Changes in Attitude: the Lost World of the 1950s

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

This article appeared in The Christian Century October 18, 1995, pp. 947-948. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at


The best response to the Religious Right is to acknowledge that it is correct in believing that secularism does not deserve to be our enforced national faith. But a fundamentalist and parochial Christianity is not the answer to our quest for a moral center.

In a study of "the forgotten virtues of community" journalist Alan Ehrenhalt looks at three Chicago-area cornmunities between the 1950s and the 1990s: a Catholic parish in the city, an African-American section of the South Side, and the suburb of Elmhurst. The thesis of his book, The Lost City, is that three major shifts in attitude have t en place since the 1950s. Understanding these changes can help us grasp movements in our culture, especially the rise of the Religious Right and its impact on the politics of 1996.

The first change Ehrenhalt identifies is a new attitude toward choice: choice today is universally considered a good thing; the more choices we have, the better. Second, authority is inherently suspect; we think nobody "should have the right to tell others what to think or how to behave." Third, sin is regarded as a social, not a personal, matter.

In the '50s, Ehrenhalt argues, the number of choices available were limited, and when a choice was made the choice of a spouse or a vocation, for example-people were much more likely to remain loyal to their initial decision. Commitment was a virtue greatly honored, even when the choices made proved to be less than ideal. Manufacturing plants were reluctant to move to new areas for purely economic reasons.

Authority figures were not always loved in the 1950s, says Ehrenhalt, but they were still presumed capable of offering guidance. And, according to Ehrenhalt, who is the editor of Governing magazine, sin was still a viable category which referred to personal wrongdoing, the violation of a biblical code. The Ten Commandments were commandments, not suggestions, and they were frequently posted in public school classrooms.

Ehrenhalt presents one especially startling example of how different the world of the '50s was from that of today. He notes that in Elmhurst in the '50s one organization "stood far above all others as a symbol of fellowship and civic pride-the Jaycees, then known officially as the United States junior Chamber of Commerce ... the nerve center of the new suburban generation."

It was the Jaycees who revived the moribund Elmhurst Fourth of July celebration, with a parade, a fireworks display, a freedom flame pageant, and an Iwo Jima tableau. They held a soapbox derby, and bused children from school to the circus on a Friday afternoon each spring. In December the Jaycees launched a "Put Christ back in Christmas" campaign, crusading against the "Xmas" vulgarization and the creeping secularism it represented. In the winter of 1953, there were "Put Christ back in Christmas" stickers and signs all over Elmhurst -- on postal machines, on bushes, on every tree sold for the holidays anywhere in town. Residents were urged to send only cards that had a religious theme, and merchants were pressured to place biblical scenes in their stores windows. The Boy Scouts were enlisted to distribute 8,000 pamphlets door-to-door, explaining the significance of the crusade.

Religion, specifically the religion that resented the vulgarization of "Xmas," was as much a part of the culture as the soapbox derby and the Fourth of July parade. This was the decade in which the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Eisenhower, who had never been a church member until he decided to run for the presidency (he quickly became a Presbyterian), summed up the religiosity of the period when he said: "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious belief -- and I don't care what it is."

Forty years later, secularity, not religiosity, is the dominant sensibility in public life. Putting Christ back into Christmas may still be a challenge to American churches, but today if anyone were to propose such a task to the Jaycees, they would respond with the bemused disbelief a city council would express if asked to sponsor an Easter sunrise service in city hall. We called it "religion in general" in the 1950s, and though it was merely a pious veneer over the culture, it nevertheless represented a very different sensibility from that of today.

In the past 40 years Americans have come to understand that they are a people of many religions and beliefs. This embrace of pluralism has been led by liberals whose benchmark belief has been tolerance. The American Civil Liberties Union has been in the forefront of fighting for tolerance and has served as the watchdog for signs that the nation's historic and numerically dominant faith-Christianity-is receiving preferential treatment. Not only do the Jaycees no longer push the cause of Christ in Christmas, but the baby Jesus himself has disappeared, along with his manger, from department stores and city property. Christians are still the dominant religious group, but it is no longer considered appropriate to proclaim one's religious faith in public settings. Ethics and morality have been cut off from their religious sources.

The Religious Right represents one response to these various developments. It seeks in some respects to return us to the ethos of the 1950s-an ethos of commitment, respect for authority, and concern for individual sin. It also seeks to restore public displays of religiosity.

The Religious Right arrived on the political scene in concert with the triumphs of political conservatism. The political revolution that brought conservatives to power began in its modern form in 1960, when Barry Goldwater failed is his attempt to gain the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Four years later Goldwater was the nominee, and though he lost the election to Lyndon Johnson, the conservative movement began to assume control of the Republican Party. By 1980 the movement was strong enough to choose a conservative nominee for the president. The term "moderate Republican" has become, except in isolated instances, an oxymoron.

The rise of the Religious Right was fueled by three major Supreme Court decisions which altered traditional patterns of American life. First came Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which outlawed segregation in the public schools; second came the last in a series of cases banning prayer in public schools, Engle v. Vitale (1962); and third was Roe v. Wade (1973), which opened the way for legalized abortion.

In 1964 Jerry Falwell was a Virginia pastor who insisted during the civil rights controversy that religious people should stay out of politics and focus entirely on spiritual matters. But by 1980 Falwell had been converted to political action. He founded the Moral Majority, the precursor of today's Christian Coalition, formed by Pat Robertson. Robertson lost his own bid for the presidency in 1988, but as in the case of Barry Goldwater in 1964, out of that loss came a movement. Today the movement is spear-headed by the Christian Coalition.

The strength of the coalition may be measured in part by the fact that every major Republican presidential candidate wanted to appear at its re cent annual meeting. Neither the Republican presidential nor vice-presidential nomination will be decided without support from the Christian Coalition. The coalition holds the kind of veto power that bigcity mayors, African-American leaders and labor unions hold in the Democratic Party.

One response to this movement rooted in "traditional religious values" would be to dismiss it as a return to the Know-Nothing populism of the 19th century. That would be a mistake. As John Diggins points out in The Lost Soul of American Politics, the public longs to recover a sense that its members live under the guidance of a transcendent moral center, and they want to utilize such a center as an anchor from which they can exercise their democratic freedoms.

Jewish and Christian traditions have shaped who we are as a people. Embracing a narrow specificity, however, is an inappropriate way to celebrate that tradition, and such narrowness is the fundamental flaw in the Religious Right. When the Religious Right speaks of morality, it has a very parochial view in mind, a morality derived from an evangelical Protestant worldview with a heavy emphasis on a literal and at times apocalyptic interpretation of scripture.

The best response to the Religious Right, therefore, is to acknowledge that it is correct in believing that secularism does not deserve to be our enforced national faith. But a fundamentalist and parochial Christianity is not the answer to our quest for a moral center. In seeking for the lost soul in politics we need to respect the passions and commitments of the various religious traditions in this land.