Why the 30s Could Have Been the 60s (Part Two)

© 2014 Robert Osburn

Last week I proposed my thesis that the 60s, with its devastating overthrow in the USA of a Christian cultural consensus, could have happened in the 1930s. 

Today, I explain why the 60s never happened in the 30s….

The 1920s unleashed a flood of nihilism (a worldview where nothing has any meaning or purpose) amongst our best Western thinkers.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) carries that spirit, as does the cynical work of Sinclair Lewis who pilloried the evangelical minister in Elmer Gantry (1927) (both authors, interestingly enough, were raised in Minnesota). 

Flappers and drink (formally prohibited) were the way that people drowned their sorrows over a lost grand vision.  As I showed in Part One, World War I (the Great War) demolished the hope that science would furnish the technology and wealth while Christianity provided the morality for the dream society.  The crushing loss of spirit left the best and brightest without hope.  And so drink, drugs (today’s additional social malady), and dance-till-you-fall lifestyles offered escape from the resultant meaningless of life in a society that 10 years earlier seemed to promise so much. The reckless pursuit of wealth on Wall Street, another escape from meaning (a very satisfying and socially acceptable one at that),  however, reaped a bitter whirlwind in the Great Stock Market Crash of October 1929.  In two days, the markets lost 25% of their value, the equivalent of a fall of about 4250 points on today’s New York Stock Exchange. 

This opening act in an 11-year Great Depression turned out to be, in the words of C.S. Lewis when he was writing to a young friend who had lost his wife, a “severe mercy.”  Narrowly understood, it was mercy because the market crash began a process by which the inevitable post-World War I slide of American society into moral and epistemological chaos was averted.  My argument is that this slide into chaos was averted for at least 30 more years until the 60s, the great decade from which we American have never recovered and perhaps never will.

But, someone may ask, “Why are you so sure that, had there not been a Great Depression, moral anarchy and confusion about what counts as authoritative knowledge would have overtaken American life in the 30s?”   

Obviously, I can’t be sure.  But what is clear is that the intellectual and social currents were certainly flowing that way, and rapidly.  For 50 years, biblical texts, which had been among the most reliable sources of authority in US culture, had been under attack by higher critics.  1925 witnessed a monumental trial in a small Tennessee town, the result of which solidified in public perception the idea that humans were the descendants of apes. We call that event the Scopes Monkey Trial, and it was like a cultural atomic explosion that suddenly made evangelical faith a subject of mockery instead of respect. Although World War I demonstrated more than anything the fearfully destructive power of science, scientific naturalism (the worldview that defines matter as the only reality) was increasingly ascendant in our universities and elite institutions.  The resulting nihilistic spirit, as I have already indicated, swept through much of the US during the 20s just as education was undergoing radical changes in line with John Dewey’s prescriptions: truth was no longer at issue in education; what works and gives the most benefit had taken its place under the rubrics of “pragmatism” and “progressive education.” 

In short, America in the 20s was as far from revival as any culture could be, and the next step was the dissolution of the Christian cultural consensus that held sway since the early 17th century. 

But, then the Great Depression hit, and Americans dropped to their knees, figuratively and literally.  While there is no evidence of a revival during the 30s, Americans simply had no time to throw God out the window.  They were too busy trying to stay alive.  Walking away from a Christian cultural consensus was simply an impossibility at a time when people felt vulnerable. 

The sense of vulnerability was heightened in the 1940s by World War II, again a period with little evidence of Christian revival, but a time when everyone knew that the future of Western civilization hung in the balance.   The cessation of hostilities in the mid-40s gave Americans a much-needed breather from 16 years of relentlessly bad news.  It was time to get married and to have families.  The 1950s, which was a period not of Christian revival but of increasing religiosity on the part of Americans, was the period during which Americans solidified their gains, raised families, and hoped that the Cold War would not usher in World War III.

Thus, it was not until the 1960s that Americans were emotionally prepared to resume the disastrous cultural trajectory upon which they were headed in the 1920s.  Prosperous Americans had honed a religious spirit in the 1950s, but one that was free of fundamentalism’s zeal.  As George Marsden tells it in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment (2014), Americans had shared a Christian moral consensus in that decade, but the consensus was undermined by a loss of confidence in the sources behind that consensus. The Bible was no longer believed; it was merely a good text to mine social morality, which is what most Americans thought around the time that World War I broke out in 1914.

Thus, the 60s unveiled and exposed those foundations made shaky by decades of biblical higher criticism, progressive education, incipient nihilism, and the extraordinary loss of confidence in Christian ideals, which first occurred as a result of World War I.  And when Baby Boomers threw their energy into the project of unmasking the shaky foundations, they also decided to throw the entire Christian cultural edifice over the cliff of American public life.  Moral and epistemology anarchy ensued, and does to this day.

As I have suggested, the Christian edifice could have been thrown over the cliff in the 1930s, but for the Great Depression, World War II, and the cultural regrouping of the 1950s. 

If the 30s had been the 60s, we would have been three decades farther along the disastrous cultural road we’ve been on since the 60s.  And we would by now have a better idea of how this all turns out.