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The 60's and the Decline of the Christian West

It's not possible to understand the 90's apart from the 60's. And it's not possible to understand the 60's without considering them as the time when America — and with her, the West — changed her religion. The times, they sure were a-changin'.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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It's not possible to understand the 90's apart from the 60's. And it's not possible to understand the 60's without considering them as the time when America — and with her, the West — changed her religion. The times, they sure were a-changin'.

Conversion to another religion commonly occurs in two distinct phases. Phase One is internal and involves two elements: a dissatisfaction (vague or otherwise) with the old religion and a gripping of the heart and mind by a new one. Phase Two is the outward adoption of the new, its creeds, rites and ceremonies, followed by their establishment as the standards regulating behavior in the Public Square.

Phase one is always where the real battle takes place. The rest is simply formality.

It is said that today we are deep in a Culture War. But culture is nothing other than religion externalized and made explicit. What we are experiencing today is not a war of cultures, but the formal adoption, the outworking of a different religion, a religion that had long ago won the hearts and minds of a people. The real battle — the battle for the soul of Western Civilization, the battle between Christianity and evolutionary, egalitarian Humanism — was over and won in the 60's. The rest is merely formality: implementation and clean-up.

That is what we are experiencing today as we approach the third Christian millennium. Any attempt to deal with the moral morass surrounding us while neglecting its religious character is vain. For behind all cultural institutions, before all cultural expressions, underneath all laws, mores and practices, there is religious faith. We must not be fooled by modern secularism's claim to religious neutrality. It is anything but that.

The 60's were the time when the West began its formal conversion from Christianity to Humanism. The old was forsaken, the new embraced. Every institution (family, church, state and school) was despised for whatever Christian character it manifested. Every authority (parent, pastor, policeman and professor) was challenged. Every convention and taboo was flouted.

The status quo was caught completely off-guard: the war was being waged by their own children, and the "powers that were" did not know what to do or how to respond. Though there was some violence, it was a relatively unbloody coup, yet successful beyond the experience, or even the expectations, of their spiritual forebears who fought for the same cause in France more than 200 years before. The Revolution was won by the children of the 60's who could rightly say, "We are the people our parents warned us against."

Of course, the 60's didn't just happen. Phase One had been in process for a solid century. While space (I trust the reader understands) forbids anything like an extensive analysis of the whole, or even the parts, several contributing factors can at least be identified.

The First Component
The first component of the new religion to achieve success in the West was egalitarianism. What Van Prinsterer so well called "The Revolutionary Principle" had, despite the warnings of Dutch and American Christian thinkers, displaced the Bible as the standard for determining right and wrong in social policy. Moses was out, Robespierre in.

In America, this change occurred under the banner of abolition. Though the Bible countenances some forms of slavery in some circumstances, it was held that all slavery is essentially and always (not merely undesirable but) immoral, if not inhuman. The trend of this sort of argumentation was clear to some. They warned that if the Bible's teaching on slavery can be ignored, or, worse, if it can be made to appear intrinsically unrighteous in itself, then the Bible would become functionally impotent in determining social policy. If a well-exegeted appeal to Scripture could be silenced on the question of slavery by a flimsy appeal to man's supposedly enlightened sense of fairness, why should we not expect man's idea of fairness to overrule Scripture whenever another conflict appeared?

Thus, before the triumphant abolitionists even had time to relish their victory, women's suffrage emerged and employed the same tactic. If the Bible's teaching on male/female relations could not be interpreted down into the service of egalitarianism, well, then we will just have to dismiss its ethical teachings on the question altogether. Man's sense of fairness must be right. And it was thus that what Van Prinsterer feared came to pass. He had written, "What we oppose is the Revolution — the systematic overturning of ideas whereby state and society, justice and truth are founded on human opinion and arbitrariness instead of on God's ordinances."

The Second Component
Joining, aiding and abetting egalitarianism was the second component: Evolutionism. Bavinck perhaps more clearly than anyone saw where evolution would lead. In a startlingly prescient article published in 1901, Bavinck wrote, "Unless we are mistaken in our interpretation of the signs of the times, the 20th century upon which we have just entered is to witness a gigantic conflict of spirits — [for] man has undertaken the gigantic effort of interpreting the whole world and all things that are therein in their origin, essence and end by what is called purely and strictly scientific methods, that is, without God, i.e., without any invisible, supernatural spiritual element and simply alone from the pure data of matter and force."

Bavinck knew that compromise with evolutionists was a fatal strategy. "All conservatism stands weak over against radicalism, with which it agrees in principle. He who fully accepts the theory of development in the sensual observable world cannot dismiss at once and without explanation when spiritual phenomena appear. Even though provisionally a small domain is then set aside for faith, this domain is bound to become ever smaller. One fortification after another must be sacrificed, one line of defense after another be abandoned, and one concession after another be granted."

In other words, if men may interpret any "data" with a blind eye to Scripture, trusting their own, unaided "wisdom," they will seek to interpret all data in the same way, including religious data. The soul would be treated as just another department of science. Religion would be treated either as a psychological/sociological phenomenon, as per Freud and William James, et al., or a chemical phenomenon, as per Nobel Laureate Francis Crick and Carl Sagan, et al. If evolution (or, as Bavinck called it, "development") is true, then the only truth, or at least the only knowable truth, is man's truth.

The Third Component
With the Bible's being ruled irrelevant to civic ethics, then irrelevant to truth, per se, it was only left for the church to make it irrelevant in the church — which it did. The third component, the capitulation to egalitarianism and evolutionism by the Western church, was swift and pathetic, though, thank God, not entire. Nevertheless, the church was badly wounded, and hardly able to fend off the invasion of the Higher Critical method. The result was the wholesale abandonment of historic orthodoxy in favor of religion baptized at the font of egalitarian, evolutionary Humanism. Creeds were kept in form but emptied of their content. As Machen pointed out, all was retained, but all was denied, because it was retained merely as useful and not as true.

The Fourth Component
So strong were our Christian roots that they could not be utterly, self-consciously abandoned. But they were now so weakened as to be of use only in slowing the tide, not of turning it. By the end of World War II, the Christianity of our founding was a mere memory. The fourth component, the state, was now quite comfortable in its new role as Messiah. By the 50's it was firmly established as that to which men should look for salvation. Its usurpation of rights which once belonged sovereignly to families would proceed apace, challenges now being offered only in particulars, no longer in principle. The state would become the largest land-owner, the largest employer, the distributor of welfare, and the guardian of children, as well as their educator.

The Fifth Component
With the fifth component, the traditional Christian family, cracking under the pressures, parents felt incompetent to raise children. One wonders how mothers and fathers ever managed! But not to worry. Along comes Dr. Benjamin Spock (of Dutch descent; his family name was originally spelled Spaak), who in 1946 would write a book, Baby and Child Care, that would have a profound influence on America and the world. With the Holy Bible now deemed incompetent in civic ethics, a hindrance in the knowledge enterprise itself, of merely memorial value in the church, and a competitor to the claims of sovereignty by the state, it was left only to make it irrelevant to the family. And that Spock's book, intentionally or unintentionally, did.

Spock's book was, according to the Associated Press, "the how-to guide for bringing up the baby boom generation." Spock himself was branded "the father of permissiveness." Indeed, in a 1974 interview he said he believed he had gone too far in championing permissive parenthood. But it was too late. While his book would have been ignored in a generation with strong Biblical convictions, it appeared as an example of the wrong medicine at precisely the wrong time. What has often been called The Parents' Bible, Baby and Child Care would become the biggest selling book in United States history after the Bible — 50 million copies sold.

Beyond Reason
By the 60's, then, everything was in place for a social revolution, a formal change of religion. Revolutions feed off the sins of those they are revolting against, and the war in Vietnam, coupled with anachronistic forms of racism, provided just the right "sins" to serve as a rallying point for the revolutionaries. America didn't know what hit it.

An indulged generation of teens, starved in churches and spoon-fed by atheistic socialists at schools and colleges across the land, rose up in self-righteous revolt against "The System." Never mind what they'd put in the system's place, the 60's generation knew far less of what they were for than what they were against: and they were rarely articulate about even that.

Raised during a Cold War in which the daily schedule might include a bombing drill, and recognizing that nuclear war was an ever-present, history-ending possibility, they had little faith in the future. Besides this, they were the first "television generation." As such they were conditioned to respond more readily to sense-impression than to reason.

All in all, it was not a ripe environment for rational discussion of anything, let alone Bible-based ethics. Any and all ideas were welcomed, so long as they induced nausea in their parents. The beatniks of the 50's were stuffed shirts compared to the "it's your thing, do what you wanna do" hippies of the 60's. Every convention, if for no other reason than that it was a convention, was subject to overthrow. Drug-taking and orgies were punctuated by riots in the streets and sit-ins and takeovers of administration buildings at universities.

Ironically, in all this the solution to every problem was thought to be the civil magistrate, the government. Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" was the beginning of what would become the stock proposed solution to every human ill: a new federal program. The federal government, perceived as the enemy, postured itself as the Savior and promised to legislate away all our troubles. It has only compounded them. William Jefferson Clinton is the ethic of the 60's now seated in the White House.

We have taken a long look at the preconditions which contributed to making the 60's the time of our national conversion, Phase Two, from Christianity to Humanism. But no consideration of this period would be complete without a word about the one element which both solidified and spread the revolution: the music.

Sympathy for the Devil
The lyrics of folk songs, then the lyrics and music of rock songs, functioned both as the mosquito to spread the virus and as the catechism which accomplished indoctrination. While adults would wring their hands helplessly, impotently (and often unintelligently) complaining about the music, the kids, with their parents' funding, created an industry, a priesthood, to serve the new religion. Children would know the lyrics to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of songs, word perfect. And the message of both music and lyrics powerfully reinforced the hedonistic ideology of the new faith.

While rock music has since become so diverse in style, form and content as to be immune to glib and formulaic criticism, the fact remains that without it, the spirit of the 60's would have died of starvation. Instead, it grew and has grown stronger and continues to work itself into all areas of life, as every religion seeks to do.

From the adolescent silliness of bubble-gum music, to the dark messianism of the Doors; from the guru-endorsing ditties of the Beatles to the "Street Fighting Man" of the Rolling Stones; from the ghetto-romanticization of Motown to the artful protests of Dylan's "Masters of War," the 60's was a generation nursed on rock music — and never weaned.

Dylan was not only poetic, he was prolific (in 1998, more than thirty years after his emergence, he won a Grammy for Best Record of the Year); it might be fair to think of him as a spokesman for that generation, the best and worst of it. His "Blowin'in the Wind" asked, "How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?" This was representative of an ilk which sought the high moral ground, suggesting that "the system" was in favor of war and poverty and hatred and oppression, whereas the new generation was all goodness and kindness and light.

It wasn't. Dylan made clear in many songs that the new brand of tolerance had strict limits: "Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don't criticize what you can't understand, your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agin'; please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand, for the times they are a-changin'." Senators and congressman were warned, "He who gets hurt will be he who has stalled; the battle outside ragin'will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls, for the times they are a-changin'."

Many were more direct: The Doors boasted about the power of the boomer-generation and the threat they posed to older people: "Five to one, baby, one in five, no one here gets out alive; you get yours, baby, I'll get mine; gonna make it, baby, if we try. The old get old but the young get stronger; may take a week and it may take longer; they got the guns but we got the numbers, gonna win, yeah, we're takin'over!"

The Rolling Stones, another group with staying power (they recently completed a tour called Bridges to Babylon which raked in scores of millions), made it big with their Chuck Berry-tinged blues sound wedded to a bad-boy image. While the Beatles were singing about birds on a hill, the Stones were demanding "Let's Spend the Night Together." The Beatles would also descend occasionally, breaking their own mold of mostly silly love songs. "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?," one song crassly asks. But the Stones were the undisputed ruffians, even becoming apologists for Satan.

They titled one album, "His Satanic Majesty's Request." Their album "Beggar's Banquet" had a hit song entitled, "Sympathy for the Devil," which remains one of the most insightful songs ever penned about Beelzebub, though written from the wrong side. Penned in the first person for Satan, the song reveals a knowledge of the Devil's ways that is far more comprehensive than that entertained even by many Charismatic Christians. It sees Satan's hand in the bigger scheme of things, historically and culturally. "I've been around for a long-long year, stole many a man's soul and faith. I was 'round when Jesus Christ had His moment of doubt and pain; 'made damn sure that Pilate washed hands, and sealed His fate."

Of course, Satan neglects to mention that it was his own doom that was sealed in Christ's crucifixion, but that's to be expected. The last stanza of "Sympathy" contains an apt description of the ethical inversion that he advocates, calling good evil and evil good: "Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners Saints, As heads is tails just call me Lucifer, 'Cause I'm in need of some restraint. So if you meet me have some courtesy, have some sympathy and some taste. Use all your well-learned politesse or I'll lay your soul to waste 'um, yeah."

It is one thing to have sin and sinners existing within a culture. It is quite another to celebrate sin and sinners in song, as the heroes and distinguished personae of a culture. Yet that is how far-reaching was the change wrought in the 60's. The very things compassionate Christians would have worked hard to eliminate from the ghetto were, instead, released upon the culture-at-large and embraced: sexual profligacy, drugs, poor language skills, poor work ethic, dependence upon government redistributions, and self-pity.

When the Music's Over
The embrace of anti-Christianity was complete in principle when its agenda was celebrated repeatedly in all the Billboard 100. It was then left only to work out the details (like feminism, abortion, homosexual "rights," the abolition of standards, and the marginalization of Christians from the Public Square). The saying, variously ascribed, about the power of song, is true: "Let me make the ballads of a people, and I care not who makes their laws." Dabney quotes a Dr. Nettleton as saying that he could cause a company of people to "sing themselves into the doctrines of the gospel more easily than he could preach them into it." The same holds true regarding the doctrines of demons.

A New Revolution
The answer to the problem of containing, and ultimately overthrowing, this new religion of the West, however, will be found neither in the adoption of its methods (as most evangelical and many Reformed churches have done), nor in applying the paint of criticism with too broad a brush, nor in painting ourselves into a monastery; nor will it serve our interests under Christ simply to ignore it. Rather, we need to recover the truth found in Phase One of religious conversion: working our way into the hearts and minds of our contemporaries. And as we do so, we must do so as those who have gone back on a misguided trip to the previous wrong turns, being sure not to repeat them.

This means recovering the joy of having in our possession the very oracles of God, the only and sufficient rule for faith and life. It means we must never apologize for anything God has said, whether it be about slavery, or male/female roles, or origins, or the role of the state, or the functions of the family.

But it means more: It means that we must not only believe the word of God, we must also live it: in fruitful homes, in loving churches and in Christian communities.

Even in the face of the defection that was the 60's, we entertain no pessimism, no defeatism. Au contraire! The religion which has gripped the West for the last 40 years, being opposed to the prescribed religion of the King of kings and Lord of lords, will inevitably crumble under the just judgment of God (Ps. 2). There is no truth repeated more frequently or emphatically in the Scriptures than this: "When the wicked spring up as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish, it is that they shall be destroyed for ever. [But] the righteous shall flourish" (Ps. 92:7, 12).

Jim Morrison of the Doors knew the war he was engaged in. He knew the movement he helped lead was headed for death (he died in his 20's). And thus he sang about the time "When the Music's Over." That day is coming for all who exalt themselves above the knowledge of God. But to those who humble themselves under this word, a different day cometh, a Day of never-ending song, a song of victory.

To this end it behooves us to be true sons of Issachar, men who understand the times and know what Israel ought to do (1 Chr. 12:32), so that rather than having the times change us, we'll see the New Israel change the times — by the power of the gospel. Amen.

(It shouldn't be necessary to add, but I fear I must, that there is no implication here that I would countenance race-based slavery at all or that I am advocating a return to slavery, per se. On the contrary, I would see all men free. But freedom has conditions and those who would be free must abide by them. Freedom must be understood as being more than a slogan. It is this writer's opinion that there are more slaves in the United States today than there were before 1865; it's just that now there are slaves to a new master, the welfare state. It is one of the tasks of the church to prepare all men for freedom through the Gospel.)

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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