Wednesday, December 01, 2010

America's Religious Identity -- Boom, Shocks, and After-shocks (Part 3 -- First Aftershock)


I graduated from high school in 1976, and we were by most measures a rather religious bunch.  My principal told my mother that my class was the most religious he'd ever seen come through the school (and he'd been there a long time).  Back in the mid to late 70s we saw Jimmy Carter ride a wave of evangelical support into the White House.  Being a Republican at the time I had to defend Gerry Ford's Christian faith.  The Moral Majority was active, Pat Robertson was popular, and Bill Bright sponsored his "I Found It" campaign, wherein blue bumper stickers got placed everywhere imaginable.  Oh, and I left my Episcopal church home for the excitement of the local Foursquare Church, along with a lot of other mainliners, who were attracted to the Jesus People message, and the Christian rock and roll (Love Song, Larry Norman, Barry McGuire, Keith Green, et al). 

According to Robert Putnam and Dennis Campbell, I was part of a conservative aftershock.  The excesses of the 1960s, which had been accompanied by major social/cultural changes, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Sexual Revolution, led to Richard Nixon's election in 1968 as voice of the so-called "Silent Majority," the "majority" that had not come of age in the 1960s.  As I came of age, I was caught up in this reaction that stemmed for a time, at least, the attendance decreases in the churches -- only the more liberal mainline churches continued to empty out -- in part due to a lower birth rate -- but also because many young adults, like me, chose to move over to the more conservative evangelical churches.  My cohort, which came of age in the late 70s and early 80s even saw an increase in attendance.  

Putnam and Campbell write that conservative religiosity in the 1970s and 1980s was most visible in the same niche as was the radicalism of the 1960s -- the college age group.  They note that while student radicalism peaked around 1968, by 1971 a new quietism had hit the campuses.  Interestingly, a more liberal view of sex continued through this era (we didn't go back to the 50s in this area).  What is interesting is the change in religious identification.  Whereas the number of college freshman who rejected a religious identity doubled between 1966 and 1971, it went up just as quickly in the following decade (my decade).  

But, again the key component here is not just that they returned to church, but the churches to which they turned.  

Just as in politics, many Americans of all ages were deeply troubled by the moral and religious developments of the Sixties.  For the next two decades, these people -- conservative in both religion and politics -- swelled the ranks both of evangelical Protestant denominations and of the rapidly growing evangelical megachurches that disavowed denominations and termed themselves simply "Christian." (American Grace, pp. 102-103). 
Thus, we can see the evangelical boom as a conservative reaction to the 1960s, but like all things, booms tend to come to an end, even if their after-effects continue long afterward.  One of the explanations for evangelical growth has been higher birth rates and more effectiveness in retaining one's young people.  

But as important as this growth in evangelicalism, Putnam and Campbell note that this evangelical rise began to dissipate in the early 1990s, and that over the past two decades the number of evangelicals has actually declined.  In fact, without the increases in non-denominational churches, the evangelical decline would have been even greater.  Therefore, and here is the kicker, "In twenty-first century America expansive evangelicalism is a feature of the past, not the present" (American Grace, p. 105). 

What this leads us to is the current cohort, and another aftershock -- a response to the aftershock of the Carter/Reagan era!  But that's for Part 4 of this series.  What is clear, and what Putnam and Campbell want us to understand is that the aggregate picture changes, gradually and slowly, but it changes none the less.  The 1960s provided clear change, especially in reaction to the perceived political radicalism of the age and the moral excesses (but even then a more permissive attitude persisted, even if tempered by a more conservative religious perspective).  But, as the Greatest Generation dies off, their conservatism will dissipate, and the early Boomers (those who came of age in the 1960s will see their influence grow), and on we go until we reach the current cohort, my son's cohort. 

Where will the political and religious trends take us?

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