Mark Oppenheimer. Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. ix + 284 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-10024-2.
Reviewed by Doug Rossinow (Department of History, Metropolitan State University)
Published on H-1960s (June, 2004)
Shaking the Foundations or Painting the Gutters?
In Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, Mark Oppenheimer has written a lively and welcome book that continues to fill in our collective picture of the uncounted changes that "the Sixties" brought to American culture and society. Oppenheimer is interested specifically in the "Nixon years" from 1968 to 1975 (p. 1). He offers chapters recounting internal challenges by members of five different American denominations to the religious establishments with which they identified: that of gay Unitarians; that of Roman Catholics who wanted a relaxed, modernized worship experience; that of Jews who joined havurot, alternative worship and study communities; that of women Episcopalians who pressed for their ordination as priests; and that of Southern Baptists who opposed the Vietnam War. Each chapter is informative. Oppenheimer does a good job of briefly summarizing the relevant earlier histories of these religions in America as a way of establishing the institutional context for these internal struggles. He writes plainly, which is a virtue, although at times a bit colloquially, which is not in a book published by a university press.
Knocking on Heaven's Door forms a kind of counterpart to Spiritual Politics, by Mark Silk, a good book little mentioned today. Silk focused on significant individuals such as the apostle of nonviolent resistance James Lawson and the Episcopalian bishop James Pike, each in his own way a quintessential Sixties figure. Oppenheimer examines instead how individuals and groups virtually unknown to the general public agitated for changed practices and increased tolerance within religious structures, liberal reforms that would accommodate their own desires but that also might alter the meaning and experience of religion for their more conservative fellow believers. In what, looking back today, seems like a rather short amount of time, all these agents of change about whom Oppenheimer writes got what they wanted, with the exception of the liberal Southern Baptists, who found themselves facing a sweeping rightward tide within an already conservative denomination. That story is included in the book for the sake of contrast; while it is worth knowing that the ranks of the Southern Baptists in this era included some young liberal activists, one gets the impression that Oppenheimer is as concerned that the reader not get the false impression that American religion in the period from 1968 to 1975 went completely squishy.
Oppenheimer introduces his book, in part, by defending his focus on long-existing denominations or religions. He needn't apologize for that. This is where most Americans went to meet their spiritual needs in the 1960s, as in other eras. In showing that the "counterculture" (more on this concept below) touched American religion not only on its fringes but at its heart, he does yeoman work in demonstrating the far-reaching impact of the social changes we associate with the 1960s. Oppenheimer does run into trouble when he defines religion, as he appears to feel compelled to do. He defines it in both a positive and a negative sense. "Positively, religion is commitment to a set of beliefs that requires meaningful sacrifice," he writes (p. 15). Negatively, in his view, "we know that an American has picked a religion when we see that she does not have two religions. Or, to put it another way, religion excludes its competitors" (p. 15). Both definitions exclude many Americans who think they are religious. How many of the 90-some-odd percent of Americans who say they believe in God and have some "spiritual" beliefs really are making meaningful sacrifices? I don't know; that would be an endlessly debatable question. But it's nothing to assume, and Oppenheimer makes no effort to show that the people he examines made sacrifices (unless attending worship services of any kind, even if only intermittently, is thought to constitute "meaningful sacrifice").
And what about interfaith families who embrace more than one religion? Ann Landers, I believe, used to tell parents in such families that they simply had to choose one religion; children might be confused otherwise. This position doesn't make any more sense to me when Oppenheimer takes it. He doesn't even give a reason, except to say that Jews, for example, are simply Jews and nothing else because anyone can tell they're Jews by looking at them. Not to pick on him, but that appears to be what he writes. This argument has a couple of problems, and I think this review would seem no friendlier were I to go into them in detail. Thankfully, this awkward discussion is quite separable from the valuable bulk of Oppenheimer's book.
In Oppenheimer's rendition, the counterculture of the '60s era was an agent, in the long and broad view, of liberalization. He is admirably clear in observing the limits, as he sees them, to this liberalization. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Oppenheimer writes, the United States was "in the birthing pains of a new cultural model, more liberal than any that had gone before. The new liberalism was keyed less to liberal politics than to more liberal assumptions about etiquette, clothes, language, music, and sexual mores" (p. 1). This lifestyle liberalism is the context in which he locates the religious changes he describes, such as the phenomenon of the Catholic "folk mass," the ordination of women as Episcopal priests, and the embrace of gays and lesbians as normal, healthy and moral people by the Unitarian Church. Weighing in on an unresolved debate over the counterculture's political status, Oppenheimer writes, "What happened from 1968 to 1975 was less a political shift than a visible assertion of counterculture aesthetics" (p. 6).
Oppenheimer is perhaps most explicit along these lines in his discussion of the Community of Hope, the first Catholic "extraterritorial congregation founded on worship style" (p. 82), which started holding services in 1968 and was granted official parish status by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 1970. The Community grew for a few years until it had several hundred regular worshippers, but it started to shrink in size by 1974 and disappeared by 1989. It held outdoor masses that featured folk-rock music. "This was a counterculture in a strictly religious sense, and religious in a very specific way, aesthetic and musical, not doctrinal," judges Oppenheimer (p. 91). He says that, in the perspective of time, critics like William F. Buckley, Jr., and Garry Wills were wrong to see such worship innovations as radical and destructive of traditional Catholicism. Major changes in the Church that Oppenheimer would have counted as political had they happened (e.g., women's ordination, a relaxation of abortion doctrine) did not occur. "Because Vatican II had given folkies permission, aesthetic changes were almost entirely decoupled from politics," he concludes. "In the Catholic Church, the hierarchy retained its tight, conservative control on what Catholics were supposed to believe, while the iconography of liberalism--the sandals, guitars, and hugging--seized the day, easily" (p. 94). Of course some will say that having the priest face the congregation while saying Mass was itself a political change, altering the power relations between the clergy and the laity. But Oppenheimer will have none of that.
Since he names the ordination of women as a meaningful (potential and unrealized) political change in the context of Catholicism, his narration of the rather easy triumph of feminists within Episcopalianism seems to damage his interpretation of the religious counterculture as nonpolitical. In summarizing this interpretation, Oppenheimer writes, "what was countercultural in the mainline religions was often aesthetic, rather than political or theological. American religions underwent little theological or doctrinal change in the 1960s and 1970s. What changed was the form, not the content, of the religious traditions.... the most important fact was how different the worship service now looked or felt, rather than any new ideas being taught" (p. 27). It is not clear that this evaluation can encompass all of the events he describes. Nonetheless, I admire Oppenheimer's desire to avoid exaggerating the political import of these events, which may be the more common error, at least among university scholars.
Having said this, the way in which Oppenheimer conceives of the counterculture leaves me a little confused. At certain points he discusses activities within the religions he examines as part of the counterculture. When people did countercultural things, there was the counterculture. But elsewhere the counterculture resides outside these religions. According to Oppenheimer, the "mainline religions matter in any discussion of the counterculture because they did, in fact, engage the counterculture" (p. 26). Did the counterculture move into the religions, even colonize them? That might be a serviceable way of thinking about the problem, but Oppenheimer does not state such a view clearly. If that is nonetheless what Oppenheimer thinks, then other questions arise, such as: Exactly what were the method(s) and agent(s) of transmission? Oppenheimer tells the stories of individuals, but without reaching general conclusions about who the counterculture's carriers were, and with what degree of consciousness or intention they sought to spread the counterculture. Indeed, Oppenheimer gives little attention to the question of whether the people about whom he writes considered themselves part of a "counterculture," or whether that is a contemporary historical construct. The reader gets the impression that the counterculture was a kind of aura or disembodied spirit, part of a zeitgeist. At this point in the intellectual development of the history of the 1960s, this is not a very satisfactory way of framing the story.
Oppenheimer approves of Umberto Eco's words on the meaning of counterculture, quoting him thus: "Counter-culture is ... religious reform. It is the heresy of whoever confers a licence [sic] upon himself and prefigures another church.... Counter-culture comes about when those who transform the culture in which they live become critically conscious of what they are doing and elaborate a theory of their deviation from the dominant model, offering a model that is capable of sustaining itself" (p. 19; italics appear in Oppenheimer's book; in the first instance he adds them, in the second they are Eco's). Oppenheimer goes on to say, "In other words, counterculture, entirely typical of political or religious reform, of Marx or Luther, is threatening because it is self-sustaining. The Marxist is more threatening than the draft dodger not because he's more violent (he may not be) or because he's more sincere (he may not be) but because he has an alternative model that can entirely replace capitalist democracy" (p. 20). This is interesting, but it does seem to cut against Oppenheimer's general interpretation of the countercultural changes that he examines. Once again, that interpretation depicts these changes as largely aesthetic or stylistic, and not politically important.
Oppenheimer has written a book worth reading and in the process he has retrieved a piece of the 1960s that was and remains important in the lives of many Americans. "The Sixties" really did happen on Main Street. It takes nothing from that evaluation to say that Oppenheimer does not go very far in connecting his stories to the bigger outlines of what was happening in American society during this era. In recent years, serious books have summarized the changes that have occurred within American religion since the 1960s, but Oppenheimer does not consider them. More generally, the careful limits he places on his topic insure that he does not consider the broader questions that the events he chronicles raise.
What was happening in the 1960s? Two broad social forces or movements converged, and the resulting chemistry, which likely made each of these movements different than it would have been in the absence of the other, produced some of the distinctive qualities we associate with the very phrase "the Sixties."
One of these two major forces was the upwelling of protest and self-assertion by historically subordinate castes such as African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans. This broad insurgency of low-status groups was closely related to economic transformations dating back to the early years of the twentieth century. It was also a result of the political dynamics that ultimately would destabilize the "New Deal order" which had worked simultaneously to give limited political representation to these groups and to help keep them in check. These low-caste uprisings encouraged the demands of American women and of gays and lesbians for equality and respect, although these movements, too, had deep roots.
The other major movement that emerged in the 1960s was the wide-ranging generational assertion of white middle-class youth. Historians and other scholars never have settled on a definition or name for this phenomenon. It had both political and cultural branches, which became known as the "new left" and the "counterculture." The line between these two smaller movements (or, one might say, sub-movements, in terms of my present discussion) was notoriously muddy. The new left and the counterculture influenced one another in myriad ways, individuals moved easily between the two, and those involved in each readily saw a kinship between the two, despite their serious differences. If one defines this broad movement of white youth in generational and racial terms, as I have done here, one might also include the young conservatives in the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), although the "new right" defined itself partly through its rejection of all the other distinctive elements of "the Sixties" as I identify them here.
Many of the women involved in early feminist efforts of the 1960s, and many individuals in the gay liberation movement, were middle- or upper-class, and were fully involved in the white youth movement. But they strove to enhance the moral standing of their demands as women or as gays by repeatedly drawing parallels between their struggles and those of African Americans. The best-known instance of this maneuver remains the "kind of memo" written in 1965 by Casey Hayden and Mary King, two white activists in the civil rights movement, in which they asserted the existence of a "sex-caste system" that oppressed American women as a group. The inclusion of women and gays among the low-caste groups fighting to end their oppression in this period (as opposed to situating them as part of the white youth movement), has never commanded universal assent. But for the purposes of this discussion, I so include them. Since one of the five case studies in Oppenheimer's book concerns feminism and another deals with gay liberation, it is important to locate these movements as accurately as possible within the landscape of 1960s insurgencies.
Each of these two big movements encompassed numerous more specific movements for change. Yet it was typical for activists in any of these efforts to identify not only with that particular effort but also with a bigger "movement" of confederated causes and groups that seemed to share values and goals. This was what people meant when they wrote or thought of "The Movement," with a capital "M." But considerable ambiguity attached to that concept of a "Movement," since there were actually two large movements and many smaller movements with different demographics and different sources. When people in the 1960s referred to the "Movement," sometimes they meant all the movements of people of color, sometimes they meant these movements as well as the feminist and/or the gay movement, sometimes they meant the white middle-class youth movement, sometimes they meant the white movement as well as women's liberation and gay liberation, and sometimes they meant all of the above.
The relations between the two larger movements, white and minority, were complex. Oppenheimer, striking a familiar note, writes that "[a]ll five of the movements we have examined owe a debt to the civil rights movement. They could not have happened without it. The counterculture itself could not have happened without it" (p. 213). He sees the African-American movement as an inspiration both for the substance and the style of the insurgencies he examines. This is a surely correct. But to say that the white movement, or even the part Oppenheimer discusses, "could not have happened without" the precedent of the black movement is not correct, if my sketch of the broad outlines of 1960s-era social protest is sound. The white movement certainly took a different form than it otherwise would have because of the black movement's inspiration. Yet in the absence of the black movement, the white movement would have existed in some form, I believe, because it had different and independent sources.
This is not to say that the two movements shared no common ground. On the contrary, many people both inside and outside the movements perceived them as allied in the pursuit of common goals. Yet even when members of the black and white movements, broadly defined, agreed on a political ideology and an agenda for change, the origins and causes of these movements were distinct. I therefore suggest that we consider the white youth movement of this era as a cultural revitalization movement. Here the history of "the Sixties," as I have posited it, intersects with the history of American religion, with important implications for Oppenheimer's narrative of denominational change.
A quarter-century ago, the historian of religion William G. McLoughlin proposed viewing the white youth movement of the 1960s and 1970s as a revitalization movement. Drawing upon but modifying significantly the ideas of the anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace, McLoughlin christened the white youth movement the "fourth great awakening" in American history, and argued that all evangelical awakenings in the American past were revitalization movements. Seeking to loosen the traditional association of religious awakenings with evangelical Protestantism, McLoughlin imagined an "ideological reorientation" that would feature "a new sense of the mystical unity of all mankind and of the vital power of harmony between man and nature. The godhead will be defined in less dualistic terms, and its power will be understood less in terms of an absolutist, sin-hating, death-dealing 'Almighty Father in Heaven' and more in terms of a life-supporting, nurturing, empathetic, easygoing parental (Motherly as well as Fatherly) image."
Oppenheimer is dismissive of McLoughlin, whom he mentions only once (and then not by name). "The alternative groups we identify with the late 1960s were far smaller than imagined," writes Oppenheimer, "and some historians, easily infatuated with the new and the sexy, have been led badly astray. One great scholar of Baptism wrote a book in the late 1970s in which he indicated that there were substantial numbers of Hell's Angels, Satanists, and witches at large in America" (p. 11). Indeed, it is easy to poke fun at McLoughlin's credulousness and, more important, at his willingness to foretell the complete triumph of the "flower children" within American culture. Yet it is sobering today to consider whether the pervasiveness of therapeutic, feel-good relativism and "New Age" spiritualism, even in supposedly conservative and moralistic denominations, might suggest a partial, secret triumph of the "easygoing" deity that McLoughlin described.
I do not propose embracing all elements in McLoughlin's argument. Nonetheless, it is hard to argue that McLoughlin's definition of awakening-as-revitalization does not fit much of what went on among the nation's white youth in the 1960s era. "In short," he contended, "great awakenings are periods when the cultural system has had to be revitalized in order to overcome jarring disjunctions between norms and experience, old beliefs and new realities, dying patterns and emerging patterns of behavior." One might respond that such "disjunctions" virtually always confront people living in modern, urban (or post-urban) societies. But the claim that the 1960s were a special period in American history rests upon the belief that such changes and challenges were especially acute and explosive at the time.
The basic value of viewing the broad white youth movement as a revitalization movement is twofold. First, this perspective allows us to discern a larger pattern into which we can fit the many different things that were occurring in this period among members of the baby-boom generation (along with some more senior comrades) who were, fundamentally, privileged rather than underprivileged. It is not persuasive to claim these things were happening simultaneously by coincidence. Nor is it persuasive to assert that they were simply reactions to other events, such as the African American movement or the Vietnam War. Of course, white youth responded to these developments. But they only responded as they did because they were primed to do so by independent developments. After all, black protest and foreign wars had occurred prior to the 1960s without exciting much in the way of sympathy (in the first case) or protest (in the second).
Second, seeing the white youth movement as a revitalization movement frees us to recognize the ways in which it actually revitalized aspects of American life or, to put it differently, how in the end it may have revised and strengthened the social and cultural system that many of those involved in this movement wished to end. For example, how many outside the subscription lists of Commentary magazine and National Review will deny that academic life in the United States was significantly revitalized by the "The Movement"? Of course, that intellectual and institutional rejuvenation was the work of both of the large movements or social waves I have described. That suggests that the boundaries of the revitalization movement, if it is a viable concept, transcend the white middle-class youth movement. When waves meet, they overlap and interact with one another in myriad ways, and the work of oceanographers is complicated.
What were the goals of this revitalization movement and how successful was it at achieving them? There are several answers to these questions. One is that "The Movement" failed to achieve its intended goals. Barbara Epstein, for example, asserts that it (for her the white movement) represented a "blocked cultural revolution." Another answer is that it was more conclusive than Epstein would suggest but less revolutionary than she would like. In other words, the ultimate outcome of the cultural turbulence of the 1960s, while modest, may actually have matched the values embodied in the ferment of that era. Perhaps, as Mark Lilla argues, the cultural "revolution" of the 1960s and the "Reagan revolution" of the 1980s were, in fact, two sides of a single coin. In this view, the historic mission of the baby-boom generation was essentially libertarian in that it helped reconcile Americans to economic and social change with a combination of self-deprivation and self-fulfillment. This would undoubtedly make the 1960s look a lot more "conservative" than many admirers of 1960s radicalism would like to think.
Yet perhaps this more conservative picture of the white youth movement places in a different light Oppenheimer's judgment that the changes he charts in American religion during the late 1960s and early 1970s were merely "aesthetic," not political. He contends that these changes were in step with a broader cultural shift afoot in the land. But perhaps that cultural shift was also reflective of the political and social values that were doing their work in a deep and broad way. Oppenheimer is not after fish this big. Nonetheless, his discussion of American religion is a useful point of departure from which to consider the character of the changes during the 1960s that would eventually reshape American society in ways that scholars will no doubt continue to debate for years to come.
. Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics: Religion and American since World War II (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).
. Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Amanda Porterfield, The Transformation of American Religion: The Story of a Late Twentieth-Century Awakening (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (New York: The Free Press, 2003).
. Anthony F. C. Wallace, "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropology 58 (1956): pp. 264-281; William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 214.
. For a general description of contemporary beliefs and practices, see Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion.
. William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 10.
. Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Mark Lilla, "A Tale of Two Reactions," New York Review of Books, 14 May 1998, reprinted in Left Hooks, Right Crosses: A Decade of Political Writing, ed. Christopher Hitchens and Christopher Caldwell (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002), pp. 257-269.
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Doug Rossinow. Review of Oppenheimer, Mark, Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture.
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