Part 1

Changes in the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s

The cultural changes of the 1960s spurred new religious thought concerning sexuality and reproduction. Christian scholars, including Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr developed a more flexible Christian moral code that was capable of dealing with modern questions. Instead of looking to earlier Christian doctrine, theologians incorporated the ideas presented by secular philosophers like Kierkegaard and Sartre4. These theologians argued that their new moral philosophy was actually a return to the purer teachings of Jesus himself. Instead of dogmatic adherence to doctrinal church beliefs, the new modern Christian ethic relieved the church of “thousands of years of crusty superstition”5. To Tillich, Niebuhr, and their progressive contemporaries, they were both modernizing and purifying the church. To their detractors, however, these changes to “traditional” moral codes were signs that Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, was secularizing and taking on elements of the broader society. The Catholic Church also took on some elements of secular society during the 1960s. The Second Vatican Council, lasting from October 1962 through November 1965, made progressive changes to the Catholic Church. It was surprising, then, when, just under three years later, the Vatican released Humanae Vitae, an encyclical in that prohibited the use of any form of “artificial” contraception6. American Catholics rebelled. Within several months of being issued, over 600 American Catholic priests had signed a statement against the encyclical7. Their view reflected that of the Catholic lay community, among which nearly half supported the use of birth control and only slightly fewer felt that abortion was “morally neutral,” even though, at that point, it was still illegal in the United States8. The split between Rome and a large number of American Catholics, both priests and lay people, demonstrated the influence of secular influences on the Catholic community at large. This division has yet to be resolved, and many American Catholics simply choose to disregard the Vatican’s prohibition on birth control and abortion.

Before the Sexual Revolution, sex was connected to religious morality. Without safe, legal access to birth control and abortion, women were less likely to have premarital sex (though it did still happen), and most religious faiths harshly condemned non-marital sex. Calls for a return to “traditional values” came as a response to the liberalization of social mores. One of the loudest voices was James Dobson, child psychologist, Evangelical Christian, and founder of Focus on the Family, a “Christian media empire” and research center9. In 1970, Dobson published Dare to Discipline, a book blaming social and political turmoil on “immorality, […] illegitimate pregnancies, venereal diseases, […] and more”10. Among his suggestions for combating social decline, he urged parents to “teach abstinence-based sex education at home, and to curb exposure to the immorality promoted by Hollywood and network television;” he also advocated stay-at-home motherhood over the increasingly common two-working-parent household11. Dobson’s framing of the ideal family was based on his Evangelical faith and intended to combat the social and moral decline he saw as a product of the American social shift away from traditional Christian doctrine. Without the secularizing effects of the social revolutionary movements of the 1960s, Dobson would have found little need to act.

The feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s also threatened the traditional gender dynamic that was prized and upheld through conservative Christian marriages. Women were expected to submit to men, physically and mentally. The Women’s Aglow Fellowship, founded around the same time as the progressive feminist movements, touted submission, obedience, and “God-ordained roles of wife and mother” as the ultimate sources of female liberation12. In reaction to cultural shifts away from discrete gender roles, many Evangelical women took up the cause of maintaining their Biblically determined roles in the home. The founders of Aglow, as well as conservative anti-feminist organizer Phyllis Schlafly, and Beverly LaHaye (wife of Left Behind author Tim LaHaye) argued that feminism’s goal of eliminating gender discrepancies in both work and home was an affront to the scriptural origins of American culture. Cultural changes, particularly those attributed to feminist movements, were an affront to “conservative women [who] believe in a strict division of gender roles as decreed by the scriptures; [to them], gender is envisioned as a hierarchal ordering with God and Christ at the top, followed by men, and then women”13. The shift away from traditional roles, arguably a product of secularization, drove conservative Christian women to feel that they had been displaced.

Another shift that may have influenced the mobilization of the Christian Right was what Robert Bellah termed “civil religion.” Although the term “civil religion” was originally coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract (1762), Bellah’s conception proposed that Americans had created a national religion by sacralizing elements of our national heritage. First presented at a Daedalus Conference on American Religion in May of 1966, Bellah’s concept of Civil Religion argues that American society is inherently secular save for narrow religious references shared by most Americans, regardless of their specific faith. These references primarily refer to a generalized concept of “God” as well as symbols that are “Christian without having anything to do with the Christian church”14.

Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

4. David Allyn, Make Love Not War (The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 2000) p. 111.
5. Allyn p. 111.
6. Allyn p. 108.
7. Allyn p. 110.
8. Allyn p. 110.
9. Lassiter p. 20.
10. Lassiter p. 20.
11. Lassiter p. 20.
12. R. Marie Griffith, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 1997) p. 45.
13. Klatch, Rebecca, Coalition and Conflict Among Women of the New Right (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1988) p. 676.
14. Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Dædalus, Vol. 96, No. 1 (Winter 1967) p. 1-21.