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Roberts achieved great success as a revivalist and faith healer—which is to say, he became a central figure in a marginal movement. But his ministry transcended Pentecostalism’s lowly origins. Not content with success as a traveling tent preacher, he built a far-flung empire of evangelical outreach, complete with television and radio programs, magazines, newspaper columns, even comic books. In 1967, as he was being sworn in as president of the university he built from scratch, Roberts knew he had brought his upstart faith into the American mainstream. There to pay their respects were not just government officials but representatives of 120 of the nation’s colleges and universities.
Roberts’ rapid ascent was only one spectacular example of the larger evangelical uprising. Between 1965 and 1975, while mainline denominations were shriveling, membership in the Church of the Nazarene increased by 8 percent. The Southern Baptists grew by 18 percent, and membership in the Seventh-Day Adventists and Assemblies of God leapt by 36 percent and 37 percent, respectively. Newsweek declared 1976 “the year of the evangelical” as Jimmy Carter, who identified himself as one, took the presidency. A Gallup poll that same year asked Americans, “Would you describe yourself as a ‘born-again’ or evangelical Christian?” More than a third said yes.
There is no point in mincing words: The stunning advance of evangelicalism marked a dismal intellectual regress in American religion. A lapse into crude superstition and magical thinking, credulous vulnerability to charlatans, a dangerous weakness for apocalyptic prophecy (see the massive popularity of the best-selling nonfiction book of the ’70s, evangelical Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth), and blatant denial of scientific reality, resurgent conservative Protestantism entailed a widespread surrender of believers’ critical faculties. The celebration of unreason on the left had met its match on the right.
But having beat their intellectual retreat, evangelicals summoned up the fortitude to defend a cultural position that was, to a considerable extent, worth defending. In particular, they upheld values that, after the Sturm und Drang of the ’60s and ’70s subsided, would garner renewed appreciation across the ideological divide: committed family life, personal probity and self-restraint, the work ethic, and unembarrassed American patriotism.
By no means were the evangelicals purely reactionary. Take race relations. Although many of them hailed from the South, the leaders of the evangelical revival dissented from the reigning regional orthodoxies of white supremacy and segregation. For years Billy Graham had waffled on race, but after the Supreme Court rejected school segregation in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, he refused to tolerate segregated seating at his crusades. In his breakthrough 1957 crusade at Madison Square Garden, Graham invited Martin Luther King to join him on the podium, introducing him as one of the leaders of “a great social revolution” afoot. Graham was not alone. The Southern Baptist Convention strongly endorsed Brown and called for peaceful compliance. Pentecostalism, meanwhile, had begun as an integrated movement, led by the son of slaves.
Most important, evangelicalism aligned Christian faith with the Holy Grail of the affluent society: self-realization. Unlike the classic bourgeois Protestantism of the 19th century, whose moral teachings emphasized avoidance of worldly temptation, the revitalized version promised empowerment, joy, and personal fulfillment. A godly life was once understood as grim defiance of sinful urges; now it was the key to untold blessings. “Something good is going to happen to you!” was one of Oral Roberts’ favorite catchphrases.
The New Synthesis
The evangelicals’ therapeutic turn, like that of the counterculture, moved with currents of psychic need sprung loose by mass affluence. Indeed, the two opposing religious revivals overlapped. The Jesus Freaks, or Jesus People, emerged out of the hippie scene in the late ’60s, mixing countercultural style and communalism with evangelical orthodoxy. As the hippie phenomenon faded in the ’70s, many veterans of the Jesus Movement made their way into the larger, socially conservative evangelical revival.
The peculiar career of Arthur Blessitt illustrates evangelicalism’s debt to the cultural left. In the late ’60s, Blessitt hosted a psychedelic nightclub called His Place on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, an establishment whose logo combined a cross and a peace sign. “Like, if you want to get high, you don’t have to drop Acid. Just pray and you go all the way to Heaven,” Blessitt advised in his tract Life’s Greatest Trip. “You don’t have to pop pills to get loaded. Just drop a little Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.” In 1969 Blessitt began his distinctive ministry of carrying a 12-foot-tall cross around the country—and, later, around the world. On one of his countless stops along the way, at an April 1984 meeting in Midland, Texas, he received word that a local oilman, the son of a prominent politician, wanted to see him privately. The businessman told Blessitt that he was not comfortable attending a public meeting but wanted to know Jesus better and learn how to follow him. Blessitt gave his witness and prayed with him. The man, George W. Bush, subsequently converted to evangelical Christianity.
Evangelicals and Aquarians were more alike than they knew. Both sought firsthand spiritual experience; both believed that such experience could set them free and change their lives; both favored emotional intensity over intellectual rigor; both saw their spiritual lives as a refuge from a corrupt and corrupting world. That last point, of course, was subject to radically different interpretations. Aquarians rejected the establishment because of its supposedly suffocating restrictions, while the evangelicals condemned its licentious, decadent anarchy. Between them, they left the social peace of the ’50s in ruins.
That peace deserved to be disturbed. Its cautious, complacent liberalism was ill-suited to coping with the emerging conflicts of mass prosperity. It frustrated the aspirations of blacks, of women, and of the affluent young. It suppressed and distorted economic energies by throttling competition. Its spiritual life tended to the bland and shallow.
But no new, improved social consensus emerged to replace the one that collapsed. Instead, with the culture wars and division between “red” and “blue” America, our ideological categories and allegiances continue to perpetuate the warring half-truths of the great spiritual upheavals of the ’60s. Yet despite this confusion, a new modus vivendi has managed to emerge that contains within tolerable bounds the ideological dissatisfactions of both the countercultural left and the religious right.
As liberal dominance was shaken by successive blows of social and economic turmoil in the 1960s and ’70s, a New Right energized by the evangelical counter-counterculture seized the opening and established conservatism as the country’s most popular political creed by the ’80s. Yet the conservative triumph was steeped in irony. Capitalism’s vigor was restored, and the radical assault on middle-class values was repulsed. But contrary to the hopes of the New Right’s traditionalist partisans, shoring up the institutions of mass affluence did not, and could not, bring back the old cultural certainties.
Instead, a reinvigorated capitalism brought with it a blooming, buzzing economic and cultural ferment that bore scant resemblance to any nostalgic vision of the good old days. This was conservatism’s curious accomplishment: Marching under the banner of old-time religion, it made the world safe for the secular, hedonistic values of Aquarius.
The resulting cultural synthesis that prevails today, this accidental by-product of ideological stalemate, remains nameless. It could be called liberal, in the larger sense of the tradition of individualism and moral egalitarianism that America has always embodied. It could also be called conservative, if that same liberal tradition is understood to be the object of conservation. But the ideologies that pass for liberalism and conservatism today are too weighed down with authoritarian elements for either to lay claim to the real American center. Since American society today is committed to a much wider scope for both economic and cultural competition than was allowed before the ’60s erupted, it makes most sense to call that center libertarian.
Brink Lindsey is vice president for research at the Cato Institute. This article was adapted from The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture (Collins, 2007), by Brink Lindsey. Copyright© 2007 by Brink Lindsey. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.