The Way We Weren’t
Churches in the Fifties Were Filled, But Were They Faithful?
by William Murchison
Watching, a little idly, some recent televised reenactment of the Exodus story, I had a recurrent thought: Wasn’t it nice when Americans, by and large, to one degree or another, acknowledged Great Moments in Theological History—the parting of the Red Sea, Samson and Delilah, hungry lions versus stalwart Christians—and shelled out to see the cinematic reenactments of these moments? Wasn’t it nice? Although . . .
Although what? That’s the point. If you have the impression that the 1950s constituted some kind of last frontier of religious conviction and inspiration in the United States, you might wish to reexamine that impression with dispatch.
A Place to Mourn
I say this out of concern for intellectual clarity in the way American Christians address concerns unimaginable not many years ago: Christian moral standards viewed as impositions on personal expression; choice in abortion as the law of the land, with support growing for medical research on living embryos; once-sturdy churches shredded by assertions of a right to practice homosexuality; growing illiteracy among Christians as to the basics of their own faith; a mounting perception that religion is the source more of ignorance and persecution than of perfection in the purposes of Almighty God.
Doesn’t it make you want to close your eyes and relive the era when prayer at school was a human right, as well as a duty, and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, with wondrous clarity, and on television yet, set forth the case for Christianity? I understand the temptation to look back on pre-Madalyn Murray O’Hair America as a place we do well to mourn, the chances for emulation having all but vanished.
A lot was good back then. Writing of a recent civil libertarian furor in Texas, concerning the Legislature’s doubtless futile attempt to protect “a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint,” I mentioned how things were done in ye olden times. For instance, prior to football kickoffs, our state’s high schools not only allowed but actually sponsored invocations of divine grace, conveyed by loudspeaker.
I mentioned likewise the pre-school devotionals held weekly in our high-school auditorium under student council auspices. Gasp! Religion on stage, flanked by Old Glory and the Lone Star flag!
The fifties really were a time when the culture broadly affirmed Christianity as a Good Thing. I was there. I saw it; I heard it.
And yet some kind of demurral is strongly indicated: some sign of recognition that no human society, whatever its good intentions and methods, has lived unburdened, unencumbered by the crushing weight of human fallenness. Good as life may appear to have been in the cities and universities of France and Italy in the thirteenth century, or amid the sweaty fervor of the camp meetings in nineteenth-century America, or among the fierce faith of the emancipators, always human pride and general nuttiness were there to spoil the broth.
The fifties were not the summum bonum. They were an episode—a highly instructive one, I might add, full of dangers as well as satisfactions. We really don’t want to bring them back. We want something better, which is to learn from them.
A Going Religion
“Men ever praise the olden time,” observed Machiavelli in his Discourses, “and find fault with the present.” Or, to cite a more modern authority, Jack Burden, in Robert Penn Warren’s great novel All the King’s Men:
So it was a fine, beautiful time back then? In the religious sense? Hmmm, well . . .
Religion was a going thing, that was for sure. The war was over. Americans wanted something that looked more normal than a carrier deck or a pup tent. Moreover, the war years had in some ways been a praying time: Foxholes were, generally speaking, the last places you’d look for atheists.
The churches had been on hand—heroically, sacrificially. The Four Chaplains had given their life preservers to soldiers on the sinking Dorchester. An elderly Episcopal priest, whom I knew long after the war, had buried, I was later to learn, more than 500 American soldiers during the sanguinary slog from Normandy to the Rhine. The military issued New Testaments to the troops. (I have preserved my father’s copy.) Christianity, and to a proportionately smaller extent, Judaism, emerged from the war looking better than they had since perhaps the first piercing notes of the Jazz Age.
A key element of post-war normalcy was anchorage in a church. By 1960, an astounding 69 percent of Americans claimed membership in one church or another. Here was evangelization—self-evangelization, really—on the grand scale.
Popular culture, being popular, was suffused with religion: anyway a sort of religion, obscuring more than highlighting doctrinal differences. Where the customers led, the entertainment industry followed, with Quo Vadis, The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, and, above all, Cecil B. de Mille’s cheerfully over-the-top The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston as parter of the Red Sea (from which latter film we kids picked up and parodied many a juicy line, including Pharaoh’s economical formula for disciplining Egypt: “So let it be written; so let it be done.”)
Fulton Sheen was anything but alone among religious figures dispensing enlightenment and counsel. It was the age also of the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale’s attractive, and moneymaking, proposition was that “you can think your way to success and happiness.”
Wow! Success and happiness, and all by my little old self! Peale encouraged readers to perform small spiritual exercises, such as affirming, with St. Paul, that “I can do all things through Christ which strenghteneth me.”
Small wonder that this accomplished updater of the gospel was at least as well-known to Americans of the fifties as was the considerably more theological Billy Graham, who voiced greater concern for the soul than for the bank account. Pelagius, the British monk whom the great Augustine had opposed, taught a gospel of self-improvement not incompatible with Dr. Peale’s.
An American Faith
There was unmistakably an element of American-ness in the postwar American embrace of organized religion.
Into a Pledge of Allegiance too flat and secular for some tastes, Congress, in the mid-fifties, slipped the words “under God” by way of affirming the religious commitment everyone assumed we always had had. Charlton Heston as Moses, in the version of The Ten Commandments I saw as a high-school sophomore, could be viewed as defining the Exodus in Cold War terms: deliverance from tyranny by a jealous God with little time for tinpot despots and their minions.
President Eisenhower, the hero of the American people, put the matter with secular acuity: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.” No, indeed—I am embroidering on the thought—so long as the bearers of that faith kept in mind the special providence of God for the United States of America and understood that here, in America, doctrines weren’t things over which you slit throats or used the rack to elongate the occasional heretic.
Surely it was enough, of a Sunday, to put on a blue serge suit and striped necktie, walk the family to the church door, greet the grocer and the lawyer and the electrician, cut loose with “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” bow heads for the Lord’s Prayer, favor the collection plate with a few appropriately sized bills—then head home, or to a good restaurant, for the Sunday repast. I myself spent many a Sunday this way.
It was no bad way to spend a Sunday, I must remark in retrospect. Was it a good way? That might seem the larger question. It certainly was the question for at least some partakers of American worship in the 1950s. Was this all? For this, Christ had suffered and died? That his people might beam at each other from pew to pew and lay plans for the week, not all such plans being strictly religious in nature?
Not unless the whole human condition had changed mysteriously with the overthrow of the Axis powers. A hunger in the human soul called for feeding and care. Certain of the Christian intellects that in the fifties asked serious questions about Christian duties gave evidence of acknowledging what theologians had always acknowledged: the sweeping imperfection of merely human arrangements. For instance (as some Christians asked), was it enough just to sit in church?
It was a good enough question. Yet the answer America gave could not be called wholly unreasonable. Look (the answer went), things never were as good as the Lord would have them, were they? We could always do better: pray more, read the Bible more, try harder to live by the Golden Rule.
Still, weren’t these present times at least pretty good on a scale of one to ten? Moreover, with America facing a godless foe whose baleful intentions toward us could hardly be underestimated, was it not something that half the population of democracy’s stronghold bowed head or knee to the Lord God of Hosts?
I think it dicey, at fifty or sixty years’ remove, to say that either human disposition—criticism or rejection of criticism—was entirely mistaken in its appraisal of modern needs. At any rate the argument between the sides commenced with some force and grew louder and louder, gradually drawing in Christians of every description.
Christianity Without Theology
When the decade began, I was a mere third grader. I remember no ecclesiological questions arising at the Sunday dinner table.
Only later would I become aware of the critics and their supposed effrontery. There was, for instance, the Reverend Theodore Wedel, an Episcopal priest, who, in a 1950 book titled The Christianity of Main Street, argued that “Christianity is today, among a majority of educated men and women, including many nominal Protestant Christians, an almost unknown religion”—combining “Golden Rule idealism” and “moralism”—“a kind of Christianity without theology, one which does not repudiate the name of God but which has basically little to do with him.”
At least a few other Americans shared Wedel’s apprehension. For instance, the Jewish theologian Will Herberg, who found America’s “common religion” to be nothing less than the American way of life, embracing “such seemingly incongruous elements as sanitary plumbing and freedom of opportunity, Coca Cola and an intense faith in education—all felt as moral questions relating to the proper way of life.” It was “a Puritanism without transcendence, without sense of sin or judgment.”
These were generalized assertions. What, for many, crystallized the challenge was civil rights. Midway through the decade, the Supreme Court decreed the end of school segregation by race. There followed the series of events whose contours are too familiar to warrant re-sketching: marches by Negroes (as it was usual then to call the descendants of the African slaves) to procure seats at all-white restaurants and claim their constitutional right to vote.
The mainline churches, assessing the stakes and weighing the theological considerations, saw quickly enough where they needed to stand, namely, on the side of those struggling for freedom and dignity. These might be earthly goods, yet the Lord had marked them long since as the rightful properties of his people.
The civil rights revolution revolutionized the churches (most of them) at the very same time it intensified feelings of restlessness and revolt then abroad in the land. The mainstream churches appropriated accurately enough, and propounded with some eloquence, the teaching that Christ had died not only for white adherents to the Gospel of Peale, but for everyone else as well.
On the other hand—especially with the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who situated the theology
of civil rights in the Old and New Testaments—the cause of liberation spread like a water puddle, taking on new and sometimes surprising shapes. As women first, then homosexuals, clamored for recognition as the next civil rights cause, and as people of all sorts and kinds demanded that their moral overseers (e.g., parents, clergymen) leave them alone to do as they liked, the pounding feet of theologically advanced churchmen could be heard, retreating from obsolete-seeming postulates and positions.
A Dissident Search
Correspondingly, as Douglas Rossinow has written in The Politics of Authenticity, a new “radical humanism,” fed by the existentialism of the German martyr-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, began to take shape “at the conjuncture of historical circumstances amid the synthesis of diverse elements in the political culture of the United States.” A “dissident search for democracy and authenticity” commenced.
At the Christian Faith-and-Life Community in placid Austin, Texas (where I attended college at about the same time), a charismatic minister named Joseph Wesley Mathews “sought to wrench Christianity out of its ancient trappings and recast it in modern language, symbols, myths, and hopes,” with Jesus put forward as “a symbol of openness to risk and extremity.” One can intuit what follows from teaching of this kind.
It was what more sober church people might have expected. The church of the fifties had generally identified itself with civic purposes such as patriotism and moral respectability, along with national recuperation and prosperity. As those purposes began to wear thin, like a good-luck coin fingered too long in the pants pocket, could one doubt that a broad search for new purposes would commence? And not merely at the national or hierarchical level?
A commonplace of human experience is that assumptions, firmly or lightly held, underlie thought and action. What one takes in over and over—e.g., God’s serene attachment to the American way of life—can become an article of faith. That is, until it is wrenched from its central position on the living room mantle, whereupon something else takes its place: the next big, good, true thing, as unconsciously imbibed as chlorine in water.
Are the 1950s in any way a useful model for American Christians of the twenty-first century? Would we like to go back? Would it be better, for instance, if the movie moguls returned to producing religious epics like The Ten Commandments, with their earnest depictions of the power of God? Would the renewal of prayers before football games in any way strengthen the fabric of public life?
In weighing such considerations, we could take a cue from Jack Burden: If all these occasions, these commitments, made for such a fine, beautiful time, what happened? (Not, as we certainly understand, that any one generation ever wields power enough to bind the next generation.) What happened was society’s silent withdrawal of consent from propositions—the sanctity of unborn life, the importance of church attendance, the scandal of illegitimacy, among others—once regarded as self-evident, now seen as irrelevant to the good life.
The epics didn’t go away. The audiences did. When George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told fizzled at the box office in 1965, it became clear that new factors were forming thought—factors that mainstream Christianity might have addressed, or even headed off at the pass, had it listened more attentively to some of the unwelcome criticisms launched earlier against complacency and self-satisfaction.
I think what the decade of the 1950s gives us to think about, concerning the role and duties of religion—the Christian religion, specifically—in a secular society is a matter of some consequence. Two particulars come to mind.
First, Christians who are set on identifying themselves with the purposes of the larger society should be, at the very least—careful. “My kingdom is not of this world,” said our Lord. And a good thing, too, given the world’s engagements and preoccupations.
Would we be inspired and thrilled by a church with the various colorations of Las Vegas—or Washington, D.C.? The world’s conformity to the purposes of God would seem a matter we might gladly leave to God (save that Americans rarely leave anything to anybody else).
Second, complacency regarding the world’s purposes requires no less care and wariness. “Whatever is, is right” may be defective as counsel in a world like ours, infinitely less stable than that of Alexander Pope, but acceptance of “whatever is” is a great fallback position for the lazy and the unconcerned—whose numbers seem to be well distributed throughout society, the church included, and not just at pew level. Not to mention the ambitious, who see “going with the flow” as the way to such fame and fortune as the churches today provide.
If such lessons apply to highly patriotic, cheerfully respectable societies like ours in the fifties, they apply equally to a church fixated on “liberation” as the religious be-all and end-all, on the pursuit of “justice” and the extermination of hunger and the destruction of norms that restrict, ah, self-expression.
If the church of the fifties wasn’t precisely the kingdom of God on earth, even less so, in various ways, is the church that followed it. A church—any church—unduly proud of its position and achievements is a church ripe for remaking in the image of its Sovereign Lord. As to which, the conscientious Christians might say, with Mr. de Mille’s
Pharaoh: “So let it be written. So let it be done.”
William Murchison a syndicated columnist, is author of Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity (Encounter Books).
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“The Way We Weren’t” first appeared in the May 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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