John Wilson, American Religious Historians, and the 1960s

John Wilson has a stimulating (if problematic, as I will suggest below) piece on interpreting the 1960s from the standpoint of religious history, or at least incorporating religion into the narrative of the 1960s. His column is in reference to Preston Shires, Hippies of the Religious Right, a book published by Baylor Univ. Press last year

Shires argues that figures such as Bill Bright, Hal Lindsey, and most especially Francis Schaeffer played key roles in connecting the emphasis on authenticity and desire to move beyond a dis-enchanted and sterile technocracy (including a rejection of the modernist establishment in religion) to a newly emerging politicized evangelicalism in the 1970s. The result was that countercultural youth who became Christians “joined the larger evangelical community with their countercultural ideals intact.” The counterculture of the 1960s “appeared as a threat to biblically grounded Christians, but in the end it turned out to be an agent for future success."

(I should add that First Things has an amusingly and tartly written conservative critique of the book by a homeschooling mother who wonders whether the counterculture's influence on contemporary religious institutions is all that positive).

The prose in this book often pained me (my favorite was a reference to Timothy Leary "steeped in acid enlightenment," which made me think of a little Leary-imaged tea bag boiling in some acrid water, with the Moody Blues "Knights in White Satin" playing on the 8-track in the background). Nonetheless, despite my desire to yell "block that metaphor!" on any number of pages, the argument is illuminating and worthy of consideration.

But my point here has less to do with Shires's book than with a sort of academic conspiracy theory that Wilson has peddled in this piece. Wilson writes:

In the master narrative of these histories [of the 1960s], shaped by a peculiarly complacent conception of civil society, what millions of people happened to be doing in churches or synagogues isn't worthy of notice, especially if it contradicts the assumption that the trajectory of the '60s was taking a whole generation away from organized religion. Sure, the slideshow will feature Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but a bunch of Christians speaking in tongues? Please!

What should be done? For starters, we need a new generation of historians--perhaps one with a less personal stake--to look at the '60s with fresh eyes. There are signs that this is starting to happen. In 1998, for example, Columbia University Press published Doug Rossinow's "The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America," which showed how various strands of postwar Christian thought played a part in the formation of the New Left. Mr. Rossinow's account goes much deeper than the familiar images of William Sloane Coffin, et al., at the barricades.

Just this year, Baylor University Press published Preston Shires's "Hippies of the Religious Right," a rather plodding book that doesn't quite live up to its marvelous title but that nevertheless makes a case for its counterintuitive thesis: "Conservative activism"--the trademark of the Religious Right--"was actually a faithful expression of commitment to radical engagement that had been engendered and nurtured by sixties' youth during the counterculture."

It isn't surprising that both Mr. Rossinow and Mr. Shires were writing from the peripheries of High Academe. (At the time his book was published, the former was at Metropolitan State University in the Twin Cities, while the latter is an instructor in history at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Neb.) They were going against entrenched orthodoxies. . . .

This seems to me almost completely wrong on every count. Or rather: I used to read these
kinds of pieces in the mid-1980s, when the points made here had 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 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! In fact, I think it's orthodoxy enough that the next round of books will probably try to resurrect the New Left's reputation, which currently sits in tattered remains, blamed by the right for destroying American values and by the populist left (including Michael Kazin in his book about populism) for becoming obsessed with identity politics and ignoring class politics and the decline of stable working-class jobs and old-fashioned concerns of union politics.

It's true that Rossinow and scores of others remain at the "margins of high academe," but that's not because we bravely go against "entrenched orthodoxies," but rather because there are too many freaking historians for a very few jobs, and historians of all fields and political beliefs generally toil below the radar of the elite. And last time I checked, Harvard and Yale and Chicago and Columbia and Virginia were not exactly exiling religious history scholars to Podunk Polytechnic, as Jon Butler, Catherine Breckus, James Hunter Davidson and a host of others that I can think of suggest. In the meantime, rethinking the relationship of religion to the entire complex of social movements in the 1960s and 1970s should continue to yield dividends -- our blog contributing editor John Turner's forthcoming book on Campus Crusade for Christ will be one of those, as will Darren Dochuk's forthcoming work on religion in the Sunbelt. All this abundance of work recently published or forthcoming should give Wilson cheer.


Howell Williams said…
Very interesting post. Thank you. As an American Religious History graduate student I can say that I have met several colleagues working on the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps we are the generation born in the late 1970s with “less personal stake.” Anecdotally, however, I have run into some resistance from other (older) scholars who think the history is still a bit too “contemporary” (i.e. close to home). But I think that is what makes it fascinating–working with both the living and the dead. With the trend in ethnographic sensibilities in ARH, I think you will see more and more work on the 1960s and 1970s. I will put a plug in for research beyond Jesus freaks or evangelicals. Take American Catholicism, for example. Those of us working on American Catholicism post-VII have not only countercultural and political movements to sort out, but also massive changes in American Catholic life that intersect the New Left and New Right.

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