The 1960s and the Loss of Christian Cultural Consensus in the USA

© 2014 Robert Osburn

Recently, a tiny group of my age cohort met and, as is sometimes the case, we lamented US cultural decline.  In so doing, we were retreading a well-rehearsed practice whereby the aging (I’m in my 60s) decry the loss of a world they knew when they were young. Geriatric Jewish leaders, freshly returned from a long exile in Babylon, “who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy” (Ezra 3:12).  According to historian George Marsden, Americans have been doing this since the 1660s when first-generation Puritan leaders in New England grieved what had become of the next generation.

Except, our lament is different. It is unique in American history.

You may think me guilty of special pleading, but something happened in the mid 1960s that defined the end of one epoch and the beginning of another.  Ever since US America’s founding, our culture----our worldview, our mores, our sensibilities, our symbols, our rituals---was marinated in a cultural soup that was distinctly Christian, though seasoned with mostly-congenial Enlightenment ideals.  You could be the biggest rebel in town, but you knew, at the end of the day, that you were accountable to some vague species of local morality which could be found in most of the Protestant churches in town.  This fact was really not up for debate, except in a few offbeat texts written by academics and fellow travelers whose sensibilities rarely touched the lives of American masses.

So, when, for example, in the early 1900s old Civil War veterans had occasion to lament their lost world, they might have bewailed the loss of horse-drawn carriages in the new era of motorized vehicles.  And some might have shed a few crocodile tears for the lost odor of horse manure all over the streets.  A few, very few, might have longed for the smell of gunpowder on the old battlefields. But, no one, no one could have imagined jettisoning the quasi-Protestant morality that was shared by both sides in the Civil War and which was still shared some 50 years later.

Our lament for a world lost in the 1960s is different, and here’s why: Ours is a lament for the loss of a Christian cultural consensus, both because that consensus was relatively humanizing and enlivening and because its absence is progressively taking a toll on American society. 

Marsden’s 2014 The Twilight of the American Enlightenment begins with memories that all of us born before 1955 in the USA will remember: a world where, or example, everyone seemed to take the ideal of the conventional family for granted” (p. ix).   Many of us grew up in troubled families (so it was no picnic in the park), but we knew with certainty what was the ideal.   And knowing such ideals bequeathed security. 

Those very ideals, whose heartbeat was found in biblical texts that most of us only vaguely knew, would give birth in the early 60s to a Civil Right movement that most of us cheered and whose success was almost certainly assured because it could appeal to the biblical text shared by almost everyone in our Christian culture. 

But, almost all of us know what else happened in the 60s: Radical students, feminists, and anti-Vietnam War protesters ignited a fast-moving cultural wildfire that literally changed the American cultural landscape in a very few years.  Marsden brilliantly argues why the change was so rapid: American intellectuals, who still valued American moral ideals, had already abandoned the biblical foundations and assumptions that undergirded the ideals.  They wanted some version of a Christian moral consensus, but they had resolutely thrown out the very reasons for maintaining the consensus.  That in a nutshell, explains why so many faculty members, in university after university, caved almost overnight to the many demands of radical students.  One faculty member of a local college has described how dorm rules in 1967-68 changed dramatically in the 1968-69 school year, from a version of no one of the opposite sex on a dorm floor, to almost no rules about when and where girls and guys could “fraternize” in dorms.  The cultural wreckage is almost too much to catalogue, but it exploded in the 1970s with a divorce explosion, abortion-on-demand, and so forth.

The cultural tipping point was some time between 1964 and 1967, most likely in 1965 (see James T. Patterson’s 2012 The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America).  From a historical point of view, the key is to understand that today’s US American culture (apart from its pervasive electronic technology) is much more like that I found when I began my freshman year in 1969 at the University of Michigan.  By contrast, someone who would have started at Michigan in 1962, for example, would have said that the culture in 1969 was already radically changed.

I can almost hear the cackling laughter from culturally and morally jaded who wrongly think I long for the days of repression, or from those whose assumptions are that politics and/or economics drive everything.  That’s a big discussion for another day.  Some Christians will suspect I have conflated the Kingdom of God with US national culture.  No, rather, I have tried to show that, for better or for worse, same form of Protestant Christianity provided cultural cohesion and order in the USA until the 60s, and since then we’ve been living in some version of cultural chaos and uncertainty.

As someone who works regularly amongst international students, I realize that most herald from societies where there has never been any idea of a Christian cultural consensus, and so I have learned to tone down my laments.  They only wish they could have such a culture in their nation’s heritage.

Our efforts in the USA to institute multiculturalism as a replacement ideology have failed, and so we are locked into a 50 year experiment with being culturally and morally adrift. 

I can’t imagine that only those of us in our 60s and older long for a cultural mooring that exudes ideals of human dignity, creativity, order, justice, and sexual fidelity.   Anyone looking for that cultural harbor?