America's Religious Identity -- Boom, Shocks, and After-shocks (Part 2 -- Long 1960s)

In the Post World War II era, religion boomed in America, along with all sorts of other service and fraternal organizations.  Their wives, many of whom had worked at America's factories during the war, returned home, had babies (remember Leave It to Beaver?).   This is the generation to which the famed Baby Boomer Generation was born, and as the War babies and post-war babies matured into adulthood, they encountered a new kind of world, and in many ways remade the world -- especially religiously. 

According to Robert Putnam and Dennis Campbell, writing in American Grace, there has been one major shock (the Long 1960s) and two Aftershocks since the religious boom of the 1950s.  Religious attendance among young adults reached its apex in 1957, when 51% of young adults claimed regular church attendance (growing from about 31% in 1950).  That number would fall just as quickly as it rose as the 1960s hit.   

This new era of "Shock" is labeled the "Long 1960s" by Putnam and Campbell, because it stretched into the early 70s. As for me, having been born in 1958, I was spending my days in elementary school and junior high.  This was a decade of exceptional change, as war babies and the first cohorts of Baby Boomers started coming of Age.  During this long "decade" we witnessed the full expansion of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, three assassinations (two Kennedys and a King), and the birth of the sexual revolution.  Yes this was the era of "Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll," and of course the period in which a group of theologians declared that "God is Dead."   Historian Sydney Ahlstrom is quoted by the authors:  "It was perfectly clear to any reasonably observant American that the postwar revival of the Eisenhower years had completely sputtered out, and that the nation was experiencing a crise de conscience of unprecedented depth" (p. 92). 

Of course not everyone joined in embracing this season of change -- it was the youngest of adults who came of age during this period -- the older generations continued attending church and doing what they had been doing, and many as we'll see in Part 3, were scandalized by what they were observing, especially regarding the change in understanding of the permissibility of premarital sex.  In the cohort that came of age in the 1960s 80% said it was only sometimes wrong or not wrong at all, and in 1970 nearly 50% of Americans reported that they were more liberal on this subject than were their parents.  Although we will witness a conservative reaction to the alleged excesses of the 1960s, even among younger adults (first aftershock) there would continue to be considerable liberality on this subject.  

But, our focus here is not on politics and sexuality, but on religion, and here things were changing as well.  The authors note that whereas huge numbers were heading off to seminary in the 1950s and early 1960s, a survey of clergy in 1971 showed that 40% of clergy under forty were considering leaving the ministry.  The sale of religious publications dropped by a third.  Oh, and this was also a period of religious experimentation -- the beginnings of what has become known as the "spiritual but not religious" group.  

Here is the kicker that I want to leave with you, before I turn to the first aftershock in the next posting.  Concerning the dramatic decline in religious observance that was seen in the 1960s, Putnam and Campbell write:
The fraction of all Americans who said that religion was "very important" to them personally fell from 75 percent in 1952 and 70 percent as late as 1965 to 52 percent in 1978, while the fraction who said that "religion can answer today's problems" dropped from 81 percent in 1957 to 62 percent  in 1974.  According to the Gallup Poll, weekly church attendance nationwide plummeted from 49 percent in 1958 to 42 percent in 1969, by far the largest decline on this measure ever recorded in such a brief period. (American Grace, pp, 97-98). 
What is most telling is that even as total attendance figures saw  a decline, this was most pronounced among young adults.  They note that "among twenty-somethings, the rate of decline was more than twice the national average."  For those fifty and over, there was no change recorded, but for those who were age 18 -29, the drop from 1957 to 1971 was from 51% to 28%.  This cohort is now in their late 50s to early 60s, and while some of them came back to church, not all did.    The reasons for the decline are many -- including reactions to war, civil rights, sexuality, and more. 

This was the period of Shock, there was an aftershock to follow, and we must move to it in the next posting.


David said…

"Too many churches are concerned about same-sex marriage when the preacher should be talking about the unacceptability of war."

1. We’ve been secretly bombing Yemen. The U.S. has been bombing suspected terrorists in Yemen, but Yemen’s government is taking responsibility. Last December, three separate strikes were played out, but weren’t very successful–out of 55 people killed in one instance, 21 were children.

2. U.S. uses diplomats as spies. Clinton ordered diplomats to spy on government officials at the UN, gathering such info as credit card and frequent flyer numbers, computer passwords...and DNA. A reporter at the press conference asked if she was embarrassed by any of the information leaked in the cables and her answer was a stern no, but we’re betting she’ll have an awkward time at the next diplomatic dinner with Ban Ki-Moon. At least she has company in Condi -- former Secretary of State Rice started the whole operation.

3. U.S. uses Guantanamo Bay prisoners as bargaining chips. And human dignity takes another nice punch to the gut. In efforts to resettle Guantanamo detainees, the U.S. has been using them as trump cards when dealing with other countries, even going so far to offer cash to unload prisoners. In perhaps the most disgraceful instance, Slovenia had to take a detainee if it wanted a meeting with President Obama.

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