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Timothy Larsen

Imagine There's No Christendom

Secularization and the 1960s.

It is still infernally difficult to get beyond the bombastic self-reporting that came out of the 1960s. Although recent scholarship suggests that their parents might have been kissing but not telling, it is routine even now to hear po-faced pronouncements that the Sixties generation invented sex. Likewise, it is hard to think about religion in that decade without being jostled and crowded by the self-aggrandizing claim that God died on their watch—on January 4, 1965 to be precise, if an influential book of the period is to be believed.

Nevertheless, something significant did change for the Western churches during that decade. This story is thick with multiple causation, countervailing trends, and conflicting interpretations, and it would be hard to find someone who could tell it in a more careful and responsible way than Hugh McLeod has done in The Religious Crisis of the 1960s. McLeod sees common trends across Britain, the United States, and France, as well as the other countries that he occasionally features from Western Europe (notably the Netherlands) and the English-speaking world (especially Australia and New Zealand). As to chronology, McLeod ruminates dryly: "When did 'The 1960s' begin? You can make out a reasonable case for saying '1960', but many other dates have been suggested." He discerns the span between 1958 and 1974 as the primary period of change, with 1967 as the climactic year.

McLeod's conceptual framework is the decline of Christendom.[1] He helpfully describes Christendom as "a society where there are close ties between leaders of the church and secular elites; where the laws purport to be based on Christian principles; where, apart from certain clearly defined outsider communities, everyone is assumed to be Christian; and where Christianity provides a common language, shared alike by the devout and by the religiously lukewarm." Christendom had been eroding for more than two centuries, but in the 1960s it crumbled.

To come at it by way of contrast, the religious crisis of the 1960s is not about an intellectual defeat for Christianity. Coercion stopped being used to further the cause of Christ—that is the salient change. Henceforth, people must freely choose to live God's way rather than being forced to by the government. And the legal changes came apace. Canada's Pierre Trudeau removed restrictions on divorce, homosexuality, abortion, contraception, and lotteries—all in one bill. The decline of Christendom meant that a lot of people who used to be nominal Christians through legal or social pressures broke away from the church and its teachings.

There were, of course, unseemly, shouting-in-the-street disputes among different stripes of Christians, and pungent attacks on the churches from without. The longest quotation in The Religious Crisis of the 1960s is reverently allotted to the incoherent oracle of the Beat culture, Allen Ginsberg. The poet's program for social reform is far more lucidly summarized by McLeod himself: "He was particularly hopeful about the beneficial effect that LSD could have on members of the government." Desegregation, women's liberation, free love, anti-colonial revolutions … the social and political issues descended upon the churches like the plagues of Egypt. A priest in Cleveland observed that the members of his congregation were so opposed to the clergy offering support to the Civil Rights movement that they would react with hostility to a sermon on loving your neighbor!

The most concrete result of the religious crisis of the 1960s was that "large numbers of people lost the habit of regular church-going." Despite the impression given by the flamboyant confrontations that make up the era's tribute edition, this was not so much a matter of people rejecting the church as them neglecting it. McLeod brilliantly argues that affluence was a major prompt for the decline of Christendom. Prosperity and full employment freed people from the need to do and say the right thing in the eyes of others. The good opinion of neighbors and extended family members became an insurance policy that people were increasingly willing to let lapse. Religious activities were no longer pursued just because they were a traditional social expectation.

Affluence also meant that free-time options became much more diverse and diverting. Church attendance gradually lost out to more entertaining pursuits. A related factor was the new orthodoxy of permissive parenting. German radicals apparently seriously believed that the cruelty of the guards in Nazi concentration camps stemmed from how they had been potty-trained. Generations of parents had insisted that their children were going to Sunday school whether they wanted to or not, but the 1960s broke that cycle. Once again, by and large, these youths did not stop going because they had formulated new views on the question of God: they simply wanted to stay out late on Saturday night and then sleep in.

One line of speculation avers that the dropping of the catechetical baton was compounded by the mass entry of women into the workforce. For over a century men had been saddling their wives with the full responsibility for the spiritual formation of their children. With women now holding jobs outside the home and husbands not jumping in to help with the housework, something had to give, and it was often teaching the little ones how to pray. Christendom declined because the young were no longer being socialized into Christianity. This was not a process of examining and rejecting the claims of Christianity: a significant percentage of people went awol when it came to religious education and then, once adults, they in turn had nothing to pass on to their own children. When a journalist asked the English footballer David Beckham if he was planning to have his son christened, he replied that he liked the idea, "but I don't know into what religion."

The Religious Crisis of the 1960s provides a compelling and persuasive account of the complex changes it addresses. Nevertheless, I part ways with McLeod on two points. One is regarding our personal perspectives on the church controversies of that era. McLeod acknowledges that his sympathies are with "the theological modernizers." At times, this stance affects what he does and does not see. On a trivial level, he can report that the official slogan of the assembly of the World Council of Churches at Uppsala in 1968 was "The World Sets the Agenda" without noticing that this is so risible as to be parody-proof. More substantially, McLeod claims unconvincingly that although all the churches that continued to grow happened to be theologically conservative, this is not the relevant factor. (Indeed it is—it might even have had something to do with them not letting the world set their agenda.)

Even this critique should not be pushed too far, however, as McLeod baldly reveals that the evangelical movement was the big religious winner of the 1960s, especially in its Spirit-filled, chorus-singing manifestations. The amplified self-importance of the Woodstock scene has reverberated so much that it is stunning to read a clear-eyed, historical assessment such as this: "In the longer run the worldwide impact of the Charismatic Movement has been far greater than that of the counter-culture."

The other main theologically conservative option, the Roman Catholic Church, took on some prize fights in the 1960s and hemorrhaged active members. A lot of the Catholic progressives seemed to want to be Protestants. Many of their proposed reforms read like a championing of the priesthood of all believers. And what could be more Lutheran than the recurring stunt of a priest marrying a former nun?

The Catholic Church's ban on the use of birth control products was formally under review for several years. Many lay people assumed that this world lead to its being overturned and started to live in the good of the coming kingdom. When the pope surprisingly reaffirmed the ban in 1968, many Catholics became estranged from the Church. Likewise, young liberal or mainline Protestants tended to identify so strongly with the heady social and political movements of the period that the latter eventually became their surrogate church. In contrast to these two groups, "Conservative branches of Protestantism weathered the storm more effectively."

Second, McLeod unduly minimizes the difference between Europe and the United States. It is common to observe that America has not followed other Western nations on the path of secularization. McLeod objects: "These contrasts are exaggerated … the points in common are more important than the points of difference." He acknowledges the anomaly that religion plays a large, overt role in American politics. That aside, McLeod observes that the main divergence is merely that Christianity in America is still strong in "popular culture." Hmm. But besides that one thing …

Hugh McLeod rightly reminds us to keep control groups in view lest we wrongly infer from declining church attendance an informed critique of religion. Marxist and socialist organizations lost a greater percentage of their members than the churches did, despite Marxism being intellectually fashionable in both the universities and the liberation movements energizing young people. That is to say, what has actually been in decline is organizational commitments generally. Even in Britain, the Christian Union is still often the largest student-run organization at universities.

Therefore, McLeod ultimately sees the modern churches as having faced some heavy sociological forces reasonably well: "Yet, in the pluralist and relatively secular societies of the later twentieth century, the Christian churches continued to have an important role. At a time when many other voluntary organizations had also suffered serious decline, they remained the largest in numbers of active members, and the widest-ranging in social influence." Irreligious Sixties radicals did not imagine that.

1. This is a view that I hold myself. See Timothy Larsen, "Dechristendomization as an Alternative to Secularization: Theology, History, and Sociology in Conversation," Pro Ecclesia, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Summer 2006), pp. 320-37.

Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, is the author of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth Century England (Oxford Univ. Press). His new book, about the Bible in the 19th century, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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