What is the place of the 1990s in American religious history? Another way to put it: what happened in the 90s that should be included in large narratives of American religious history? By now most of our students (and some of their instructors) were born in the 90s and have little to no recollection of the decade. So, assuming our audience has only fragmentary prior knowledge—and always trying to make the familiar strange, anyway—what do we need to know about the 1990s?
Following up on Heath’s post from last week on primary sources, I ask, “What makes the cut?” Of course, how you answer this question depends on the overall narrative you have in mind. In this post, I’ll describe one way I’ve taught the 1990s. The larger context was a “religion in America” class at Florida State, and the course themes were secularism, the public sphere, religious freedom, and morality. This framework—applied to the decade through the idiom of “culture wars”—leads me to a discussion of public morality, the perception of moral decay, and the question of whom to blame.
Pat Buchanan, in his famous “Culture War” speech at the 1992 Republican convention, said, “The presidency is also America’s bully pulpit, what Mr. Truman called, ‘preeminently a place of moral leadership.’ George Bush is a defender of right-to-life, and lifelong champion of the Judeo-Christian values and beliefs upon which this nation was built. Mr. Clinton, however, has a different agenda.” If that was indeed the case, at least in the minds of many Americans, then what happens when we have an immoral president? I assigned portions of the Starr Report (a surprising percentage of my class did not know what a rimjob is—so that faction learned at least something from that lecture.) Most students were surprised to learn the details of the report and struggled to imagine a world where details of the president’s sexual practices (and scandalous ones, at that) are discussed on evening news, public radio, print news, and the nascent cable news cycle. In a time of supposed moral decay, America could not look to its president for “moral leadership,” a role that, according to Buchanan, was central to the office of presidency. Bill Clinton could not be a moral redeemer, but could he really be blamed for moral decay?
Concerned citizens, such as the Parents Music Resource Center, the "Washington wives,” and Bill O’Reilly, looked to popular media, especially music, to explain crime and immorality among youth. With no moral captain to steer the nation, children would idolize and emulate other figures. These new leaders, rappers and rock stars, captivated a young, wayward generation, only to lead them further astray. To quote O’Reilly, there are “Children at Risk.” After many media outlets blamed Marilyn Manson’s music for somehow inspiring the 1999 Columbine school shooting, Manson wrote an essay, “Columbine: Whose Fault Is It?” for Rolling Stone. He began by invoking the biblical story of Cain’s murder of Abel, assuming the canonically religious discourse of the critics. Manson aimed his critique at American society, mentioning specifically “Clinton shooting off his prick and then his bombs in true political form.” Why not blame him? “In my work,” Manson concluded, “I examine the America we live in, and I've always tried to show people that the devil we blame our atrocities on is really just each one of us. So don't expect the end of the world to come one day out of the blue – it's been happening every day for a long time.” Here, Manson appropriates the same language of jeremiad not to corrode the discourse, per se, but to utilize the language and rhetoric of the (moral) majority, to join their discursive community.
In the late 1990s and first years of the new millennium, Eminem mastered this style. With The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) and The Eminem Show (2002) he emerged as the most pointed and popular critic of what he understood to be a central hypocrisy in the finger-pointing efforts to assign blame for moral failure. The immorality of American society, Eminem and Marilyn Manson both argued, existed at every level. “White America” only recently started to realize this, though, given the moral failings of the president and violence and drug use in white suburban communities. “See the problem is,” Eminem acknowledges, “I speak to suburban kids.” “Hip hop was never a problem in Harlem, only in Boston/ After it bothered the fathers of daughters starting to blossom.” Eminem used his own whiteness to adopt the language of jeremiad, in a perhaps surprisingly conservative key, and turn the blame right back onto parents. He made himself a scapegoat for suburban youths’ delinquencies, only to point out that white America needed him as a scapegoat only because they were unable to face their own inadequacies as moral leaders. As he raps on Jay-Z’s 2001 song “Renegade,” “I’m debated, disputed, hated and viewed in America/ As a motherfuckin’ drug addict—like you didn’t experiment?/ That’s when you start to stare at who’s in the mirror/ And see yourself as a kid again, and you get embarrassed/ And I got nothing to do but make you look stupid as parents/ You fucking do-gooders, too bad you couldn’t do good at marriage.” Drugs in suburbia, the breakdown of traditional marriage: this was culture war rhetoric, directed squarely at the leading culture warriors themselves.
Concern for the nation’s moral health made sense in the 1990s, I would argue, because the threats from outside were apparently minimal. The nation was not engaged in large-scale military conflicts—a reality most of our students cannot remember and perhaps can scarcely imagine. That all changed, of course. On September 13, 2001, Jerry Falwell kept his finger pointed at American society—“the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them, who tried to secularize America.” It was familiar, standard rhetoric. But what had sounded so true to so many Americans suddenly was offensive. It was offensive because it no longer made sense. Maybe moral decline in America, perpetuated by progressives and pop music, could be blamed for some school shootings, but not the 9/11 attacks. The conceptual framework that made that idea intelligible had broken. And that moment, in the history of American religion and culture, was when the 1990s ended.