Decline or Revival? Changing Currents in the American Religious Experience

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11 Decline or Revival? Changing Currents in the American Religious Experience

As in so many areas of life, Americans in the 1960s questioned past religious practices and searched for authenticity or genuineness in their spiritual experiences, whether in established faiths or in new religious groups that formed as cults or communes. A cult is a group of people who share the same beliefs but whose beliefs and lifestyle are unlike the majority's beliefs; a commune is a group of people who live together cooperatively, sharing work and expenses. Moderate Protestant churches, long the bedrock of American religion, saw declines in membership, while membership increased in smaller, theologically more conservative Protestant sects, with their more fervent and expressive forms of worship. The other mainstream religions—Catholicism and Judaism—also experienced important changes. The Catholic Church modernized some of its key doctrines and celebrated the election of America's first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63), but at the same time it resisted changing its views regarding human sexuality, which led to a loss of membership. Jewish leaders worried that their religion was weakening as Jews embraced the secular (non-religious) elements of American culture, and they looked for ways to revive a sense of Jewish identity. No matter their religion, many Protestants, Catholics, and Jews filtered their participation in the major social movements of the era—especially the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement—through the lens of their religious perspective.

While shifts in attendance and doctrine within the major established religions probably impacted more Americans, fringe religious issues attracted much public attention and, for many, characterized the religious climate of the 1960s. For example, one of the most notorious figures in the public debate over spirituality was an outspoken atheist, Madalyn Murray O'Hair (1919–1995), who used the publicity she gained from battling against prayer in schools to create the impression of a rising tide of atheism where none really existed. Other minor figures attracted major attention: the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1911–) promoted Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism and was helped along by the highly public support of the Beatles and other celebrities, and the Hare Krishnas seemed far more numerous than they really were because they frequently asked for money in American airports. Along with hippies and their communes, cults and certain individuals who wanted to change mainstream religious practice seemed to define the era, even if they did not.

Questioning the Protestant mainstream

The United States had long prided itself on its religious diversity. Founded as a refuge for those fleeing religious persecution in Europe, the United States had in principle been very tolerant of religious diversity. In practice, however, Protestant churches—especially the mainstream Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches—dominated the religious landscape. Other major world religions—especially Catholicism and Judaism—occupied a position decidedly outside the mainstream. Before World War II (1939–45), members of non-Protestant religions had suffered from de facto segregation: Catholics and Jews often found it difficult to gain public office and were often distrusted by the Protestant majority because of their religious views. But World War II began to change this dynamic. Justly proud of their role as champions of freedom and appalled by the way German Nazis had dehumanized Jews during the Holocaust,

Modern-Day Revivalist: Oral Roberts

America's Protestant churches had a long history of revivalism. As early as the colonial era, mainstream Protestant churches had participated in movements to renew religious faith. The first such movement, peaking in the 1740s, was known as the Great Awakening; in the early 1800s a second Great Awakening earned parts of New York the nickname "The Burned Over District" for the intensity of religious revivals that took place there. Another such revival took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Pentecostal churches such as the Church of God, the Assemblies of God, and the Full Gospel Church. Once criticized for their strange practices—including speaking in tongues and handling serpents—these churches entered the mainstream thanks to a new generation of media-savvy evangelists such as Oral Roberts.

Born in 1918, Oral Roberts became a minister in the Pentecostal Holiness Church, but by 1947 he had left the church to lead an evangelical crusade of his own. Roberts led dramatic services in which he purported to heal the sick, and his tent revivals drew thousands. Soon, Roberts reached even bigger audiences when he began airing a radio program on more than three hundred radio stations. Roberts asked for contributions to his ministry; in return, he sent such trinkets as pieces of "prayer cloth" which he had personally prayed over. By the early 1960s he had a faithful audience of many thousands, and he began to deliver his message on television.

Roberts tempered his message as he reached more viewers—he decreased his emphasis on healing and miracles—and by the mid-1960s he took his Pentecostal followers into the mainstream with him. In 1966 he was invited to the International Conference on Evangelicalism, where he befriended America's best-known evangelist, Billy Graham (1918–). Roberts, Graham, and others used modern media to draw adherents to their conservative Protestant views, revitalizing interest in this religious perspective, especially among poor and working-class Americans.

Roberts went on to create a major evangelical empire that included long-running radio and television programs and, in 1965, the creation of Oral Roberts University, the first accredited Pentecostal university, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 1978 the university added a medical school, where teachings combined standard medical practices with faith healings. Roberts was widely ridiculed in the late 1980s when he announced, on national TV, that God had threatened to "call him home" unless he raised eight million dollars to maintain his ministry. Roberts was saved from this prophecy by followers who came up with the money, but he lost credibility as a result.

Americans began to grow more tolerant of divergent religious viewpoints.

The postwar years saw an upsurge in church attendance across the religious spectrum. In 1960, 50 percent of Americans reported that they regularly attended a church or synagogue, more than at any time in American history. God was instilled in American life in many ways: the words "under God" had been added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and the words "In God We Trust" were added to U.S. currency a year later. Politicians regularly attributed America's successes to God's grace, and the American belief in God was one of the key issues used to differentiate Americans from their enemies in the Cold War, the so-called godless communists of the Soviet Union.

However, despite the reassurances of this widespread unanimity, many Americans were dissatisfied with the quality of their spiritual life. Many felt that the established churches had grown complacent and self-satisfied, and these individuals began to leave their houses of worship in growing numbers. For example, membership in the Episcopalian church dropped 17 percent between 1965 and 1975; in the same period, membership in the United Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ shrank 12 percent, and in the United Methodist Church it diminished 10 percent. Americans were clearly seeking meaningful religious experiences elsewhere.

Catholics and Jews enter the mainstream

Among the biggest beneficiaries of increased religious tolerance were the Catholic and Jewish faiths. Perhaps the biggest symbol of increased religious tolerance was the election of John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) as president in 1960. While Catholics had been successfully elected to lower political offices, including Congress, many Protestants believed it was not safe to elect a Catholic president. For many, the fear was that a Catholic president would be forced to choose between his loyalty to the country and his obedience to the pope, the head of the Catholic Church. Campaigning for office in the fall of 1960, Kennedy eased concerns when he told the Houston Ministerial Association: "I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President, who also happens to be Catholic." Kennedy also promised that he would resign the presidency if he was ever forced to "either violate my conscience, or violate the national interest." When his conduct as president showed no specific religious influence it reduced concerns about a Catholic president, so much so that the Catholicism of 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry was accorded no undue attention.

"The Most Hated Woman in America": Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Though many Americans questioned their religious faith and searched out more meaningful spiritual experiences in the 1960s, few were willing to publicly declare that they denied the existence of a supernatural being. Madalyn Murray O'Hair was different. This college-educated single mother directly challenged general beliefs in the existence of God when she fought against school prayer in a Baltimore, Maryland, school district. Her court challenge to school policies eventually rose to the level of the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1963 that prayers could not be said in schools. O'Hair's very public campaign against school prayer earned her the nickname "The Most Hated Woman in America."

In the years that followed the Supreme Court decision, O'Hair campaigned to eliminate the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance and the words "In God We Trust" from currency. In the process she created what amounted to an atheist (a person who does not believe in the existence of God) empire: she published atheist periodicals, hosted atheist radio shows, toured in a barnstorming religious debating show, and created a string of atheist organizations. By turns angry, profane, vengeful, and terrifically persuasive, she stirred controversy and attracted attention like few others, then suddenly she disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1995. It took several years for police to uncover the bizarre kidnapping/murder plot that led to her death.

The Catholic Church went through important and dramatic changes of its own in the 1960s. Pope John XXIII, elected to the church's highest office in 1959, believed that the church needed to modernize its services and some of its doctrines. He convened a council in Rome called Vatican II, which lasted from 1962 to 1965, and several American bishops were invited. Vatican II introduced several changes to Catholic worship services: it allowed mass to be said in the native tongue instead of Latin, and it allowed priests to face their congregation from behind the altar instead of facing the altar with their backs toward the congregation. Vatican II also called for Catholics to reach out to other religions in a spirit of tolerance and absolved Jews of any guilt for the death of Jesus. These changes were intended to bring Catholicism in tune with the spirit of the times and to increase church membership. In fact, many Catholics resented the changes or lost faith because some of their beliefs were suddenly revised by the pope. Some thought the changes diminished the authority of the church and made it seem less like a refuge from other religious practices than it had been. Despite Pope John's liberal approach in some areas, though, the church stood fast in its refusal to condone birth control, alienating those who wanted the church to become more progressive on that issue. Overall attendance at Catholic services declined throughout the 1960s, though by the end of the decade the Catholic Church remained the single largest denomination in the United States, with 48 million members in 1970.

When Jewish immigrants began to arrive in the United States in large numbers in the late nineteenth century, they brought with them a distinct culture and set of religious practices that were preserved in tight-knit communities. By the mid-twentieth century, however, Jews had spread throughout the United States and begun to adopt American values and cultural practices. By the 1960s some Jewish leaders feared that the Jewish faith was becoming dangerously diluted as Jews assimilated into American culture, which means they blended with non-Jews. For example, intermarriage among Jews and non-Jews increased rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, while weekly attendance at synagogue (the Jewish house of worship) declined to just 17 percent of the Jewish population in 1964 (compared to 42 percent among Christians). Jews in general were becoming increasingly secular in their orientation toward life, prompting many to believe that Judaism in the United States would exist more as a culture than as a religion. In 1967, however, events in Israel—the historical homeland of the Jewish faith—sparked a revival of engagement with Jewish issues in the American Jewish community. In the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, Israel drove Arab forces from disputed land and claimed the Old City of Jerusalem for Israel. The war sparked great pride among Jews around the world, and Christians in the United States tended to side with Jews instead of Arabs in this conflict.

Black Muslims

Part religion and part militant political movement, the Black Muslims were feared and misunderstood by outside observers of the 1960s. Black Muslims belonged to a religious group known as the Nation of Islam. Church doctrine declares that a mysterious man named Wallace D. Fard appeared in the black ghetto of Detroit, Michigan, in 1930 and revealed himself as Allah, the Muslim god. His chief disciple was Elijah Poole (1897–1975), who adopted the name Elijah Muhammad and led the religion after Fard's disappearance in 1933.

As interpreted by Muhammad, the Nation of Islam combined traditional Islamic teachings with black separatism (the belief that American blacks should form a separate nation away from white people). Muhammad taught that whites are devils who took control of Earth in order to oppress black people, the true children of Allah. Those who joined the Nation of Islam dropped their former last names—thought to have been brought down to them via the owners of their slave ancestors—in favor of the letter "X" or an Islamic name. With his charismatic teaching style, Muhammad drew many followers to his religion—including prominent black celebrities like boxer Cassius Clay (1942–), who took the name Muhammad Ali upon joining. The Black Muslims' angry anti-white rhetoric scared many, but it appealed to those blacks weary of the slow pace of gains made by the civil rights movement.

The Black Muslims enjoyed their greatest prominence in the early 1960s thanks to the teachings of Malcolm X (1925–1965). Malcolm X's dynamic leadership expanded the group dramatically, increasing membership to over 100,000 members, and his speeches drew media attention. For a time Malcolm X was considered a rival to Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), for intellectual leadership of the civil rights movement. Malcolm X and many other members left the Black Muslims in the mid-1960s when it was discovered that Elijah Muhammad and his family had been involved in sexual and financial scandals. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, shortly after he left the Black Muslims. The Nation of Islam continued in the early twenty-first century under controversial leader Louis Farrakhan (1933–).

The evangelical alternative

According to Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, authors of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, many of those seeking new spiritual guidance turned to evangelical Christian churches. Evangelical churches, wrote Isserman and Kazin, "offered troubled individuals what [mainstream churches] could not: the balm of simple answers to perennial questions of the soul." Evangelical churches stressed the personal relationship between the believer and Jesus and stressed the idea and experience of being "saved" and "born again." More conservative or fundamentalist churches stressed the literal truth of the Bible, and some encouraged people to express their religious ecstasy through practices such as "speaking in tongues" (in which an individual "possessed" by the holy spirit speaks in allegedly ancient languages) or the handling of serpents. Evangelical and fundamentalist churches offered the fire and excitement that many people sought, and attendance in such churches rose dramatically, with many denominations seeing double-digit gains in membership.

One result of the growth of the evangelical movement was an increase in a phenomenon called televangelism—evangelism preached on television programs. Televangelists were dramatic preachers who saw the TV audience as their flock, and they delivered their sermons via weekly or daily programs. Two of the best-known televangelists of the 1960s were Oral Roberts (1918–) and Billy Graham (1918–). Both used their eye-catching charm and powers of persuasion to draw viewers and, especially in the case of Roberts, build religious empires with the money contributed to their cause from audiences. Some criticized televangelists for enriching themselves while promoting false religious ideas, but no one could deny that these preachers drew mass audiences.

One outgrowth of the rise of evangelical churches was the success of the Campus Crusade for Christ. Founded by California businessman Bill Bright (1921–2003) in 1951 and supported by Billy Graham, this evangelical group worked to bring the "good news" of the New Testament of the Bible to students on American college campuses. They found a perfect environment for their message: college enrollments soared in the 1960s, and many young people were leaving the churches of their parents and looking for new ones. Campus Crusade for Christ evangelists were young and hip; they wore casual clothes and spoke like other college students. They made special efforts to convert those who had bad experiences with drugs and sexual permissiveness, offering Jesus Christ as a refuge from the fast-paced youth culture of sex, drugs, and rock'n' roll. By the mid-1970s the Campus Crusade for Christ had a budget of $42 million and 6,500 employees; it retained a presence on college campuses throughout the rest of the twentieth century and into the early 2000s.

Eastern religion, cults, and communes

Spiritual seekers who did not feel comfortable with conventional (or unconventional) Christian, Catholic, or Jewish practices found many alternatives in the 1960s, from established religions imported from other cultures to strange invented religions cobbled together by opportunistic hucksters. Numbers of Americans were drawn to Eastern religions imported from China and India, such as Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Religious teachers from these countries traveled to the United States to help people understand their practices, and a number of books were published that explained aspects of Buddhism, such as reincarnation and meditation. The most famous teacher, or guru, of the era was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1911–), the promoter of transcendental meditation, a practice from the Hindu religion that is intended to bring inward enlightenment through a particular technique of quiet contemplation. Maharishi first came to the United States in 1959 and then conducted a world tour in 1967, when he spoke at major American universities such as Yale and the University of California at Berkeley. By the late 1960s Maharishi had gained a following among celebrities such as the Beatles, Jane Fonda, Mia Farrow, philosopher Marshall McLuhan, and football star Joe Namath. Maharishi's books sold thousands of copies, and many people attended seminars to learn to his meditation style.

The Hindu religious teacher, Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada (1896–1977), was responsible for starting perhaps the highest-profile religious cult of the 1960s. Bhaktivedanta settled in New York City in 1965, when he was sixty-nine years old, and he set about to teach young hippies how to devote themselves to the Hindu god Krishna. Hare Krishnas, as followers of Krishna were known, were very disciplined: they renounced many forms of worldly pleasures, including drugs, alcohol, gambling, and recreational sex. In fact, they devoted themselves entirely to the improvement of Krishna consciousness, their religious enlightenment. Hare Krishnas came to widespread attention in the late 1960s and early 1970s when they began to proselytize, which means to attempt to persuade others to convert to their beliefs, and ask for money as donations in airports, bus stations, and on street corners. With their shaved heads and saffron-colored robes, the Hare Krishnas were the decade's most obvious symbol of the growing popularity of Eastern religion.

Many of the unorthodox religious subgroups that formed in the decade bore no relation to historical religious practices. For example, L. Ron Hubbard (1911–1986) established the Church of Scientology in 1954 to practice a religion that he had created from fragments of Eastern religion, modern psychology, and his own science-fiction writing. The church aggressively recruited new members, who paid steep fees to be brought to enlightenment. Many outside observers charged that Scientology is a cult that enriches its leaders at the expense of gullible or easily manipulated members. Cult Awareness Network director Cynthia Kisser told Time magazine report Richard Behar, "Scientology is quite likely the most ruthless, the most classically terroristic, the most litigious and the most lucrative cult the country has ever seen."

The "God Is Dead" Movement

Scientific advances—such as the theory of human evolution, which was first put forth by Charles Darwin in the mid-1800s, and the "big bang" theory regarding the creation of the universe, which emerged in the 1910s—had been calling into question many of the fundamental teachings of established religions. By the 1960s, some religious thinkers, or theologians, wondered whether the concept of a supernatural God was useful in understanding the world around them. Books such as Gabriel Vahanian's The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era (1961) and Thomas J. J. Altizer's The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1966) asked readers to consider a religious life divorced from traditional conceptions of God. These ideas reached a mass audience in 1965 when Time magazine published a cover story on the "God Is Dead" movement and other mass media outlets followed suit.

The entire issue proved far over-blown: the questioning of God was never a widespread movement but rather a reflection of the work of a few religious intellectuals. Most churchgoers rejected any idea that God might be dead, as reflected by the widely quoted data that 90 percent of Americans believed in God. A popular bumper sticker of the time read: "My God is not dead. I talked with Him this morning."

Along with these organized and systematic religious organizations, Americans also participated in many less formal spiritual experiences and groups. Many rejected organized religion altogether, engaging instead in self-guided spiritual explorations. Some self-help books with spiritual themes and unconventional mentors and gurus offered advice for such individuals, participants in the classic American quest for self-knowledge. Sometimes these seekers found their way into communes (self-contained communities where work and many other experiences are shared by members), some of which were organized around religious ideas and beliefs.


While the 1960s are often thought of as a time when Americans sought alternative religious experiences, in truth the majority remained in mainstream churches. Even the most mainstream churches made efforts to revitalize their engagement with the spiritual lives of their congregation and with the issues of the day. The social issue that most engaged churchgoing Americans in the 1960s was the civil rights movement. Black churches provided a foundation of support for the civil rights movement, and black religious figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) were its most outspoken leaders. They pointed out the clear contradictions between Christian teachings and the widespread mistreatment of African Americans. Many blacks left the Christian faith and converted to Islam, which with the emergence of the Black Muslims and leaders like Malcolm X offered blacks alternative teachings to help them deal with racial injustice. At the same time, many white churchgoers urged their churches to become more supportive of the civil rights movement. (Civil rights is discussed at length in Chapter 8.)

Churches also tried to address social anxieties over the Vietnam War (1954–75) and increasing drug use by young people. Church leaders like the Catholic priests Daniel (1921–) and Phillip Berrigan (1923–2002), who were actually brothers, became involved in the antiwar movement, sometimes so much so that they were criticized by more conservative members of their church. Churches also offered themselves as refuges for people who were damaged by drug use. In these ways, and many others, churches tried to make their work relevant to the lives of their congregations and the larger community beyond them.

For More Information


Butler, Jon, and Harry S. Stout, eds. Religion in American History: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Farber, David, and Beth Bailey, with others. The Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Gallup Report, Religion in America: 50 Years: 1935–1985. Princeton, NJ: Gallup, 1985.

Isserman, Maurice, and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Le Beau, Bryan F. The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Marsden, George M. Religion and American Culture. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

Stein, Stephen J. Alternative American Religions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Zeinert, Karen. Cults. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1997.


Behar, Richard. "Scientology: The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power." Time (May 6, 1991): pp. 50-57.

"Christian Atheism: The 'God Is Dead' Movement." Time (October 22, 1965).

Graham, Billy. "God Is Not Dead." U.S. News 60 (April 25, 1966): pp. 74–80.

Web Sites

Divining America: Religion and the National Culture. (accessed on July 20, 2004).

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Decline or Revival? Changing Currents in the American Religious Experience

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