Why the 30s Could Have Been The 60s (Part One)

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© 2014 Robert Osburn

My freshman year (1969-70) at the University of Michigan was chaos.  Every day brought fresh radical action, threatened or undertaken.  Learning was a challenge, especially when your final exams were disrupted by bomb threats (as was my chemistry final, which meant we had to wait outside for 45 minutes while the police looked for bombs).

When I should have been studying meteorology, I (and many classmates) stood on the roof of East Engineering building gazing down upon violent demonstrations near the intersection of East University and South University streets.  During another violent demonstration that broke out on East University, I nearly tripped a student radical who was fleeing the club-wielding police after he egged them on.

One weekend, my roommates and I took refuge at their parent’s home in Detroit because food deliveries to our dorm were cut off by members of the Black Action Movement. Starve, or enjoy home-cooked food?  No contest.

60s student violence? Absolutely, but that’s not the real story (in my mind) of the 60s. The real narrative is a story of undisguised disdain for the Christian and Enlightenment ideas (see Michael Novak’s On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding) that had shaped so much of the USA since and before its founding.  They were systematically being replaced with postmodern ideas that destroyed the Christian cultural ethos while simultaneously leaving in place the materialist ideology at the heart of the Enlightenment.

My surprising claim is that this rejection of a Christian cultural consensus (see my last blog) could have happened in the 1930s instead of the 1960s.

Here’s why:  The cultural seeds for a post-Christian culture were violently planted during World War I, germinated during the 1920s, and set to blow the Christian lid off American culture.  But, mercifully, the Depression happened, starting in 1929, and Americans started looking heavenward for their daily bread.  And so the 60s never happened until the 1960s.

Let me explain at length. 

Prior to World War I, about which we’ve been hearing so much in this centenary year (the war started in 1914), Western Christians were ebullient.   Western civilization was on a roll, and the narrative of progress (“onward and upward”) seemed a sure bet.  Science gave the technology, and Christianity gave the morality; what more could we want?

Over 40 years ago at Dallas Seminary, I learned that in what seemed to be a “Christian century,” postmillennialism held sway for progressivists entranced by this science-Christian matrix of the early 20th century.  Human beings would so swell the Kingdom of God that they would essentially welcome Jesus after humanity had launched the Kingdom.  This naïve eschatology was somehow bonded with nationalistic, chest-thumping narratives all across the Western world (oh, my, the contradictions). 

And so when the war launched, German Christians battled valiantly against Christians from England, and with a whole host of young men representing valiant Christian nations throughout Europe.  Nobody imagined that the science they so celebrated, combined with a militarized, nationalized Christianity, would create monstrous war machines that killed by the millions.

The war ended in 1919.  What follows, according to our standard narrative of the 1920s, is a tale of flapper women, speakeasies, and easy living.  We think that after the war everyone went on with the job of living happily and cheerfully.

No. No. No.  The best minds that had espoused the most vigorous confidence in Christian faith, albeit a rather progressive version, were devastated.  The Great War had exposed the deep failure of Christianity.  Christian nations fought Christian nations, and hired thousands of pagan Chinese peasants to dig the trenches with which Christians fought each other to the death. Science had succeeded in making deadly war machines, while Christianity failed to offer the charitable morality of “love your enemy.” 

“How could this be?” asked young Christian leaders who launched virtual rebellions in organizations like the YMCA, and who rapidly moved these organizations from their evangelical heritage (secure in1920) until, by 1930, they were thoroughly in the hands of theological liberals who wanted to hear nothing about the Savior from sin who taught us to love our enemies.

To be continued next week…