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by John Wilson

The Sixties, Revisited

Don't know much historiography.

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.

Such perspectives are still influential, alas, and still worth criticizing, even at the risk of boring people like Paul Harvey, who have no truck with Patterson et al. But also, the body of scholarship to which Harvey refers—"the veritable avalanche of books from the last 20 years," those books of whose very existence I am allegedly ignorant—does not in any way constitute a new orthodoxy. The mere fact that these books acknowledge that maybe we should take religion into account in looking at the Sixties does not amount to a coherent "orthodoxy." Moreover, many of these books can best be seen not as challenging the canonical accounts (as represented in Patterson) but rather as modifying them.

This is clear from Harvey's own summary. Many of the historians who have turned their attention to the role of religion in the Sixties have done so because they see religion almost entirely under the sign of politics. Lisa McGirr's book is a good example. When Lauren Winner reviewed Suburban Warriors for Books & Culture, she noted that of the four books she was considering on the conservative ascendancy that led to the election of Ronald Reagan, three of the four "curiously overlook" the role of religion. McGirr is the exception. (Again, please note, the canonical accounts dominate.) But McGirr—and here I differ a bit from Lauren Winner's judgment—is not interested in religion from the inside, religion as religion, and her account of "The Origins of the New American Right" is largely in harmony with Patterson's patronizing asides.

There are differences, of course. Instead of the poor, geographically unsettled, ill educated horde who had responded to Billy Graham and his ilk in the previous decade, McGirr gives us a portrait of "middle–class men and women," very much geographically entrenched in Orange County, California, driven "to assert their sense of a properly ordered world—one they felt was threatened by sexual liberation, the women's movement, the burgeoning Left, and the youth culture movements—by championing family values, authority, and tradition backed by the authority of the 'word of God.' "

There are moments when it seems that McGirr will move beyond this perspective. The passage quoted just above follows one such moment of insight, in which she observes similarities between the "burgeoning counterculture of the late 1960s" and the "growth of evangelical Christianity—which, at its heart, also represented a rejection of liberal secular pragmatism." But as soon as she arrives at such an insight, she draws back. Her assessment near the end of the book neatly adapts the patronizing judgment of the canonical narratives with a leftist twist:

"[R]eligious conservative churches provided moral certainties in a time of change. They provided utopian narratives that echoed with real world events, frequently referring to the disorder, crime, depravity, and violence that were, and still are, a real part of life in the United States. But rather than seeking solutions to these problems through social change, religious conservatives found solace in a message that decried those evils and told them, in no uncertain terms, that they were not responsible for them if they stood right with Christ … . They won adherents exactly because they failed to account for the material causes for the social breakdown of families, for drugs, and for social violence, namely, the free market and the deep class divisions it generated."

This is not the richer, more capacious view of the Sixties that I find in the work of some scholars and that I hope to see more of—a perspective that comprehends both the charismatic revival that began in 1967 and the Summer of Love, and ponders the connections between them; a perspective that takes account of people like my friends Arne and Marie Bergstrom, who inspired my piece for the Wall Street Journal. They did not drop out of college and go abroad to do God's work because they were afraid of change. They were not seeking to defend their middle–class turf. And they were very much true children of the Sixties.

In his response, Harvey seems much exercised by a point that was not at all central to my concerns, about academic peripheries and élite institutions (this is my "academic conspiracy theory"). I'm not sure what he is arguing when he observes that élite universities are "not exactly exiling religious history scholars to Podunk Polytechnic, as Jon Butler, Catherine Breckus [it's Brekus, actually; look for a piece by her in the November/December issue of Books & Culture), and James Hunter Davidson [James Davison Hunter] and a host of others that I can think of suggest." I certainly wouldn't disagree with him about this; I'm just not sure of his point. But there's already more than enough on the table. Perhaps we can take that subject up another day.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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