The “Moral 1950s” Myth

Sylvia AllenArizona state senator Sylvia Allen thinks that people need to carry guns everywhere until America has a “moral rebirth.” She thinks this moral rebirth might come about if everyone were required to go to church. But don’t worry: you’d get to choose the church you went to. Freedom of religion, am I right?! Of course, she specifically said they would be forced to go “on Sunday,” so that kind of limits things. You’d get to attend any church that was close enough to what Sylvia Allen thinks is the one true way.

Allen mentioned that such a law would never be allowed. Curses! Foiled again by that meddling Constitution! But Allen is yet another crazy Christer who hasn’t a clue. I was struct by one thing she said that is incredibly common, “Allen later told the Arizona Capitol Times that she wished things were more like they were in the 1950s.” I know that everyone thinks that people were so much more religious in the 1950s, but is that even true? Well, barely. There was a bit of a peak in church attendance in the late 1950s. This is mostly due to the Cold War and not to any outbreak of religiosity.

Church Attendance - Gallup

What’s interesting is that other than that burst of church going — which lasted less than a decade — attendance has been shockingly consistent. But even more important, we are talking about an increase of about 5 percentage points. Even in those glory days of the late 1950s, still less than half of the country was going to church regularly. So how is it that this 5 percentage points created a moral world where everything was just perfect? I think that it doesn’t. Allen is just another delusional conservative who pines for a world that never existed.

I think the reason that people hearken back to the 1950s is because that was before all the liberation movements. Blacks and women and gays knew their place — at the back of the bus and generally out of sight. I doubt that Allen thinks about it in these terms. But if you consider Corey Robin’s work on what makes a conservative, this fits perfectly. Conservatism is a reaction against liberation movements. This is why Allen would say, “Of course African Americans should be able to vote!” That’s the new status quo. But her mind naturally goes back to those days before this was the status quo to the good times when she didn’t have to deal with such scary disruption.

The interesting thing is that if you look at the crime rate, it did go up somewhat during the 1960s. And then it really went up in the 1970s and 1980s — peaking during the first Bush administration. This was during a period of constant church attendence. But over the last couple of decades it has gone down — again, even while church attendance has stayed at a very constant 40%. In fact, the murder rate is now notably lower than it was in 1960, even though the country has twice as many people and that generally leads to more crime. The data just don’t support the narrative that conservative Christians like Allen are pushing.

I am so tired of hearing people glorify the 1950s as some grand time in the history of the United States. It wasn’t. There were lots of good things at that time — just like any time. But it was not a great moral period. It was not even a great period for church going. I don’t mind conservatives disagreeing with me. But I wish they would put away their childish delusions. All they are actually saying is that if we eliminate our diversity and walked in lockstep, all would be well. I have two problems with that. First, I’m not interested in living under fascism. Second, doing that wouldn’t cure our problems, and it would create far more.

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