The Aquarians and the Evangelicals

How left-wing hippies and right-wing fundamentalists created a libertarian America.

(Page 2 of 3)

For America’s liberal-minded young, the prophetic grandeur of the civil rights movement was electrifying. Many joined the movement; many more were inspired to take up other causes and make their own stands. “Without the civil rights movement, the beat and Old Left and bohemian enclaves would not have opened into a revived politics,” concluded Todd Gitlin, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society, the premier organization of the student New Left.

While the civil rights movement fired young mindswith the possibilities of prophetic dissent, the emerging drug scene was blowing those minds with visions of mystical experience. Marijuana, which grew in popularity with the spread of the bohemian subculture during the ’50s, served as the chemical gateway. Heightening sensory pleasures and lubricating free-associative thinking, it fit perfectly with the Beat cult of intense experience. Under its influence, consciousness seemed to expand; aggression melted away, and shared wonder and laughter took its place.

Psychedelic drugs, meanwhile, took consciousness expansion to an entirely new level. The phantasmagoric hallucinations they induced frequently led people into the realm of religious experience, and many of the leading lights of psychedelic culture, including Leary and Alpert, interpreted and sold the psychedelic experience that way. (Alpert eventually changed his name to the Hindu-derived Baba Ram Dass.)

Both the civil rights movement and the drug culture were outgrowths of mass affluence. In a society devoted to self-expression and personal fulfillment, African Americans found their second-class status intolerable and latched onto resistance as their path to self-realization. Their efforts succeeded in large part because one product of technological abundance—television—carried their struggle into America’s living rooms. Meanwhile, the newly unrestrained pursuit of happiness led ineluctably to the pursuit of broadened experience, including the experience of altered states of consciousness. What made increasing numbers of young people eager to try drugs, and receptive to their pleasures, was the cultural shift wrought by the triumph over scarcity.

The struggle for civil rights showed that rapid social progress was possible, that entrenched evil could be uprooted, that social reality was more fluid than imagined, and that collective action could change the world. Likewise, pot and psychedelics revealed wildly different visions of reality from the “straight” one everybody took for granted. If our most basic categories of experience could be called into question, so could everything else.

Guided into those transcendent realms, many young and impressionable minds were set aflame with visions of radical change. One assault after another on conventional wisdom and authority gained momentum. Anti-war protesters, feminists, student rebels, environmentalists, and gays all took their turns marching to the solemn strains of “We Shall Overcome”; all portrayed themselves as inheritors of the legacy of Montgomery and Birmingham and Selma. And the scent of marijuana wafted around all their efforts.

The Counter-Counterculture
The quest for wider horizons and the fulfillment of higher needs, so exuberantly pursued during the ’60s, relied on mass affluence, which was achieved and sustained only by a vast mobilization of social energies through an intricate division of labor. There could be no counterculture without capitalism. And capitalism requires discipline, deferred gratification, abstract loyalties, impersonal authority, and the stress of competition. With its hostility to the system that brought it into being, the counterculture created an opening for hostile worldviews that allied themselves with capitalism’s titanic power. Conservative Protestantism took advantage of the opportunity and reclaimed a place on society’s center stage.

The evangelical revival was the unlikeliest of comeback stories. In the middle years of the 19th century, the bourgeois Protestant worldview had enjoyed unquestioned cultural primacy and matchless self-confidence. The ensuing decades, however, hammered America’s old-time religion with setback after setback. Darwin and German higher criticism shook belief in biblical inerrancy; mass immigration filled the country with rival faiths; urbanization bred cesspools of sin and temptation.

Yet the old-time religion did not die. In the South, in small towns and rural areas, among the less educated, the flame still burned. Shaking off their well-earned pessimism, a new generation of conservative religious leaders worked to rebuild dogmatic Protestantism as an active force in American life. Dissociating themselves from the now pejorative term fundamentalist, they called themselves evangelicals. On doctrine, the evangelicals toed the fundamentalist line. In their posture toward the outside world, however, they differed dramatically. Fundamentalists
hunkered down in a defensive crouch, refusing any association with mainline denominations. The new evangelicals were intent on expansion and outreach. Thus, when the National Association of Evangelicals was founded in 1942, it adopted as its motto “cooperation without compromise.”

Evangelicals built up an entire parallel cultural infrastructure—a counterculture by any other name. One landmark was Billy Graham’s 1957 crusade in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Kicking off on May 15 and running through September 2, the campaign attracted more than 2 million attendees, with 55,000 recorded “decisions for Christ.” In June, ABC began televising Graham’s Saturday night services live. Millions tuned in.

Evangelicals retooled their message to appeal to the unconverted, and they constructed a robust network of churches and parachurch institutions where believers could coalesce into a thriving community. Yes, they remained outsiders, looked down upon when not ignored by the nation’s metropolitan elites. Only Graham, with his immense charisma and political skills, was a fully mainstream figure. Nevertheless, evangelicals were now a mass movement on the move. Though scorned by the cultural elite, they had consolidated their position in the nation’s most economically dynamic region, and therefore the fulcrum of political change in the ensuing decades: the Sunbelt.

Conservative proselytizing found a receptive audience as countercultural chaos erupted around the country. Among what became known as the “great silent majority,” including many Americans who considered themselves good liberals during the ’50s, Aquarius and its tumults seemed like an outbreak of mass insanity. How could the most privileged children in history reject everything their parents held dear? The mainline Protestant denominations had thrived as bulwarks of the postwar liberal ascendancy, but they faltered in the face of the Aquarian challenge. The 1964 slogan for the evangelicals’ bête noire, the ecumenical and progressive World Council of Churches, summed up the situation: “The world must set the agenda for the church.” People who believed the world was going to hell thought that slogan had things precisely backward.

For Americans anxious to defend their way of life against cultural upheaval, evangelicalism provided the resources with which to make a stand. It imbued believers with a fighting faith, granting them access to the same kind of energies that animated the romantic rebellion —energies found only in the realms beyond reason. Exuberant worship, regular prayer, and belief in prophecy and present-day miracles were the spiritual fortifications that could stymie the radical onslaught.

Evangelicals vs. Aquarians
The audacious idea of founding a university had come to Oral Roberts in the middle of dinner with a young Pat Robertson. Roberts began scribbling on a napkin—not his own words, he believed, but words straight from God. “Raise up your students to hear My voice, to go where My light is dim,” his inner voice instructed, “where My voice is small and My healing power is not known. To go even to the uttermost bounds of the earth.”

In 1947 Roberts, who believed he had been healed of youthful tuberculosis directly by God via a faith healer, was a minister with his own little Pentecostal Holiness church in Enid, Oklahoma. He felt frustrated and trapped as a dirt-poor, small-town preacher with a pleasant but complacent congregation. One harried morning he picked up his copy of the Good Book, and his eyes fell on III John 1:2: “I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” It changed in an instant his whole understanding of God. God is good, Roberts now saw: God wants us to be healthy; God wants us to succeed; God wants us to be rich!

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  • So the tinder was there||

    So the tinder was there. But what sparks would set it ablaze? The primary catalysts were an odd couple: the civil rights struggle and the psychedelic drug scene. Both inducted their participants into what can fairly be called religious experience.


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