My father was part of what is referred to as the Greatest Generation. They were the guys who fought the Second World War, defeated the Nazis and the Japanese, and returned to build the booming post-war economy.
They built family homes in the suburbs and bought nice cars and refrigerators and television sets.
They were the churchgoing generation who attended church picnics and potluck suppers, and whose children crowded Sunday schools and vacation Bible camps.
In Australia, where I grew up, church attendance in the 1950s approached 50% of the population. In the US, it was well over 60%.
When Billy Graham first visited our shores in 1959, my father’s generation turned out in droves to hear him preach. Between his 14 meetings across ten cities, around 3 million people heard his message. And that’s out of a total population of just over 10 million. More than 143,000 people attended his Melbourne Cricket Ground rally alone.
People reported that alcohol consumption dropped in 1960-61, and that the crime rate slowed during that period. Less children were born to unmarried women, businesses reported a spike in the repayment of bad debts, enrolments in Bible Colleges went through the roof.
Some have called it a revival.
In fact, those days are considered such a golden era for religion, I regularly hear people calling us back to the Christian values of our fathers’ generation.
But wait. I was born in 1961, in the afterglow of the Billy Graham Crusades. I was raised by a member of the Greatest Generation. I can tell you first-hand what those “Christian” values looked like up close.
There’s no question that my father’s generation embodied values like loyalty, fidelity, hard work, and personal sacrifice, values that I think are important for us to embrace today.
But it wasn’t all churchgoing and happy families back then.
My father and his churchgoing mates believed a woman’s place was in the home. In fact, when my mother got a part-time job in the 1970s after we’d all started school, my father refused to allow any of her wages to contribute to the family budget. It was shameful to have a working wife, as far as he was concerned.
My father and his churchgoing mates roared with laughter at the scene in I Love Lucy where Desi Arnaz took Lucy across his knee and spanked her for misbehaviour. Who knows how many of them were dispensing the same humiliating and painful treatment to their wives.
My father and his churchgoing mates might not have been openly racist but they upheld the values and convictions of a racist society. They believed our country was being overrun by “wogs” and “dagos” (immigrants from southern Europe), and that Aboriginal peoples were lazy good-for-nothings, sponging off the public purse.
My father’s favourite television show was a dreadful old British sit-com called Love Thy Neighbour, in which the working class white protagonist, Eddie Booth regularly referred to his black neighbour as “nig-nog”, “Sambo”, “choc-ice” and “King Kong” among other things. He also called Chinese, Pakistanis or Indians names like “Fu Manchu”, “Gunga Din” and “Ali Baba”.
My father would chortle at this brazen racism.
Eddie often repeated his claim that “white always takes precedence over black,” and my father never disagreed.
My father and his mates were deeply anxious about homosexuality. When I brought my first girlfriend home as a teenager, he told me later that he was relieved to find out I wasn’t gay. When I asked him what made him fear that I was, he told me “every man fears that his son might batting for the other team.”
Fear and shame ruled families in those days. You weren’t allowed to talk about how much you earned. You weren’t allowed to let people know certain family “secrets”. Pregnant unmarried daughters were spirited out of town to give birth and their children were taken from them and adopted out. Gay uncles were looked at askance. People were ashamed to have convict or Aboriginal ancestors.
And my father kept deep secrets of his own.
The Greatest Generation might have attended church, saluted the flag, respected the government, worked hard, and stayed married. But they also were good at everyday sexism, passive racism, homophobia, and xenophobia.
And that’s to say nothing of their disinterest in environmentalism or racial reconciliation or social justice.
When I attended nuclear disarmament protests, or campaigned against apartheid in South Africa, or participated in peace marches as a university student, my father was genuinely perplexed.
Because of all this, and no doubt due to the counter-culture zeitgeist of the 1970s, I became a young man at a time when it was considered absolutely ridiculous to look back to your parents’ or grandparents’ generations for ways to navigate the future.
Today, it seems, so many voices are calling us back to those very generations, as if the “family values” they espoused make them exemplars of the Christian faith.
But it does our World War II veterans—including my late father—no honour to canonise them, for it only turns them into tools for our own culture war agendas.
Culture doesn’t proceed in a straight line. There are societal changes we can bemoan and others we can celebrate.
That’s why I think the church should be neither conservative nor progressive.
Conservatives, by their very nature want to conserve the values of the past. But the past wasn’t entirely Christian, you know? The past wasn’t a good time to be a woman or an Aboriginal person or an immigrant or LGBTIQ. It wasn’t a good time to be an old-growth forest or a river. In fact, for very different reasons, it wasn’t even all that good to be a white male either.
On the other hand, progressives want to leave the past behind completely and shape a fresh, new future, but that’s not possible without drawing upon and learning from the past.
Instead of adopting an unthinking, knee-jerk reaction to all cultural change, and finding ourselves cast as perpetual naysayers and worry-warts, is it not possible for the church to embrace a more nuanced position on all this?
We need to be able to celebrate common grace, to support and even lead ventures that result in less racism, less intimate partner violence, less xenophobia, more racial reconciliation, more justice and generosity. It is possible to affirm the ancient, traditional creeds, while also championing the so-called progressive agendas of inclusion, equity, and peace-making. And it is possible to champion those agendas while also affirming monogamy, fidelity, self-sacrifice and the right to life.
My Dad’s generation got plenty wrong, as we do today. But we can’t move forward into the future by calling on people to remain in the past.