RELIGIOUS AMERICANISM

Winds of war began blowing during the Depression. The Japanese extended their influence onto the Asian continent while the Germans and Italians started their aggression in Europe and North Africa. Americans polarized. Isolationists wanted to stay out of foreign conflicts, others wanted to aid the Allies.

Japan assured America's entry into World War II with its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941. President Roosevelt categorized the attack as "a day that will live in infamy." Germany declared war on the United States as soon as the United States declared war on Japan. When deployment began few objected. The churches fell into line reflecting popular sentiment for the war effort.

Americans entered World War II without the "carnival atmosphere" of World War I. Belts tightened and everyone faced war with a resolve to end it as soon as possible. Pietism and patriotism joined forces as "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" became a popular song and attitude.

This page measures the nation's faith after World War II. When the war ended the world found itself in the atomic age. What happened?

I. The nation after the war

After the war, America displayed a conservative mood and it remained so for 15 years. Church membership rose dramatically. Consider the following statistics:

1800 - 15% 1950 - 55%
1900 - 36% 1956 - 62%
1920 - 43% 1960 - 69%
1940 - 49% 1972 - 70%/40% attended

Most considered church attendance appropriate--even intellectuals.

Billy Graham best characterizes the conservative religious mood. During the war, Graham studied at Florida Bible Institute. He then went to Wheaton College for a master's degree before beginning his ministry. As the war continued, Graham worked with Youth for Christ, an organization that provided counseling and religious services for military personnel. When the war ended, Youth for Christ geared up to work with youth on high school campuses. Graham worked for Youth for Christ full time from 1945-1949. He held successful revivals on high school campuses and he determined similar methods would work with adults.

Graham began his full time evangelistic efforts in Baltimore in 1949. The Baltimore auditorium seated 2,800 but it was never filled during the meeting. He scheduled a second meeting in Los Angeles where he set up a tent seating 6,000 near the downtown area. A fair crowd came the first night but attendances dropped every night. Midway through the third week Graham considered closing the meeting down.

Unknown to Graham, William Randolph Hearst, owner of the giant Hearst newspaper chain, and Henry Luce, who once owned Time magazine, noticed announcements of the Los Angeles meeting which Graham placed in their publications. Graham's Youth for Christ work had impressed both men so they decided to send reporters to cover the meeting. The Los Angeles papers had carried articles about the meeting but the Hearst and Time reporters convinced them something big was about to happen. The revival made front pages throughout the city. The next night crowds filled Graham's tent and he extended the meeting another three weeks.

In 1957, Graham went to New York. Copying Billy Sunday's organizational techniques, but preaching like D.L. Moody, Graham had his most significant meeting. The New York revival lasted three and a half months and counted 56,000 public decisions with television decisions estimated at 60,000. Huge crowds gathered in Times Square to hear Graham and at least 100,000 came to Yankee Stadium each night for the services

Graham peppered his sermons with, "The Bible says. . . ." His simple Bible messages appealed to "generic" Christians. He avoided controversial doctrinal issues preaching a message of sin and salvation. Movie stars, sports figures and underworld figures who professed conversion added to Graham's fame. Mickey Spillane, the author of Mike Hammer mysteries, professed salvation at the Los Angeles crusade. Spillane's racy writing remained unchanged by his conversion and later Spillane joined the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Graham still preaches but his crusades are not nearly as popular. The Graham organization led in establishing the conservative journal, Christianity Today, and produces Christian films.

II. The secularizing of religion

In spite of increasing church membership secular attitudes and values gripped America. Most Americans conformed outwardly to traditional American values, inwardly they were pushed aside. You can see this in several ways.

Norman Vincent Peale's ministry illustrates the growth of empty Christianity. Peale kicked off the whole self-help and positive thinking kick in 1948 when he wrote Guide to Positive Thinking. The book became a best seller. Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and Billy Graham wrote similar books to cash in on the craze. All three writers emphasized "faith in faith."

Following Peale, Sheen and Graham came Dale Carnegie. You can see his self-help approach in How to Win Friends and Influence People. The self-help/positive thinking fad ties religion to the old American values of success, individualism, industry and self-reliance. Peale's second book, The Power of Positive Thinking, continued the fad. None have any genuine theological value. Robert Schuller continues Peale's approach at Los Angeles' Garden Grove Community Church.

John Sutherlin Bonnell secularized religion in 1956 with his tremendously successful "Dial a Prayer" idea. Religious themes permeated American society at all levels. Popular music included such hits as "He" and "Have You Talked to the Man Upstairs." Moviescreen Magazine published a series of articles on how movie stars "found their faith." It was a deep faith, too. Buxom Jane Russell once said, "God is a living doll!" How profound!

In 1952, Dwight David Eisenhower ran for the presidency against Adali E. Stevenson. Ike, the war, hero received America's adulation and her vote. Ike represented solid American values. Every American war until Korea produced at least one president. Up to 1960, all American presidents served their stint in the Army.  After winning the election, Ike's critics labeled him a "do nothing" president. That's probably true, but he was the best man for the time. Eisenhower reflected America's prevailing religious attitudes. He once said America had to be built on faith--any faith! He did not mean a commitment to biblical faith but a commitment to democracy's moral values. After World War II, Ike had said he was intensely religious. He said, "No man goes through six years of war without faith." Eisenhower did not belong to any church. His faith rested in democracy, in the American way!

After World War II, America and the Soviet Union entered a cold war. Russia's communistic system challenged the American free enterprise capitalistic system. Christianity said "man has worth and value," communism stressed the priority of the state over the individual. Eisenhower said democracy cannot exist without a religious base so it is essential to be "Christian." Americans elected Ike partly because he recognized the value of a commitment to "religious humanism." Religion and Americanism became inexorably linked. Americans believed you couldn't be a good American without being religious. During Eisenhower's presidency we added the phrase, "under God," to the Pledge of Allegiance. American coins have carried the phrase, "In God We Trust," since 1865 but it was not the nation's motto until 1956.

Other significant events which occurred after World War II include the formation of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. What does it mean to be unamerican? No one knew. The ambiguity led to Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts and conservative American preachers preached strong anticommunist messages. In 1947 the Supreme Court ruled that Bible classes in public schools might be a violation of the first amendment. In 1962 the court ruled public schools could not write a prayer and force students to recite it.

Something else happened after the war. In 1946, America began a baby boom that did not end until 1964. Called by some, a pig in a python because of its bulge on a graph, the baby boom added 75,000,000 to our population.(1) The bulk of the Baby Boomers reached college during the 1960s. Os Guinness and other Christian observers note a shift in American culture in the 1960s. Several factors shaped this generation:

1. During the fifteen years from 1940-1955 American personal income soared 293%. Their parents had suffered through the Depression and World War II and they wanted their children to enjoy their plenty. The standard of living rose accordingly and most American young people grew accustomed to the amenities and luxuries of life. Baby Boomers, themselves, became a major market force.

2. The Baby Boomers became the best educated generation in American history. In fact, they had the best schools money could buy. Education became the nation's secular religion. In 1950, the United States had spent $6.6 billion on our elementary and secondary schools. A decade later the total rose to $18.6 billion. In 1958 alone, the U.S. built 62,000 new classrooms at an average of $40,000 each.(2)

3. The Baby Boomers were the first generation to be raised with television. Television itself created change. Baby Boomers became used to excellence with messages communicated in "sound bites." Attention spans reduced and the small screen promoted the expectation of smooth transition with little time drag. Programs on TV created unrealistic expectations. "Leave it to Beaver," "Father Knows Best," and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" created absurd ideas about the family. Parents were buffoons, everyone lived in nice homes (a home like June and Ward Cleaver's would cost well over $200,000 today), mothers wore high heels and jewelry to the kitchen and things always worked out for the best--usually in 30 minutes. As Landon Jones put it:

In the new world inhabited by children three or four hours a day--call it Televisionland--there was violence but rarely blood or pain. There was death but never emptiness. People did not work regularly but were rarely hungry or in need. In fact, economic realities were not present at all. There was little unemployment in Televisionland and no food stamps. Fathers were not wage earners but hapless buffoons, outwitted by both their children and their wives. There was desire in Televisionland, but lust and greed were somehow mixed up with cravings for prettier hair and whiter laundry.(3)

In recent years Baby Boomer's discovered their great expectations have fallen down around their ears. Expecting great things from life they have discovered reality. After reacting to their parents' empty conformity to traditional religious values, the Baby Boomer has begun to return to church--but not the churches of their parents. Many look for genuine commitment, spiritual disciplines but only when it has practical application. Therefore, the Baby Boomer hates hypocrisy worse than heresy and honors genuine commitment over lip service even though they often demonstrate an uncertainty of what real commitment means.

This chapter ends where we began. The churches faces its most difficult. . . and potentially most rewarding times. You will face some challenging times for the scholars tell us those following the Baby Boom do not have their desire for excellence. What will you do?

______________

1. Landon Y. Jones, Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation (New York: Ballantyne Books, 1980), p. 39.

2. Ibid., p. 58.

3. Ibid., p. 140-141.

 

                    | Home | Where to Go |

1