series were all hugely and uniquely influential both on the Evangelical Left and the Evangelical Right.

  • MesKalamDug

    I think one should mention the backlash against the hippies (who were basically
    a 1960’s phenomenon). Many people felt the hippies, as a whole, went too far too fast and in the wrong direction. A lot of hippie memes however were so well accepted that the evangelists took them over. I could argue that the hippies of
    the 1960’s were more important than their distractors in the 1970’s. But the matter
    doesn’t seem important enough to pursue.

    You can still find hippies if you know where to look.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Ah, but you are forgetting the Jesus Movement. Some hippies got saved, and they also were part of the 70s mix.

  • stefanstackhouse

    The problem with both the mainliners and the fundies is that they refused to change and remained stuck in the 50s. The nation and culture had changed, they didn’t, and so they were left by the wayside.

  • Barbara346363