What Went Wrong in the ‘Fifties: The Fall of Ozzie and Harriet

The priest enters the worship area in slacks and sports shirt, a stole casually draped around his neck. He quietly sits in the midst of the congregation, on one of the metal folding chairs arranged in a semicircle in the almost bare room. The liturgy proceeds as an informal evening among friends, with continuous conversation, the obligatory use of first names, and studied postures so relaxed that they would be almost out of place among spectators at a baseball game. Those familiar with the Catholic liturgy can detect the places where this particular celebration coincides with official worship, but much of it is extemporaneous. The priest exercises his office mainly in setting the tone for the occasion—elaborately low-key, continually amused, brightly responsive to whatever anyone in the congregation happens to propose.

In less extreme form all self-consciously contemporary worship aspires to such a condition, and anything tending in the opposite direction, especially the Church’s own liturgical laws, causes resentment and defiance. There are versions of this scene in the non-liturgical churches as well.

Far more is involved than simply a preference for informality. This is not merely suburban America at prayer; rather it is the end product of a spiritual revolution so profound that, like all genuine revolutions its full implications are scarcely understood by anyone, perhaps least of all by those who embrace it most fervently. It is a revolution by no means confined to the Catholic Church, or to official acts of worship, and it extends to the deepest levels of contemporary Christianity.

The period from 1945 until the mid-1960s was famously religious and conservative, the great age of “family values” and church-going. But it was precisely in that era that the spiritual revolution was brewed, albeit for the most part unwittingly.

Ozzie and Harriet Nelson are today ridiculed by those who see the postwar period as a time of shallow and ultimately delusory moral solidity, and moral conservatives are almost compelled to respond defensively so as not to surrender the ideal of family life which they represented. But, as Harriet Nelson herself once pointed out, the Nelsons never went to church, and in fact few of the idealized families of that era did so. Even more significantly, there was no sin in the Nelsons’s world, merely misunderstandings, an endearing cowardice in a few small things, and some innocent conflicts of ego. Everyone was basically good, which was the reason no one needed to attend church. Redemption was far too harsh and portentous a word to describe the need of the Nelsons to extricate themselves from the mild dilemmas they were caught in each week.

Popular entertainment until the mid-1960s was overwhelmingly conservative in a moral sense, celebrating and approving of religion, family life, and the simple virtues. But it was a telling mark of the age’s spiritual dry rot that religious people, including apparently most clergy, were so reassured by the sentimental signs of approval bestowed on them by Hollywood that they failed to notice the spiritual emptiness of most “religious” films.

Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, and other screen clergy were good-natured humanitarians with no visible theological knowledge or interests, priests who understood their calling in the vaguest of terms, that of “helping people.” Almost unnoticed during that era of good feeling was the fact that, when “faith” was invoked, it almost always meant faith in humanity. Father O’Malley was a man of faith because he could see past the superficially negative qualities of Horace P. Bogardus to the virtuous soul beneath. The priest’s task, in Hollywood’s view, was actually to suppress a sense of sin, on the grounds that all apparent sin was simply misunderstanding or lack of trust.

To a remarkable degree, life in America during the 1950s was much the way Ozzie and Harriet portrayed it. Young families whose members were deeply devoted to each other were for the first time able to buy comfortable houses with pleasant yards on shady streets, amidst people like themselves. The sense of community was strong and real—building new suburbs from the ground up, participating in neighborhood athletics, taking an interest in one’s children’s school, chatting on the front lawn on a summer night. On the whole it was an experience which for most people was benign and which brought the fulfillment of dreams that before the war had seemed unrealizable.

It was precisely this sense of community which gave rise to a neo-Pelagian theology on the part of people who had never heard of Pelagius and did not even realize that they had a theology. What was Christianity except what it appeared to be—warm communities of like-minded people with the local church a convenient focal point for “people helping people”? Although few would have said, or perhaps even thought so, many tacitly believed that they had finally transcended the reality of sin.

The sustained postwar prosperity itself had incalculable spiritual effects. On one level it gave people a renewed sense that they were indeed the masters of their fates and that hard work and discipline would bring rewards. At first subtly, then blatantly, it persuaded people that they deserved all kinds of gratifications as the fruits of their labors, and after a while they ceased to distinguish those gratifications which Christianity tolerated from those it condemned. Growing prosperity also made people more expansive and neighborly. They could afford to be generous, tolerant, and helpful, giving from their own superfluity of money and time.

Conservative churches, including the Catholic Church, continued to preach about sin and damnation, and those who belonged to such churches for the most part took such preaching seriously. But it was increasingly an abstraction. The world did not have the feel of a sinful place, nor did it seem that people were particularly in need of divine grace. The doctrine of Original Sin was affirmed because docile church-members accepted what had always been taught, but in their hearts they had come to believe in essential human goodness, as manifested so abundantly in the very neighborhoods where they lived and raised their children.

The anti-bourgeois attack on the American Dream mounted after 1965 ought to have reversed this theology, but it did not. The most influential theological work of the decade was Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, which somehow managed to straddle the bourgeois optimism of suburbia and the radicalism of the New Left, although it was puzzling even at the time how serious people could believe that mankind now had the power to solve all the world’s problems.

The claim of the counterculture to have exposed the suburban paradise as a nightmare might logically have led to a genuine religious revival. But the assault on middleclass culture was merely the opening battle in what was a full-scale war moving in the opposite direction—the naked assertion of the individual ego as the sole and ultimate criterion of truth. Families, churches, government, and schools were condemned not because they failed to live up to their high principles but because they claimed some moral authority over the self. Once those claims had been disposed of, the full agenda of egotistical antinomianism could reveal itself. (Even many of those who initially joined in the movement of the New Left did not realize where ultimately it was going.)

In one sense the assertion of radical moral individulalism might be thought compatible with the primacy of the strict individual conscience, a word which in fact the counterculture often invoked. But truly sensitive consciences are aware of precisely the ways in which they need external restraint, and hence always seek to embody morality in institutional forms.

Activists of the counterculture did not even attempt to explain how the suburban paradise had become a nest of serpents. The doctrine of Original Sin would have provided a compelling explanation, but the best which the new antinomianism could offer was a vague Marxist claim about the inherent injustice of the capitalist system, good people corrupted by a bad system rather than the other way around. At the heart of modernist social philosophy is a contradiction so stark that an explanation cannot even be attempted—that on the one hand people deserve more and more freedom because of their unprecedented maturity and competence, while on the other virtually all failures are beyond people’s control, with everything from poor grades in school to heinous crimes attributable to social conditions for which the individual should not be held responsible. There could be no more blatant evidence of the self-deluding moral frivolity which underlies the contemporary understanding of freedom.

Like the other institutions under assault, the churches for the most part did not fight back but instead attempted to make peace as best they could. Some highly publicized Christians simply became outriders of the newer movements. Thus Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike simultaneously expressed compulsory skepticism towards the doctrines of Christianity and compulsory credulity towards those of the counterculture.

But the real revolution in the churches was the quiet one which took place among people who continued to give every sign of being ordinary and middle-class, who may even have disliked what many of their flamboyantly radical brethren were doing. Here the simmering Pelagian faith merged with strains of the counterculture to transform American Christianity within only a few years’ time. By the end of the 1960s these currents were strategically entrenched in most denominations, and since then they have simply extended and consolidated their victories.

Classical Christianity was ruthless in its exposure of pretense and self-delusion, equipping its followers with ways of detecting those realities and rooting them out. Modern Christians, by contrast, have erected a screen of self-interest which shelters them from the reality of sin and enables them to live with a sense of complete self-justification.

Although the cultural forms of this are new, the pattern itself would be immediately familiar to Paul or Augustine—the unquestioning appeal to cultural norms as moral guides, the defiant assertion of one’s own righteousness, the unshakable conviction that this righteousness is proven by one’s enlightened actions and opinions, the sullen resentment against those who preach about sin, the relaxed complacency about patterns of living which traditional Christianity strongly condemned.

Traditional Christians were accused of being obsessed with sex, which some were, and especially of being obsessed in such a way as to be insensitive to other kinds of moral evil. But Christians sincerely trying to live according to the Gospel today cannot help but be preoccupied with sex, because that is the point at which contemporary culture has chosen to assault the churches, estimating correctly both that a traditional stance will make Christians unpopular in many quarters and that many Christians themselves, including many of the clergy, will be unwilling to take a firm stand.

The difference between sexual morality and social morality is obvious in the very terminology of the latter. To be accused of racism or sexism, or of being the beneficiary of an unjust social system, places one in a huge crowd in which it is possible to be anonymous. If these sins are “systemic,” and often unconscious, then no one need feel any particularly acute personal guilt. Indeed, those who acknowledge their sinfulness in this regard are automatically elevated to a higher moral level beyond those who do not even recognize it. On the other hand, to be accused of adultery, homosexual acts, abortion, or some other sexual sin is to be singled out. The individual is never in doubt as to whether or not he has committed such a sin, and he knows that many of his fellows have not. Sexual belief and behavior are close to the heart of each person’s very being, which makes the reality of sex extremely sensitive and, more than perhaps any other kind of moral failing, subject to various kinds of evasions and rationalizations.

Modern Christians assume, even when they accuse themselves of social sins, that they are enlightened, educated, and moral and that consequently they are in no need of judgment pronounced from without; indeed, such judgments are intolerable intrusions on the self. The elementary truth that sin clouds the intellect, and that no man can be judge in his own case, has been rejected insofar as the churches are concerned, along with the classical Christian recognition that sin not only damages the will but weakens the intellect. Rare is the sinner who can truly see his own sin for what it is.

Few Atheists, Many Pelagians

The history of postwar Christianity in America is a classic example of the workings of pride, and an exposure of the fundamental fallacy of Pelagianism. American Christians had in fact done well, by historical standards, in building communities of virtue, to the point where many came to think of that virtue as their own achievement rather than God’s. In effect, to preserve their virtue as they saw it, they rejected the God who was its author.

There are few literal atheists today, especially drawn from recent Christian ranks. But rather than being a sign of hope, this is the opposite, because classical atheism at least paid God the compliment of taking him seriously. What is now happening, even among well-meaning people, is a shift in their understanding of God, who more and more simply becomes the deepest part of the self, the human psyche affirming itself and aspiring to become infinite. Not only is conscience now almost always a green light telling people that whatever they wish to do is right, God has become a sympathetic internal therapist interested only in helping people realize their full potential.

The refusal to accept divine judgment is as old as the book of Genesis, and a recurring reality in the history of Christianity. The modern psyche in particular—for reasons which remain deeply buried and may only be unearthed after a long time—seems peculiarly sensitive to the psychic pain of being judged and thus intent on fleeing it. In many ways this is the essence of modernity—the refusal to accept any standard of truth outside oneself. Among the many fallacies which have become unquestioned dogmas in American life is the assumption that a lack of self-esteem is at the root of most pathologies, when in fact the reverse may be true.

Thus the collapse of the churches has occurred not, as sociologists might have predicted, from the edges inward, beginning with marginal Christians deeply influenced by secularity and only gradually spreading to the firm center, but the reverse. It has been the most pious people, and especially the clergy, who have hastened the destruction of traditional belief and practice.

They have done so precisely because they were the people most scrupulously trained in the ways of sin and judgment, those whose educations and personal earnestness had made them most sensitive to both their own failings and those of others. They were the people who struggled most strenuously to live a full Christian life, and who felt the burdens of that struggle as well as its joys. Thus when their culture conspired at some point to offer them relief from that struggle, they eagerly accepted it, and for many of them almost everything integral to traditional Christianity has become menacing and even hateful, a reminder of the days when they were under the judgment of an infinite moral authority far beyond their own psyches. (Catholic nuns, who were once among the most earnest of all Christians, are the most poignant examples. As the classical principle has it, Corruptio optimi pessima—the corruption of the best is the worst.)

The political division of left and right does not fit very closely with the spiritual revolution. Many political conservatives are themselves Pelagians of one kind or another. But at its best classical conservatism rests on a strong sense of human weakness and finitude. The moralism of American anti-communism, which liberals have so often denounced, can be self-righteous but also assumes the ability to see moral differences—whatever America’s own faults, they did not acquit the Soviet Union of the charge of being an evil empire.

Modern political liberalism, on the other hand, is obviously based on a Pelagian view of humanity, and it is rare indeed to discover a committed political liberal who holds the classical Christian doctrine of sin. (It is not coincidental that the Democratic Party has become the party of, among other things, the sexual revolution.) The liberal solution to the problems of mankind is aptly called social engineering, and it rests on the belief that people are not bad but the systems which imprison them are, and so it is a major purpose of government literally to bring salvation through bureaucratic effort. Most liberal policies involve public reassurances to the enlightened middle class that they are indeed virtuous people, their virtue repeatedly proven by the very causes they espouse.

The attraction of liberal causes for so many of the clergy lies in the fact that such causes provide a vehicle for moral earnestness, and a kind of justification for the clerical vocation, while relieving the cleric of the obligation to preach “outmoded” doctrines. (But the liberal clergy have deliberately denuded themselves of authority, and thus have little success in persuading their dwindling flocks to follow their preaching about public issues.) The clergy have been attracted to Pelagianism for a double reason—the relief which it brings from their own perhaps oppressive sense of sinfulness and, even more, their still more painful obligation to confront the sinfulness of others.

The churches now have become like amoral conspiracies. All their members are sinners in one way or another, but each refrains from mentioning the sins of the others in return for being extended the same tolerance. Clergy are admired because they are “compassionate,” “understanding,” and “tolerant”; the obligation to be “non-judgmental” is so absolute that stern judgment falls, ironically, only on those who fail to be non-judgmental.

The Liturgical Revolution

The liturgical churches are those which have sought to symbolize externally the inner spiritual realities, and the liturgical revolution within those churches is thus a powerful negative symbol of their inner spiritual condition. By some accounts, clergy traditionally wore black precisely as a reminder to people of the reality of sin and death; putting on ritual vestments also symbolizes the priest’s movement from the mundane to the sacred.

Hence the reluctance to don such vestments now is, consciously or not, precisely a refusal to become the “new man” of whom Paul spoke, precisely a refusal to put on the garments of light. Elaborately informal liturgies are exactly what their participants boast they are—celebrations, but not in the full Christian meaning of that term. Rather they are celebrations of the community itself, of its virtues and inherent goodness. The liturgy is designed merely to reassure and “affirm” people, and it is necessary that the priest appear before them in his ordinary guise, in order to demonstrate that no one is required to undergo conversion. So also it is essential not to celebrate the Eucharist in church buildings which dramatically speak of the sacred and the eternal. As much as possible the entire act of worship should be experienced as a creation of the self, carried out in the most mundane surroundings, employing not a rite “imposed” from without but one which is merely an emanation of the worshippers’ own psyches.

The most apt metaphor for the traditional clergyman’s task was physician of souls. The physician is one who diagnoses illness objectively, not allowing his personal feelings to interfere, who may find it necessary to give the patient alarming news, and who must prescribe often painful remedies as the only hope of salvation. Clergy no longer seek to be physicians but have instead adopted a different model—that of the “non-directive” therapist.

Humor is an essential staple of this spiritual style, and liberal clergy routinely begin their sermons with little jokes designed to get the congregation laughing, a response which serves two functions—sending a mild thrill through the assembly over the fact that the sacred precincts are being lightly mocked and, more important, relaxing all tension which might exist between preacher and people, eliminating the anxiety that the Gospel be preached so authoritatively and forcefully that one’s failings will stand exposed. As Karl Barth noted over 70 years ago, there is no “binding discourse” in modern Christianity.

Significantly, however, the humor is very light, the cozy sort of often self-deprecating chatter used to break the social ice among people who know little about one another, indeed precisely the humor of Ozzie and Harriet. The great comic tradition has always been biting and pointed, and more often than not great comic writers (Jonathan Swift, Evelyn Waugh) have been moral traditionalists with a tragic view of life.

The relaxed, tolerant good humor of the liberal Christian also sometimes masks suppressed anger and hostility directed at all those deemed religiously conservative. The same priest who would never dream of suggesting to his flock that they are morally deficient in any way may allow himself the luxury of a “prophetic” screed against the reigning pope, and traditionalist laity are now accustomed to meeting clergy who are tolerant of everyone but the traditionalists. Truth may be relative, but its one absolute manifestation is in the fact that those who believe in absolutes are dangerously wrong.

Although self-justification is hardly a modern invention, perhaps at no other time in the history of Christianity has there been the bizarre spectacle of organized groups of sinners (homosexuals, notably) campaigning for approval precisely on the basis of their sins. The strategy of the iconoclastic Pelagians is the simple one of going on the offensive—church authorities themselves are constantly bombarded with accusations of “rigidity,” “pharasaism,” and “intolerance” and are kept busy answering the charges continually hurled at them for even their halfhearted adherence to traditional moral teaching.

Traditional religious symbolism—church buildings, vestments, images of holy persons, liturgical ritual itself—merged earth and heaven, representing what was infinite and spiritual in forms which were finite and material. But it did so with a strong bias towards eternity. Churches were entirely different from all other kinds of buildings, worship an action like no other. If God was not experienced as Wholly Other, He was at least recognized as infinite and transcendent. Now the entire great machinery of the liberal churches is bent almost single-mindedly on the task of insuring that Christians know no other God than the one they have made in their own image and likeness.


  • James Hitchcock

    James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. He is the author of many books including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton) and, most recently, The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 2012).

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