May 21st, 2008
|12:38 pm - Changes in the nature and perception of religion (especially Christianity)|
Being somewhat older than most people I know, one of the perspectives that I have is a memory of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was a child then, but I also happened to live just outside of Washington DC, so much of the national news happened very near to me. Yesterday, teaotter and I were talking about religion and especially Christianity, I got to thinking and talking about how I and many other people used to see it before the rise of the fundys.
The most important fact about religion in my childhood is that it was inherently freakish and exceptional. I've been told by people my age who lived in the midwest that religion was very much a part of daily life. However, on the East Coast, while many people went to church (or temple for the many Jewish people I knew growing up), it was largely considered to be a social occasion and religion was largely considered to be a social and not a spiritual activity. People who actually believed in god or anything supernatural were considered somewhat odd, as were people who made a big deal about religion. In practice, what religion some practices was considered a fairly minor fact of life, much like what cuisines someone preferred.
The nature of the people who actually did focus on religion was also interesting and very different from today. In the late 60s and early 70s, I can remember two groups. The most publicly visible were the various figures involved in various forms of radical and progressive activity. From Martin Luther King and the various other advocates of freedom to a number of highly progressive Catholic priests who openly and loudly defended everything from anti-war protests to convicts protesting ill-treatment in prisons.
The other major group who focused on religion were the hippie off-shoots known as the "Jesus Freaks". In the popular images of Jesus as someone with long hair and a beard, who threw money-changers out of a temple, these people saw someone who looked and acted like a hippie, and so they embraced Jesus and his ideas.
There were definitely fundys at that time, with the most notable being Billy Graham, but they were widely considered (at least on the East Coast) to appeal only to the very old and people in rural areas, and that "fire and brimstone" fundamentalism was a quaint aberration that would soon fade away.
Growing up as a young technocrat raised on SF novels and TV shows like Doctor Who (with Jon Pertwee as the 3rd Doctor) and Scooby Doo (which was a profoundly anti-supernatural show), Christianity (and organized religion in general made no sense to me, and I assumed that it was something people would have gotten over and outgrown in 50 years, or perhaps less.
In retrospect, the first harbinger of change was the early 1970s demon movies like The Exorcist (released in 1973), where the forces of evil were active and animate threats that could be fought with Christianity. This film and the others like it were drastically at odds with the wonderfully secular mood of the day and the general dismissal of religion (at least on the urban east coast). However, the first time I noticed something changing was in 1978, when I saw the first cryptic bumper stickers proclaiming "I Found It", which a few months later I learned were use by people who claimed to have been "saved", and thus were the first vivid evidence of the growing fundy revival.
I still have no real understanding of why there was such a sudden growth of fear and control based religiosity. On an emotional level, that entire complex of ideas makes absolutely no sense to me. In any case, one of my hopes for what may now be the beginning of the first actual progressive shift in US politics since the 1970s is that it will also be accompanied by a similar decline in control and fear based religiosity. I personally would be more comfortable with all sorts of religion being far less of an important public matter, but I'd accept a return to the late 60s and early 70s vision of religion as a progressive force that was associated with freedom and justice instead of oppression and hatred.
Current Mood: hopeful
There were definitely fundys at that time, with the most notable being Billy Graham,
I don't think of Billy Graham as a fundie. Conservative Christian and an Evengelical, yes, but he didn't go for the Falwell, Robertson, etc. style of preaching hatred and fear of sinners at every turn that I associate with fundamentalism
I wonder how much of the growth of fundie movement (I like your phrase "fear and control based religiosity") is tied a already present fundie base (read accounts of pre-television revivalists camps) finally figuring out how to use television as a medium rather than a more subtle cultural swing?
Edited at 2008-05-21 08:03 pm (UTC)
My grandmother occasionally watched him in the 1970s, and I remember both fire and brimstone fear based religion and biblical literalism in his speeches. At the time, he wasn't focused on political action, but the base messages seemed very similar to current fundy ideas.
Heh, Yes, as an Evangelist there will always be literalism and some bits of fire (it sells).
I think he must have softened between then and when he hit my radar. Admittedly I don't have a huge amount of knowledge other than that he was not hard on homosexuality toward the end of his career, that his later messages were more about love of God and forgiveness, and that he is not entirely egregious to the liberal Christian leaning folk I know ( "Billy Graham has managed to keep his pants up and ego down, making him pretty unique among the televangelist set").
"The most important fact about religion in my childhood is that it was inherently freakish and exceptional. I've been told by people my age who lived in the midwest that religion was very much a part of daily life. However, on the East Coast, while many people went to church (or temple for the many Jewish people I knew growing up), it was largely considered to be a social occasion and religion was largely considered to be a social and not a spiritual activity. People who actually believed in god or anything supernatural were considered somewhat odd, as were people who made a big deal about religion. In practice, what religion some practices was considered a fairly minor fact of life, much like what cuisines someone preferred."
When I first moved to DC, it was a breath of fresh air and a bastion of enlightenment for me, because that point of view you describe is still true here. If you jabber about Jesus in public, people get embarrassed and move far away from you, unless the other person is also a fundy. There is a Baptist church across the street from my building, but the people attending don't "witness" to everybody; they are content to keep the preaching inside their building.
As an ex-fundy myself, I still have minor communication problems with mainline Christians because of this. If someone says, "I'm Christian," I assume that I have to censor everything I say, hide most of myself, and constrict my energy for the Christian's sake. Because I am super-easy to read, the other person wonders why the hell I'm getting so nervous, and I can't explain why without sounding like a bigot or a Satanist. To me, Christian=fundy. I know better intellectually, but I still feel that way. Most of my friends aren't Christian, which only exacerbates the disconnect.
Andy Bacevich tells an interesting part of the story in his book The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War. According to Bacevich, prior to the 1960's, the socially dominant religion within the armed forces was a tepid, WASP-ish Episcopalianism. During the Vietnam War, the mainline Protestant denominations, Episcopalians included, took increasingly strong and public positions against the war. Those in the military -- and in the officer corps in particular -- came to feel increasingly alienated from (and unwelcome in) the mainline denominations. That gave the evangelical denominations like Graham's, which remained virulently anti-Communist and therefore [sic] pro-war, an opening. Within (approximately) a single generation, evangelical Christianity displaced mainline Protestantism as the "official" faith of the armed forces.