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?


Confessions of an Amateur Historian: Why When Seems Just as Important as What

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© 2014 Robert Osburn

I confess I’m a bit of an amateur historian.  It first dawned on me a few years ago when, for the umpteenth time, I asked a friendly storyteller when a certain event had happened.  In fact, I’ve been asking that question most of my life, and not infrequently I’ve frustrated friends and assorted storytellers who love to tell me what happened, but never tell me when it happened.

“Oh, I don’t know,” they will respond.  “Let’s see, I think it was….” And their voices will trail off into some sort of temporal obscurity, honestly signaling me that it never occurred to them to ask the “when” question, because, after all, the “what” question is so much more interesting.  Grandpa’s amazing giant tomato is much more important than knowing the year in which he grew it.

If you are like my friends who love to narrate their stories sans temporal references (like date/month/year), you are not alone.  There seem to be so many of you, and since you are likely in the majority, you may want to know why a few of us odd “historical ducks” pine until you give us a clear picture of when your story took place. 

Here goes: When you tell us your stories, often so wonderfully and imaginatively narrated, we can’t fully enter into your experience unless we amateur (and, no doubt, professional) historians can situate the experience or event relative to our experience in time.   We don’t just want to imagine how you felt when it happened to you; we want to imaginatively re-create the world as it was on the day the event transpired. 

So, when you tell me about your sister’s tragic fall on July 7, 2007, I’ll dial back in my memory and try to recover some incidents that took place in my life, or in our larger world, at that time.  I try to place the event in the stream of experience at that time in history.

This obsession with when is probably a major reason that I like old movies almost as much, and sometimes more than, current films.  Susan and I watch a film like Peyton Place (1957),* for example, and are somehow transported back in time, not merely out of sentiment (the musical score more than satisfactorily evokes the sentimentalist in me) but because I’m thinking about what was happening in American culture (the subject of the film) at the time of the film: national unity betrayed by an abandonment of first principles, loyalty to monogamous marriage amidst various forms of abuse, folks earnestly desiring to keep communities healthy and together even as disunifying storm clouds were starting to appear on the horizon, racism that stoked black disempowerment, schools where students could pray and read the Bible without fear, and a unified moral culture that longed to explore boundaries in the security of the inherited Protestant milieu.  When I see the film, I see it through that historical lens, and then compare its cultural milieu with our day.

The biblical text mercifully reinforces my historical instincts.  There is a deep vein of historical consciousness that runs through the Bible, quite unlike other sacred texts that make no attempt to connect their narratives to real history. But the Bible stakes many of its claims on real, verifiable, documented history.  Consider I Corinthians 15, for example, as Paul warns believers that if the Resurrection did not happen in history, then we Christians are pathetic losers who ought to be put out of our misery.

So, next time, dear friends, when you tell me your stories, don’t be offended if I ask you what to me is the most natural question in the world: “When did it happen?”  After all, I’m just an amateur historian.

*Please do not mistake this for a movie recommendation.  This particular film merely highlights the experience of the amateur historian.

Why Culture Cannot Be Coerced

The battle for Baghdad (which may or may not be underway by the time this blog is posted) is not only a human tragedy, but a painful reminder of how culture can never be coerced.  Because this is so, the thousands of American lives and $1 trillion invested there since the 2003 Iraq War seems like a terrible price to pay for using the wrong weapons to achieve a worthy goal.

In the Winter and Spring of 2003, as the US government was preparing to launch the invasion of Iraq to overthrow the vicious dictator Saddam Hussein, I often spoke to my sons about the probable successes and risks.  Like many, I forecasted a military romp in the park, as was indeed the case.  But, I warned my sons over and over that the people of Iraq, owing first to the lack of democratic government under the long reign of Hussein and, secondly, to the similarly troubling relationship between democracy and most Islamic societies, would be a different matter altogether.  I naively believed that our military planners were fully aware of the giant risk of anarchy following Saddam’s fall and that they would somehow prepare for it. 

Notwithstanding American claims about weapons of mass destruction, the US government saw its mission as liberation.  And, yes, if you take the view that politics and power are the primary force in a society, then America surely succeeded.  Using the coercive power of American military, the political situation in Iraq changed almost overnight.

But societies are far more than the sum of their politics, or, for that matter, their economics.  They are, at their heart, driven by deep cultural forces that include religion, worldview, rituals, symbols, language, and customary practices.  US military planners and national leadership were blind, for all appearances, to this fundamental reality, thinking merely that Iraqis would break out the champagne of democracy and elegantly manage their own affairs.  How very naïve we were.

Cultures, obliquely masked behind the forces mentioned in the previous paragraph, simply do not respond to coercion, first because there is no way that military or political power can break the back of “religion, worldview, rituals, symbols, language, and customary practices.”  They follow a complicated logic that varies between the rational and the nonrational, the wise and the foolish.   For reasons too complicated to discuss here, they do create unique “cultural logics” that, to some degree, make sense to those governed by them. 

Secondly, cultures are a function of deeply-held beliefs that are located in what we call the human conscience.  Most of America’s founders clearly knew that conscience could not and should not be coerced, and thus the US was bequeathed a constitutional tradition of religious freedom.  The inviolate human conscience deserves its own freedom, in part because without it humans could never love the God who had created them in his image.  Military planners can never change the hearts and minds of a population, no matter how easily they may change their political leadership.  To have suggested otherwise may be one of the reasons that US Iraq War veterans feel so grieved at the current turn of events.  They were assured that military power could get the job done, when, in fact, it could only change surface political realities (and these only as long as American guns and military discipline were visibly present).

The humbling truth that brings the finest military planners to their knees is that cultures cannot be changed by military force.  We do know, thanks to sociologists like the University of Virginia’s James Davison Hunter, that cultural change is usually led by networks of elitist cultural influencers who work in elite culture institutions (professors in universities, journalists, and pop culture entertainers).  We also know that mass education movements to change a people’s worldview can be very successful.  We also know that leaders who demonstrate remarkable courage and integrity can help move the cultural dial.  There is evidence that cultures respond positively or negatively to the state of Christian churches in their midst.  But, the only thing that offers the single biggest bang for the buck is Christian conversion.  Those converted and then successfully discipled come under the gentle and masterful sovereignty of Jesus Christ who teaches them to use their newfound freedom not indulge themselves but to love their neighbors (Galatians 5:13). 

Not a single one of the five elements of successful cultural change mentioned in the paragraph above involves coercion or threats.*  Thus the blitzkrieg of the Sunni-led ISIS can never do anything but fan the flames of Shia hatred in Iraq.  Because coercion is their stock in trade, we can guarantee endless tragedy and bloodshed in Iraq and the region.   Tragically, terribly. 

Only the five steps alluded to above, centered in particular on the converting and transforming power of Jesus Christ, give hope to our poor friends in Iraq and beyond.  Show them mercy, O Father.

*I don’t discount the argument that laws, which are inherently coercive at some level. can have a secondary and minor effect on cultural change.  Americans, for example, have become more orderly in their driving habits, one may presume, in part because of the traffic laws.  However, note that Americans were from the beginning somewhat disposed to obey traffic laws, and that tendency was reinforced by the threat of a traffic ticket which would be administered by a court that generally could not be bribed.  To me the case is clear that a cultural predisposition for orderly obedience to just laws precedes the laws themselves, and only very secondarily do the laws reinforce and strengthen that cultural predisposition.  I think this interpretation also nicely fits with the idea of law as “schoolmaster” or “tutor” (Galatians 3:24).

Another Puritan Gift


© 2014 Robert Osburn

Father and son duo Ken and William Hopper introduced us in 2007 to the idea that the Puritans’ core values, such as thrift and an individualism balanced by the need to cooperate, helped created create US America’s dynamic managerial culture.  In their book The Puritan Gift: Reclaiming the American Dream Amidst Financial Chaos (2007), the Hoppers maintain, for example, that the commitment to develop one’s craft within an organization (a Puritan pattern) is better preparation for being a successful manager than is an MBA.

I wish, however, they had talked about another Puritan gift: The Puritans’ unrelenting commitment to self-examination and integrity. And it is this absolute commitment to holiness that created a cultural template of honesty and disdain for corruption in New England.  Given the worldwide flood of corruption in governments around the world (most recently exemplified by that of Ukraine’s former leader Viktor Yanukovych), Americans ought to drop daily to their knees and thank God for our virtuous Puritan ancestors.

Without for a minute discounting the problems associated with their religious intolerance (though Harvard historian David Hall has shown in his 2011 book A Reforming People that it was much less severe than commonly believed), the simple reality is that the United States’ relatively low level of corruption owes itself almost entirely to our Puritan and Protestant forebears who strongly resisted temptations and inner corruption of the soul.  One Puritan prayed, for example:

Grant that my proneness to evil, deadness to good, resistance to Thy Spirit's motions, may never provoke Thee to abandon me. May my hard heart awake Thy pity, not Thy wrath, and if the enemy gets an advantage through my corruption, let it be seen that heaven is mightier than hell, that those for me are greater than those against me.

He was characteristic of the Puritans of the 17th century.  Combined with determination and courage to establish a holy colony in the New World, the Puritans (and most of the other movements that spun out of them, including modern-day evangelicalism) laid a template of honesty and integrity in political and social relations.  Thus, even as early as the 1830s, when Tocqueville the social philosopher studied the USA, he could see that one of US America’s virtues was its honesty.

The culture of honesty bred tremendous business confidence, and thus America could accommodate ever-larger numbers of immigrants, provided they came to embrace that cultural norm.  And most did (except for an isolated group of Sicilians whom we have come to call the “mafia”).

When you hear the word “puritan” spoken with a condescending sneer, remind your interlocutor that it’s because of the Puritans that Americans, unlike Ukrainians, don’t have to revolt against leaders they suspect of looting the government treasury for private gain, and a zoo to match.  And while you’re at it, invite them to join you in giving thanks for this remarkable religious heritage that has forever shaped America culture.