In Tuesday’s USA Today, Rick Hampson published an interesting article on the change in America after the assassination of John F. Kennedy titled “Moments before the moment everything changed” (November 19, 2013, pp. 1A and 6A). Hampson lists over a dozen trends and movements in America that came to prominence after that assassination—fifty years ago today (ibid., 8th para.). These cultural trends and social movements are still with us and affect the Christian church in many ways, both obvious and subtle.
Why would a political assassination affect a nation so profoundly? American had assassinations before, most notably that of Lincoln. We need to realize that in the USA, our presidents are democratically elected by the people. This is different from parliamentary governments, like Germany or India, whose politicians elect their prime ministers. Once he is elected, Americans know that “we chose him,” not some intermediate group of professional politicians. Political parties know that they have to put forward men who have popular appeal, i.e., charisma. JFK had lots of that. Thus his assassination was felt personally by every American—whether or not they voted for him.
How could that assassination have happened? Secret service agents, police, FBI, and “James Bond” were supposed to prevent such tragedies. People did not believe a lone shooter brought him down. Conspiracy theories immediately erupted about JFK’s demise and are still popular today. These theories were fanned into flame by the then-recently released movie The Manchurian Candidate starring Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury.
Left-wingers thought there was a conspiracy connected to Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC. Right-wingers thought there was a conspiracy connected to the Russians and communists. JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had previously tried to defect to Russia, married a Russian woman, and had defended Castro’s Cuba, but there was never any evidence of a communist conspiracy. One angry man, acting alone, had killed the president.
The facts did not rebuild the trust destroyed by conspiracy thinking on either side of the public square in America. College students all around America remembered how the San Francisco City Police officers had fire-hosed students on the city hall steps in May 13, 1960, leading to severe injuries. These students had come from Berkeley, Stanford, and other northern California colleges and were legally protesting the HUAC hearings at city hall that day. The SDS seized the day (carpe diem) in political leadership from that point forward at Berkeley and elsewhere. Film-makers, screenwriters, actors, and radio announcers remembered with bitterness how they had been purged from Hollywood in 1947 by the HUAC. The exiled creators of culture now became social critics and creators of the “counter-culture.”
The counter-culture, visually associated with the “hippies” became extremely popular among the youth of the day. Youth who bucked the hippie trend were considered “nerds.” The youth counter-culture spawned its own music, art, clothing styles, hairstyles, and its own ideas about society and culture. The difference between these ideas and the traditional ideas of their elders created the “generation gap.”
The motto “Question authority” was a favorite among youth. This definitely affected the church, which was to its older members the supreme social and moral authority. Protestant youth questioned the authority of Scriptures, although they still seemed to like Jesus. This explains why Concordia Seminary students supported their professors who practiced “higher criticism” of the Bible—and why they “walked out” with them in 1974. Catholic youth questioned the pope. Much of the time, “question authority” simply meant “reject authority,” and thus most of these “anti-establishment” youth left the church altogether.
Other aspects of the counter-culture, mentioned by Hampson, that were a challenge to the traditional church were the use of “recreational drugs,” the “sexual revolution,” the “feminist revolution,” and the movement for “gay rights.” This affected the church in numerous ways:
- “Recreational drug” users found that Pentecostal euphoria gave them a “high,” thus helping to wean them off the drugs. This was the root of the burgeoning charismatic movement in the 1970s and the “Jesus People” who were hippies high on Jesus.
- The “sexual revolution” was really about premarital sex, not about married sex. Premarital sex became common among youth, especially college-aged young people away from parental supervision. The resulting pregnancies increased the demand for safe abortions, which became legal in 1973. Premarital sex, once it became common, led to increased cohabitation, which is now a majority practice among young people before marriage. This, more than any other factor, has led to alienation between the church and the American public.
- Feminism made demands not only in the workplace and home, but also in the church. Church offices and voting gave way to these demands, with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) adopting woman’s suffrage in 1969. Most denominations now accept women pastors, although the LCMS and Protestants with traditional-biblical-authority have not.
- Gay rights would seem to be the ultimate defeat for the church’s traditional moral authority—and it is! After decades of activism and struggle, in 2009 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) accepted the practice of ordination of homosexuals and the blessing of homosexual couples, following the practice of Episcopalians, the United Church of Christ, and European state churches. Many people realize that the capitulation to “gay rights,” as it pertains to moral norms for church-members, is a complete capitulation of all moral authority. Thus we witness the exodus of many pastors and churches out of the ELCA and the Lutheran World Federation.
It has been a long way–fifty years–since Dallas, November 22, 1963 at 12:29 PM Central Time. If you don’t understand this fifty year history, you don’t understand the challenges that face the Christian church in America today.