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by John Wilson


The Sixties, Revisited

Don't know much historiography.

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In September, the Wall Street Journal published a piece in which I argued that "canonical accounts" of the Sixties "have systematically ignored, played down and distorted the religious dimensions of that tumultuous time." Recently, on the excellent new blogsite Religion in American History, Paul Harvey commented on my column, in particular on "a sort of academic conspiracy theory that Wilson has peddled in this piece." Harvey quotes several of my paragraphs and then comments:

"This strikes me as almost completely wrong on every count. Or rather: I used to read these kinds of pieces in the mid–1980s, when they had some merit. Wilson, by contrast, has apparently (except for Rossinow) not read any of the veritable avalanche of books from the last 20 years that discuss precisely what he says historical 'orthodoxies' ignore—McGirr's Suburban Warriors, Chappell's Stone of Hope, Allitt's history of religion in the 1960s, a small library of books on religion and the counterculture, and on and on. Indeed, it's something of a cliche now to say that historians now see the 60s as important as much or more for the rise of the New Right and of a particular type of American evangelicalism, both remaining influential today, than of the New Left, which pretty well crashed and burned in the early 1970s. Thus, it's now historical "orthodoxy" to say exactly what Wilson says historical orthodoxies ignore!"

Oh, dear. Why do people say such things? I know that there's no personal animus in Harvey's comments—he's been generous in drawing attention to other pieces of mine. The overheated rhetoric—I'm a peddler of conspiracy theories, you see—and the misplaced condescension are tribal, perhaps.

Clearly I'm more familiar with Harvey's own fine work as a historian of American religion than he is with the pages of Books & Culture—where, for instance, Lauren Winner reviewed Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors along with three other books ("Why America Turned Right," March/April 2002) and Elizabeth Fox–Genovese reviewed David Chappell's A Stone of Hope ("A Hopeful Pessimism," July/August 2004). I'm well aware of this scholarship. I've read many of these books myself; I've spoken at colleges and in other settings about "The Return of the Repressed," the new attention to religion in many different scholarly contexts. And I certainly wasn't implying that Doug Rossinow and Preston Shires are the only scholars challenging canonical accounts of the Sixties.

If Harvey genuinely believes that the canonical accounts have given way to what he describes as a new historical "orthodoxy," then we differ sharply in at least two ways. First, the view of the Sixties represented in those half–dozen histories of the decade I surveyed not long ago, themselves published over a considerable span, is very much still in place, both in popular accounts—such as the many articles I read this summer looking back to 1967 and the "Summer of Love"—and in scholarly settings.

I trust that Harvey is familiar with the Oxford History of the United States, and in particular with James T. Patterson's volume Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (published in 1996). Despite Harvey's assurances, Patterson almost entirely ignores the role of religion in American life during this period—not only in the Sixties, but across the board. When he does touch on the subject of religion, his patronizing obtuseness is at once staggering and (inadvertently) comical. "Other rising evangelists," Patterson writes, in a brief passage on "conservative evangelicals" in the 1950s, "joined Graham in preaching against the materialism, hedonism, and secularism of modern life. They attracted millions of Americans (how many no one knows for sure), many of them relatively poor, geographically unsettled, and ill educated. These were people who felt cut off—or alienated—from the more secular world of the middle classes and who searched for consoling and unambiguous truths."

Don't you love that parenthetical comment: "how many no one knows for sure"! In case we haven't taken the point, in the very next paragraph, having noted that increasing "numbers of Americans identified themselves as premillenarians [sic], people who believed that an apocalypse would bring on the second coming of Christ," Patterson writes: "Some of these true believers were so thoroughly alienated from contemporary American culture, including not only materialism (as they saw it) but also capitalism itself, that the word 'conservative' scarcely begins to describe them. Often poor and class–conscious, they professed to be horrified by what they considered the immoral secularism of the more affluent middle classes." Darling, make me another martini, will you? Patterson, a much decorated historian at Brown University (now emeritus), was also asked to do the succeeding volume in the Oxford series, recently published.

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