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Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture
Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture
Mark Oppenheimer
Yale University Press, 2003
304 pp., $48.00

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Alan Wolfe


How the Counterculture Went to Church

In Knocking on Heaven's Door, Mark Oppenheimer offers a well-written and consistently interesting, if not always persuasive, account of America's most recent religious awakening. In five case studies, Oppenheimer seeks to demonstrate that the religious impact of the counterculture that blossomed in the 1960s was both deeper and more complex than has been widely supposed.

Oppenheimer begins with the Unitarians. Before gay rights became the stuff of Supreme Court decisions—indeed, even before the issue became central to gays themselves—the Rev. James Stoll announced his sexual orientation to a group of college-age Unitarians in 1969. Nothing ought to be surprising about that, given the degree to which Unitarians are reluctant to judge anything—except perhaps conservative religion itself—as sinful. Still, Americans in 1969, even very liberal Americans, were generally quite queasy about homosexuality. In addition, Stoll, as Oppenheimer writes, was "probably a sexual predator." Despite all this, Unitarian churches and fellowships, before long, had so intertwined themselves with the counterculture that it became impossible to say where one ended and the other began.

Oppenheimer turns next to the introduction of folk music into the Catholic Mass. Although the Catholic Church was a bastion of conservative support for American values, many of the country's most famous new leftists—most notably, Mario Savio of the Free Speech Movement and Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society—were raised Catholic. Protests against the Vietnam War were led by radical priests such as the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip. Mary Daly was among the first feminists who made religion her special concern.

Against such explicit forms of political radicalism, the Church generally stood firm. But in the aftermath of Vatican II, officials were responsive to liturgical reforms, opening the door to guitar-strumming folk singers like Sister Miriam Therese Winter and Joe Wise. Some parishes, such as ...

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