When Evangelicals Were Cool

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Historians often have problems dealing with popular culture. On the one hand, they know that novels, music albums, and even comics influence a vast audience, but there is always some embarrassment about treating them seriously in sober political accounts. In consequence, we tend to miss critical parts of major stories.

Here's a case in point. When we write the history of the United States in the twentieth century, it's hard to overstate the significance of the 1970s religious revival, which some call a Fourth Great Awakening. The movement gave a whole new social and political space to born-again Christianity, and we now have magnificent studies of the era like Darren Dochuk's recent case-study of Southern California in From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.

This is a great time to be studying modern American religion. But we still don't pay enough attention to some of the popular culture aspects of this era, above all in rock music.

Historians do a fine job of showing how Christian movements and leaders developed during these years, highly influential groups like Campus Crusade for Christ. But those groups faced a daunting challenge in reaching out to a non-believing audience that was at first deeply unsympathetic to the moral and cultural messages they preached. To say the least, the years around 1970 were not a promising time to be preaching chastity, heterosexuality, and a drug-free lifestyle, all the more so if the media stereotype of evangelical ministers was drawn from Inherit the Wind, Elmer Gantry, and even the homicidal pastor in Night of the Hunter.

In turn, many evangelicals were also deeply suspicious of the whole rock music culture. And however trivial this issue may seem in retrospect, hair length constituted a stark cultural boundary. Young Christian groups could organize to their hearts' content, but they were not going to have a wider impact on the secular world until they could span that cultural gulf. And yet, obviously, they did succeed. By 1970, evangelical Christianity was having a real impact on hippyish subcultures and Jesus People groups were becoming commonplace. By 1972, Campus Crusade attracted tens of thousands to Dallas for Explo '72, a kind of Christian Woodstock.

Divine intervention apart, how on earth did they manage it?

At least part of the explanation lies outside the religious realm, in quite secular musical trends of the late 1960s, and the rediscovery of American musical roots -- originally, without any religious intent whatever. As a driving force in the new cultural/religious upsurge I would point to one group above all, namely the Byrds. Through the mid-1960s, the Byrds moved ever more deeply into psychedelic experimentation, culminating with the 1968 album The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but at that point, things changed radically. David Crosby left the group, which now added Gram Parsons, with his enduring passion for country and western music. In 1968, the reformed Byrds began recording at Nashville, where they even played the Grand Old Opry. (The audience had no idea what to make of them).

In August 1968, the Byrds released the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which pioneered a new style of country rock. It also initiated a revolutionary change in the country music world, which was at the time very conservative musically and politically, and where long hair was strictly taboo. (Merle Haggard's Okie From Muskogee became a huge hit the following year, and a confrontational conservative anthem). At first, country listeners assumed Sweetheart was meant as a mocking retro parody, while the rock audience was bemused. Over the next few years, though, the two genres increasingly coalesced, with all sorts of fusion styles inbetween -- country rock, Southern rock, outlaw country, and the rest. (John Spong recently published a terrific history of this synthesis as it developed through the 1970s in Texas Monthly, but subscription is required).

Suddenly and shockingly, "country" culture became fashionable, as part of the Southernization that historian Bruce Shulman described as one of the key social trends sweeping America in the 1970s. This shift was greatly strengthened by the demographic and economic trends of these years, and the shift of wealth and population from Rustbelt to Sunbelt states.

Quite unintentionally, the Byrds also revived and legitimized Christian themes in music for an audience wholly unaccustomed to them. If you want to revive America's roots music, it's hard to do so without incorporating hymns, gospel and Christian songs, and Sweetheart of the Rodeo featured such evocative classics as I am a Pilgrim and The Christian Life.

In 1969, they recorded the Art Reynolds Singers song "Jesus is Just Alright with Me," which became an anthem for the emerging Jesus People. Plenty of other artists jumped on the bandwagon, recording or adapting Christian roots -- and that is quite distinct from the contemporary emergence of avowedly Christian contemporary music. (Christian rock largely dates from Larry Norman's 1969 album Upon This Rock). The language of pilgrimage, redemption and sin entered rock music, as did Satan himself: in 1970, the Grateful Dead issued Friend of the Devil.

Suddenly, young people who knew nothing whatever about the American religious heritage were exposed to this music, in highly accessible rock/country fusion styles, played by hip musicians with long hair and beards. Along the way, they also heard key evangelical messages, which suddenly became cool and contemporary.

And that, I suggest, is a major reason why those Christian movements were suddenly able to find young audiences open and receptive to their messages. If we can't exactly claim Sweetheart of the Rodeo as the album that changed America's faith, then it made a mighty contribution. But what historian would incorporate a title like that into any serious scholarly tome?

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