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Conservative over reaction to the 1960s?

Conservative over reaction to the 1960s? May 31, 2011

For a long time I’ve been pondering why American culture generally and American Christianity specifically have lurched so far to the right during the last few decades.

When I was in high school in the late 1960s I worked for a man who owned a cleaning business.  After going to work for him on weekends and some evenings (I had to pay for my motorcycle somehow!) I discovered he was a leader in the state branch of the John Birch Society.  I listened in on many of his conversations with fellow John Birchers who hired him to clean their carpets.  I remember one time standing idly by after finishing the carpet while my boss talked radical conservative social and political views with the customer.  My boss tried to convert me, but I gently resisted even though my church and family were very conservative.  Even “very conservative” people in the 1960s often considered John Birchers fanatics and I heard the Society referred to as a “political cult.”

Yet, I now see that many of the policies my boss was for have become national policies and many he was against have been dismantled.

Also, I grew up in a very conservative Christian home and church and yet we were no where near as conservative as many of the influential leaders of evangelicalism today.  We considered Jerry Falwell a crazy fundamentalist extremist (in the 1960s and into the 1970s) and yet he emerged as a spokesman for evangelicalism without changing his views much at all.  He just toned down his criticisms of Billy Graham (for example).

I suppose there will be those who will disagree with me about America’s lurch to the right.  Yet, I have the perspective of almost sixty years in the thick of evangelicalism and my father, especially, was very aware of national politics and held strong opinions and I learned to read the newspaper and pay attention to national news on TV very early.  My uncle was our denomination’s president for 25 years and served on the national board of the National Association of Evangelicals for many of those years.  I talked with him a lot about American evangelical  Christianity and heard him complain loudly about the growing influence of men like R. C. Sproul and other (what I now call) neo-fundamentalists in the NAE.

Inerrancy was not a word I heard until seminary and then it was used only as a derogatory term for what fundamentalists believed about the Bible.  (The seminary I attended was considered mainstream evangelical which is why I attended it.)  I vividly recall one sermon by a leading pastor of our little evangelical denomination in which he gave an example of the gospels contradicting themselves.  Nobody blinked.  The contradiction didn’t touch on the gospel or salvation.  If you didn’t know him, you might think he’d been studying redaction criticism!  A decade or two later he would probaby have been fired for what he said–at least in most evangelical churches!

So why have conservative politics and conservative Christianity become so conservative in the last few decades?  (I could go on giving example after example such as the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s shift to the right under John Paul II and Benedict the XVI and the Republican party’s shift to the right under Reagan and Bush and the people who backed them.) 

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about Catholic Modernism–the small but influential movement of progressive Roman Catholic theologians that flourished (if you can call it that) between about 1890 and 1910.  I’ve been fascinated by accounts and explanations of why the Vatican reacted so negatively to them when they were not particularly radical.  For example, one of their main goals was for the Church to acknowledge the development of doctrine–something a major 19th century Catholic hero also advocated.  That person was John Henry Newman who wrote on the development of doctrine which was not criticized by the Vatican then (in the first half of the 19th century).  The Vatican condemned the Modernists partly for agreeing with Newman in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The scholars I’ve been reading are trying to explain why the Vatican over reacted to Catholic Modernism with harsh pronouncements and excommunications.

One popular theory is that the late 19th century Roman Catholic hierarchy was over reacting to the French Revolution and its aftermath in Europe that resulted in the disestablishment of the Church in France and anti-clericalism in much of Europe.  Of course, the French Revolution was not an isolated event, but it was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” so to speak, with the result that even people who were not particularly conservative stood back and allowed radical conservatives to take over the Church (in for example Vatican I in the 1870s).

Admittedly it would be a delayed reaction, but scholars of Catholic Modernism are convinced the French Revolution and its aftermath (e.g., Napolean’s dismantling of the Holy Roman Empire and his general anti-clerical policies) gave rise to ultramontanism–a Catholic movement throughout Europe to restore the supremacy of Rome over the whole Church and even over society.

Of course, the Church’s reaction to Modernism was out of a horror of the Enlightenment in general, but the French Revolution and its aftermath provided the gunpowder, so to speak, for the Church’s cannons trained on modernism in society in general. 

I have come to hold the opinion that America’s conservative over reaction is to the cultural revolutions of the 1960s.  What happened in the churches and society, including national government, frightened people so much that they rushed headlong over the next few decades into what would have been considered extremist religious and political views in the 1950s.  When I listen to mainstream (mostly) Republican politicians I am reminded of my John Birch Society boss and when I listen to conservative evangelical leaders I’m reminded of Jerry Falwell and the fundamentalists who reviled evangelicals in the 1950s as compromisers of the gospel.

I think American society in general is prone to over reactions.  We’re not alone in that, of course, as it may be a general trait of fallen humanity.  We have real trouble thinking ahead and asking ourselves if our new policies and practices are sane and sensible or if they are over reactions to something truly scary (like the sexual revolution of the 1960s).  When I was taking driving lessons in high school one motto our teachers drummed into our heads was “take the wide view–look ahead.”  In other words, don’t just look down at the road right in front of you and don’t over react to a perceived danger or threat.

Having lived through the 1960s and read much about radical theology (e.g., so-called “death of God theology” and other destructive things that happened and came out of that decade which really lasted well into the 1970s) I can understand why there would be a temptation to over react to it.  However, an over reaction is never a good thing.  It’s always destructive.  Sensible people look at something like the 1960s and say to themselves as each other “That was truly scary and awful; let’s adjust without over reacting to it.”

One example of the over reaction in politics is the war on the poor (under the guise of “welfare reform”) in reaction to Johnson’s Great Society program that aimed at abolishing poverty in America.  That may have been a stretch–with the establishment of (as I recall) 32 income tax brackets (as a means of redistributing wealth) with the highest being about 90%.  However, the Reagan Revolution’s reversal of Johnson’s policies led (whether intentionally or unintentionally to a war on the poor to replace the war on poverty).  In much of American today it is almost considered a crime to be poor.

Among American evangelicals the over reaction to radical theology and other aspects of the 1960s appears in efforts to establish inerrancy as the sine qua non of authentic evangelical faith (among other efforts to turn what used to be opinion into dogma).

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