Look Back in Anger: The 1960s and Evangelical Conservatives

Randall Stephens

The rightward turn of voters in the 2010 elections and the traction that conservative candidates have gained has a variety causes. Certainly, a number of Americans are unhappy with health care reform, unemployment, and a president that they feel is far too liberal. But one group, white conservative Christians, is particularly up in arms.

The Pew Research Center reports that "Two of the largest religious groups in the electorate followed the same basic voting patterns in the 2010 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives as they have in prior elections: white Protestants voted overwhelmingly Republican and religiously unaffiliated voters cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Democrats. . . . However, among all white voters who describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians -- a group that includes Catholics and members of other faiths in addition to Protestants -- 78% voted Republican in 2010, compared with 70% in the last midterm election."

At least since the 1960s, many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have felt besieged by new currents in the larger American culture. The upheaval of the swinging sixties shocked and frightened believers. Evangelicals and fundamentalists were horrified by campus riots, the counter culture, and what they saw as the excesses of the liberal political establishment. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Christianity Today, the chief magazine of American evangelicalism, published article after article on the terrors of the Left and the end of Christian civilization. Their world, so it seemed, was crumbling around them. (See Darren Dochuk's From Bible Belt to Sunbelt and Dan Williams recent God's Own Party for excellent insight into these and earlier developments.) The 1970s bestselling work of nonfiction, Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth, wove an evangelical end-times drama out of the explosive issues of the age. (Though Jesus People wore beads and Roman sandals and grew their hair "all long and shaggy," as Merle Haggard put it, they were in step with the apocalyptic temper of the times and drank in the anti-60s brew of the day.)

James Dobson, one of the most influential evangelical leaders of the modern era, described this anti-1960s view bluntly in 2008. Much of the wickedness of modern society, Dobson thundered, could be traced to that era of moral decline. The so-called Summer of Love in 1967 unleashed a whirlwind of hedonism and vice, he said. In his multi-million selling parenting manual, Dare to Discipline (1970), Dobson wrote: "In a day of widespread drug usage, immorality, civil disobedience, vandalism, and violence, we must not depend on hope and luck to fashion the critical attitudes we value in our children. That unstructured technique was applied during the childhood of the generation which is now in college, and the outcome has been quite discouraging. Permissiveness has not just been a failure; it’s been a disaster!"

Long after the bong smoke and tear gas have cleared, conservative American Christians--some in the Tea Party and many more who are happy enough with the Republican Party--continue to register post-60s fears. A number want to reclaim their America from secularists and godless liberals. They fear that an overpowering government wants to curtail their rights to raise their children as they see fit. They worry that their freedom to express their religious beliefs in the public sphere continues to come under attack. In other words, many are uncomfortable with a post-60s pluralism that has reshaped the nation and with a secular notion of the public good.

Such concerns are not lost on savvy politicians. Christine O'Donnell, Sarah Palin, Rand Paul, Ken Buck, and a host of others are intimately aware of constituents' fears. When such candidates lash out at secular experts and laud commonsense Christianity, they know perfectly well that they are tapping into a powerful counter ideology, one that has been decades in the making.