The Aquarians and the Evangelicals

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


On April 5, 1967, representatives of the San Francisco Oracle, the Diggers, the Family Dog, the Straight Theater, and other parts of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene held a press conference to announce the formation of the Council for a Summer of Love. The event scored friendly media notices: The next day's San Francisco Chronicle described the coalition as "a group of the good hippies," defined as the ones who "wear quaint and enchanting costumes, hold peaceful rock 'n' roll concerts, and draw pretty pictures (legally) on the sidewalk, their eyes aglow all the time with the poetry of love."

Three days earlier and 1,500 miles away, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a very different counterculture was holding its own coming-out party. About 18,000 people—far more than the 4,000 anticipated—gathered for the formal dedication ceremonies at Oral Roberts University. Oklahoma's governor, a U.S. senator, two members of Congress, and Tulsa's mayor were on hand. Delivering the dedication address, "Why I Believe in Christian Education," was Billy Graham, the dean of American evangelists.

The events in San Francisco and Tulsa that spring revealed an America in the throes of cultural and spiritual upheaval. The postwar liberal consensus had shattered. Vying to take its place were two sides of an enormous false dichotomy, both animated by outbursts of spiritual energy. Those two eruptions of millenarian enthusiasm, the hippies and the evangelical revival, would inspire a left/right division that persists to this day.

That split pits one set of half-truths against another. On the left gathered those who were most alive to the new possibilities created by the unprecedented mass affluence of the postwar years but at the same time were hostile to the social institutions—namely, the market and the middle-class work ethic—that created those possibilities. On the right rallied those who staunchly supported the institutions that created prosperity but who shrank from the social dynamism they were unleashing. One side denounced capitalism but gobbled its fruits; the other cursed the fruits while defending the system that bore them. Both causes were quixotic, and consequently neither fully realized its ambitions. But out of their messy dialectic, the logic of abundance would eventually fashion, if not a reworked consensus, then at least a new modus vivendi.

The Summer of Love
By 1967 the San Francisco Bay Area hippie phenomenon had been incubating for several years. The Beat presence had been strong there from the days of Allen Ginsberg's debut reading of his famous poem "Howl" at the Six Gallery in 1955. And since October 1, 1964, when Jack Weinberg was arrested in Sproul Plaza on trespassing charges—he was soliciting contributions for the Congress of Racial Equality without permission—student unrest had roiled the University of California's Berkeley campus. Romantic rebelliousness was in the air, but now it took a new twist, following the mental corkscrew turns triggered by LSD.

This cultural revolution was a largely underground affair until January 14, 1967, when "A Gathering of the Tribes for the First Human Be-In" grabbed national attention. The event was conceived as a show of unity between hippies and Berkeley radicals, just a few weeks after a glimpse of that union had been seen on the Berkeley campus. At an anti-war mass meeting, a sing-along of "Solidarity Forever" had faltered because too few knew the words. Then someone broke in with the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine," and the whole room joined in.

Held on a brilliant blue-sky Saturday at the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park, the Be-In was kicked off by Gins­berg and fellow Beat poet Gary Snyder. As 20,000 people gradually filled the park, the Diggers, a radical community action group, distributed turkey sandwiches and White Lightning LSD (both donated by the acid magnate Augustus Owsley). All the big San Francisco bands played, while the Hells Angels guarded the P.A. system's generator. Yippie leader Jerry Rubin gave a speech, and drug gurus Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert both made the scene. Leary eventually made his way to the microphone and tried out his new mantra: "Turn on, tune in, drop out."

The Be-In served as a coming-out party for the Love Generation, a term coined by San Francisco Police Chief Thomas Cahill. The organizers of the Summer of Love were reacting to the Be-In's fallout, and in the process they transformed the publicity boomlet into a full-fledged sensation. By the end of the summer, some 50,000 to 75,000 kids had made the trek to San Francisco (with or without flowers in their hair). In the process, the Haight's anarchic innocence was destroyed, as the district was overrun by gawking tourists, crass opportunists, and criminal predators. Its special magic never returned; instead, it dispersed throughout the country, and a thousand sparks began to blaze.

Civil Rights and Psychedelics
The '60s counterculture had its roots in the '50s —specifically, in Beat bohemianism and the larger youth culture of adolescent rebellion. But the Beats never imagined they were the vanguard of a mass movement. "In the wildest hipster, making a mystique of bop, drugs, and the night life, there is no desire to shatter the 'square' society in which he lives, only to elude it," wrote the Beat author John Clellon Holmes.

What begat the transformation from apolitical fringe to passionately engaged mass movement? First, a mass movement requires mass—in this case, a critical mass of critically minded young people. Between 1960 and 1970, the number of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 jumped from 16.2 million to 24.4 million. Meanwhile, as capitalism's ongoing development rendered economic life ever more technologically and organizationally complex, the demand for educated managers and professionals grew. Consequently, among the swelling ranks of college-age young people, the portion who attended college ballooned from 22.3 percent to 35.2 percent during the '60s.

With their wider exposure to history, literature, philosophy, and science, recipients of higher education were more likely to see beyond the confines of their upbringing—to question the values they were raised to accept, to appreciate the virtues of other cultures, to seek out the new and exotic. By triumphing over scarcity, capitalism launched the large-scale pursuit of self-realization. Now, by demanding that more and more people be trained to think for themselves, capitalism ensured that the pursuit would lead in unconventional directions—and that any obstacles on those uncharted paths would face clever and resourceful adversaries. In the culture as in the marketplace, the "creative destruction" of competitive commerce bred subversives to challenge the established order.

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.

By the middle of the 20th century, belief in racial equality was de rigueur for liberals in good standing. Yet notwithstanding liberalism's towering intellectual and political dominance, progress toward full civil rights for blacks was exasperatingly modest. Despite their frustration, most liberals saw no alternative but steady, gradual gains. But patient advocacy by white liberals wasn't what gave the cause of civil rights its irresistible momentum. What made the movement move was the decision by African Americans, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott, to push past liberal nostrums and take matters into their own hands. Moral suasion was not enough; confrontation, nonviolent but deliberately provocative, was needed. And to steel themselves for the struggle, African Americans called on sources of strength more profound than Gunnar Myrdal–style social science empiricism.

Black churches were therefore indispensable to the movement's success, not just because they provided organization and fostered solidarity but because the simple, powerful faith they propounded gave ordinary people the heart to do extraordinary things. Even those who lacked the consolation of literalist faith still found some lifeline beyond reason to cling to.

The resulting defiance was sublime in its absolute audacity. Protesters took the truly radical step of acting as if segregation did not exist—ordering lunch, getting on the bus, signing up to vote as if Jim Crow were already gone. With a movement grounded in such extreme commitment, religiosity was always in the air. Marches, stately and solemn, were redolent of religious ritual; beatings, jailings, water-cannon dousings, tear-gassings, and killings sanctified the movement by providing it with martyrs.

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!

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.

Discuss this article online.