1968: Fifty Years On

1968: Fifty Years On July 27, 2018

In recent months I have been lecturing and teaching quite a bit on key anniversaries – on the centennial of the end of First World War, but also on that other tumultuous year, 1968. The religious aspects of 1968 are not quite as legendary as other events and trends of that year, but they are extraordinarily significant. Looking at them today, the main lesson we learn is the gulf that separates contemporary perceptions of key trends from later views. What we see at the time is very different from what later generations will recognize as the really important developments. That should be a powerful warning for us today. What currents or trends might we be missing?

The secular developments of 1968 have received plenty of attention in recent months – the assassinations and racial unrest in the US, the popular youth movements around the world, violence in Paris and Mexico City, the continuing war in Vietnam, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the first stirrings of global terrorism, and so on. The world seemed to be in a period of grave crisis, even on an apocalyptic scale. Each of these events in its different way discredited some long-accepted source of authority. Western liberal democracy found many critics and challenges, but so did the familiar alternative of Communism: the Czech invasion of August 1968 closed that alternative for anyone with a sense of moral decency.

But what were the religious responses? Assume you were following mainstream media through the year, what were the key stories illustrating the likely development of the world’s faiths to the crisis? The following is impressionistic, but I think it accurately reflects the tone of debate.

As commonly viewed (do note that qualification), the largest religious story within Christianity was the struggle to make faith relevant in an age of activism and social upheaval, and a shift away from supernatural dimensions of faith. These ideas found expression in books like Harvey Cox’s 1965 The Secular City, but they were achieving very widespread influence by 1968.

These trends were only appropriate given the near-certain political future, when Western free enterprise capitalism was so obviously doomed, and would have to evolve in directions that were collectivist and communal, based on state authority and economic planning. The United States itself likely faced an apocalyptic future, rent by race wars and political protest. The global future was socialist, or Communist. As they used to day in Europe at that time, the optimists are learning Russian. The pessimists are learning Chinese.

In the US, mainline churches were split by controversies over political activism, especially in matters of race relations, and Vietnam. In May 1968, Presbyterian minister and Yale University chaplain, William Sloane Coffin Jr. was on trial for conspiracy for encouraging Americans to evade the draft. In the same month, the Berrigan brothers – both Catholic priests – were among the Catonsville Nine protesters who burned hundreds of stolen draft records. Meanwhile, the US Episcopal Church created its General Convention Special Program, GCSP, which was widely denounced for channeling funds to black extremist organizations. This was only one factor among many creating dissent, but the mainline churches now began a general implosion of numbers and membership.

The issue of “coming to terms with the modern world” (as it was commonly phrased) particularly hit the Roman Catholic Church with the disputes following the Papal encyclical on artificial contraception, which I have already discussed. It is hard to exaggerate the collapse of morale in the US Catholic church in this time, or the speed with which trust in institutional authority disintegrated. The celibacy issue contributed to the exodus of American clergy from the late 1960s onward. From 1968 through 1973, resignations of priests were so numerous that three-quarters of all ordinations were required just to fill these gaps, not counting losses from death or retirement. In the US and elsewhere, nuns left their convents in the tens of thousands. Taken together, this contributed to a sense of the church’s being inexorably driven to accept liberal modernity, including secular values in approaches to sexuality. The question was just how long that stubborn Vatican hierarchy could fight back the inevitable.

So if the old churches were failing, what new trends or impulses might supplant them? Apart from general political activism, the concept of liberation theology now became commonplace. That movement received its first major public visibility in September 1968 with the meeting of the Latin American bishops, CELAM, in Medellin, Colombia. This popularized such concepts as base communities, and the “preferential option for the poor.” Those ideas found an American home in the work of James H. Cone, who in 1969 published his Black Theology and Black Power.

As in other instances, we see the outcomes of trends that were pushing change in 1968, although the books or statements might have come a year or so later. So we see women’s and gay activism beginning within the churches in 1968, although public manifestations did not become fully apparent for a year or two. The gay-oriented Metropolitan Community Church dates from 1968. The gay Catholic organization Dignity was officially founded in 1969.

Another 1968 event that had a long afterlife was the publication of the “Earthrise” photograph from Apollo 8 that December. This did so much to promote awareness of ecological concerns and activism. We all live on Spaceship Earth. Concern about ecological ruin found a focus in the over-population issue, a reflected in Paul Ehrlich’s best-selling The Population Bomb (1968).

And if churches found common cause in social activism, why were they so determined to retain denominational structures founded in outmoded theological concerns? In July 1968, the World Council of Churches held its pivotal Fourth Council at Uppsala, Sweden, the highwater mark of ecumenical activism.

Clearly, then – it appeared – the future of Christianity was progressive, activist, and ecumenical. That vision received a perfect statement in Brian Moore’s 1972 novel Catholics, about a near-future Church in which the Left have triumphed worldwide, and militant Liberationist priests are toppling repressive regimes in Latin America. The book concerns a priest sent to investigate why a lone Irish monastery stubbornly clings to traditional practices, as the last bastion of the Church that has been swept away. The book received a superb film treatment in 1973, which remains a classic of religious cinema.

But the faith would almost certainly lose its predominance in the West, overtaken by new and rising religions, often of Asian provenance. The removal of immigration restrictions in 1965 brought a wave of gurus and religious entrepreneurs into the US, and some became media superstars. Swami Bhaktivedanta founded what became known as the Hare Krishna movement. Other small sects and cults founded between 1965 and 1970 included ECKANKAR, the Holy Order of MANS, the Sikh-derived Healthy-Happy-Holy Organization, the Church of Satan, and the Love Israel Family, and literally hundreds of others. 1971 brought the first est seminar. Some of those movements survived and flourished, others fell into scandal and ruin.

As a symbol of exquisite “1968-ism” I love the closing Starchild image from the film of 2001, released that April. It perfectly reflects the esoteric/mystical fascination of the time, and also the real change of consciousness effected by space travel.

Another and far less impressive 1968 product was Erich von Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods?, which sought evidence of ancient alien contacts in various ancient civilizations. It launched a huge genre of other books and television documentaries, and stirred new interest in UFOlogy.

Esoteric and occult ideas achieved very wide circulation, and penetrated some mainstream denominations. The great exemplar was Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike, who tried to integrate spiritualism into his increasingly bizarre Christian practice.

Need I say that whatever we think of those projected futures, they were wrong at almost every point. Particularly off-base were any claims about esoteric and occult sects and cult movements. They created a media sensation through the 1970s, but were wildly over-estimated, and they largely vanished by the early 1980s. Ecumenism remains a concern for church bureaucrats, usually for denominations with the fastest contracting memberships.

Across denominations, the main thrust of the story since 1968 has surely been in much more orthodox directions, especially evangelical and charismatic. Quite separate from the overhyped events the media loved, other authentic trends included (above all) the charismatic revival, which originated in Episcopal churches in 1960, and which swept the Catholic church from 1967. The Catholic manifestation spread around the world, especially in Latin America. Between them, Pentecostals and Catholic charismatics conquered continental religious life, vastly outnumbering the baffled exponents of liberation theology.

In the US, 1968 also brought the startling move of many young people to various kinds of evangelical Christianity, and the Jesus Movement. That found denominational expression in the Vineyard and the Calvary Chapel, but it had its impact in many churches. This trend in turn promoted the penetration of roots religion into popular culture. I have already described the August 1968 release of the Byrds’ album Sweetheart of the Rodeo as a key stage in this process. Nobody at the time would have seen this as a vaguely religious event, but it contributed mightily to the rise of Christian rock music and pop culture. It suddenly became standard to hear songs about Jesus, the Devil, Heaven and Hell, and the waters of baptism. 1969 brought Larry Norman’s seminal album Upon This Rock, “the Sergeant Pepper of Christianity.”

Quite apart from the Jesus People, the centerpiece of US religion from 1968 onward was surely found in evangelicalism. Although it is difficult to point to any one key date, 1968 is commonly the foundation point from which we trace the explosion of megachurches and parachurch ministries. The megachurch phenomenon was definitely in place, although it did not really enter the consciousness of many researchers until the 1980s. October 1968 brought one symbolic event when Detroit’s Temple Baptist Church moved from its downtown location out to the suburbs (Redford Township), under its pastor G. B. Vick. The splendid new premises seated 4.500.

In retrospect too, events that at the time seemed little relevant to religious practice would in hindsight seem enormously important to the story. In June 1967, everyone recognized the political significance of Israel conquering the Old City of Jerusalem. Over the next few years, that action had an inordinate impact on American evangelicals, helping to drive the new movement into apocalyptic and millenarian directions. Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth appeared in 1970, and the film of Thief in the Night appeared in 1972. That military victory also had a transformative impact on Judaism, but that is another story.

I would have loved to have seen the reaction of an informed observer of religion in late 1968 if you told him/her the actual trends of the coming decades: an evangelical revival amounting to something like a new Great Awakening; a huge upsurge of Pentecostal and charismatic sects, in the US and worldwide; the revival of a conservative and fideistic Catholicism; and the return of conservative and fundamentalist ideas across the churches, including Baptists and Mormons.

Imagine the incomprehension of those same observers if you had told them that the then Bishop of Kraków would within a few years be the beloved Pope John Paul II, who would preside over the collapse of European Communism. And who, in the Latin American church, would root up most of the remnants of liberation theology.

You would also tell them about the pressing issues of interfaith dialogue and rivalry that would shortly emerge, focused not at all on Judaism, but on Islam. You might even tell them about the great buildings then rising spectacularly in New York City, and how they would be annihilated by neo-Dark Age Islamist fanatics. (Construction work on the North Tower of the World Trade Center began in August 1968, and the South Tower some months afterwards). For all that, they might be most amazed by the transformations in attitudes to gender and sexuality within the churches.

Where observers would perhaps have got things most wrong would have been by focusing on the traditionally Christian West, and not paying attention to the wider world – to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the quantitative hearts of a truly Global Christianity.

I’ll have more to say about all this, but one lesson is that media and academics in the late 1960s chose to stress and exaggerate the trends they did because they approved of them. They wanted a progressive, secular-leaning, ecumenical future, and wrote as if that was inevitable. They did not want an evangelical, charismatic or fundamentalist future, and ignored signs pointing to it.

If I had not believed it, I would not have seen it with my own eyes.

So when we project religious trends today, what are we missing? What existing ideas or institutions are we projecting into the future as if they are inevitable? What new ideas or movements are we simply failing to see?

Next time, I will talk about the absolute key event of 1968, the single occurrence, the one December day, that shaped our whole modern world. Care to guess what that might be?

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