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.
23 thoughts on “Do we really want to conserve all the values of that so-called “Christian era”?”
Just to show I read it Through Frosty. Here’s my comment in here.
How is it possible to:…. 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.
Thomas, I can’t claim to know Mike’s inner thoughts, but I think it has to do with “staying on topic.” The creeds have nothing to do with how we judge one another… they are about what God has done and is doing and the work done through Jesus and the work that continues through the church, empowered by the Spirit. It would be in line with the character of God and Jesus’ teachings to extend inclusion, equality and peacemaking, while also keeping a dialogue going about “affirming monogamy, fidelity, self-sacrifice and the right to life,” simply because of the image of God that is in each and every one of us.
I know it seems oxymoronic, but so do the ways of His Kingdom, no?
Amen! Let’s have some balance and avoid identifying too closely with one or the other side of the many polemical debates our society is dragged down by right now.
Nice one Mike! Totally agree.
Happy new year, and a great post to kick off 2019.
Thanks for being such a faithful reader and correspondent, Dave.
Thanks Michael, I have said for a long time that much of what is surfacing such as the sexual abuse in churches and families, domestic violence, addiction, etc. is just a revealing of something that was going on in the ‘good ole’ days’ and just now surfacing and probably because there is now a place to say it.
I was also born in 1961 and so much of this article resonates with me. My father had 2 daughters, no sons and made it very plain that he regarded us and our mother as second class citizens. My mother was compelled to leave paid work when she married and from then on was grudgingly given ‘pocket money ‘ by our father. I’m so happy to see the movement towards equality for woman in the areas of sport, politics, shared parenting and equal wages. I look forward to my daughter and sons fulfilling their potential without being constrained by cultural mores.
Hi Mike, such an important reflection for all of us who grew up in that period of certainty. Hugh Mackay describes post WWII as the time of ‘marriage madness’ and comments that church attendance rates were an unsustainable historical anomaly in Australia.
I remember the struggles between the churches where my Dad was minister and his views on Vietnam, the role of women, social concern and a commitment to Indigenous rights.
One of the impacts of this struggle amongst the children of many is a disenchantment with organised Christianity and the attitudes of the then leaders. This has resulted in many abanding the church – rather than a disenchantment with Jesus. Such a dichotomy is a challenge for us as leaders with regard to our kids!
Good one, John. Great to see your name and comments here.
Yes! A great insight and word for our times. As a United Methodist pastor, I had cause to update my profile through a questionaire provide by the denomination. One question left me with only one choice that fit – Progressive. Another question asked what kind of leader I am. My answer to that was pretty much how I would define “Incarnational”, and “missional” – being with to give witness to Jesus. (With no shortage of influence/inspiration from your work!)
The article throws ” the baby out with the bath water” approach. Sure, there were many things that should have been done better: BUT we certainly grew up in a peaceful country compared to today. We NEVER locked a door, walked home from work , late at night, without fear. We didn’t have to fear a law suit if you showed a courtesy to one of the opposite sex. Freedom of speech was taken for granted & if abused , lawful means were there for redress. This article seems to say both philosophies can co-exist…. that is impossible. For safety, children need protection, the mess in this area is tragic. One last point…. we are made in ” the image of God” , created for Him & to express that loving relationship to our fellow man. That doesn’t mean we condone what is evil.
You might have lived without fear but plenty of people did not have the same experience. My family didn’t. There are a whole lot of people who now have less fear, more peace, more freedom than they did in the past.
Freedom of speech? Back then, if you said the “wrong” things you could get into a lot of trouble (especially if you were the “wrong” kind of person). There was also a great deal more censorship. As for social disapproval regarding speech and expression, it was even more rigid back then. But perhaps if you were someone who held culturally acceptable views and you were a culturally acceptable kind of person, you might not notice all the restrictions. Yes, there is a problem with overzealous language policing, etc. in some circles but the people upholding that kind of ideology and behaviour are a small minority of the population and, while it’s a problem, it’s not the threat it’s sometimes made out to be.
Thank you, Alana. I agree. Only the privileged or blind can say everything was better in the past.
I agree with Robyn as to surviving culture at large. And kindness to my neighbor whom ever they may be is my honest goal. However there will always be extremes that have to be dealt with and not ignored.
I agree with a lot of this. As a child growing up in the 60’s and a teen in 70’s I believed in Jesus and went forward at a Billy Graham crusade. My parents were more culturally sensitive and inclusive than many having lived in India. I enjoyed Sunday School and won a yearly prize for attendance, but left the church after graduating Sunday School at 12, because I could not relate to the formal boredom of church and I can’t stand organ music 🙂 I have since realized that it is Jesus of the gospel I accepted not the entire rigmarole of Western Church Culture, although much of that has improved by now. So yes please let’s live in the moment and be forward thinking. In Bible College I learned that one strength of Christianity is its ability to inculturate.
In that times , my Mum was there for us when we came home and the smell in the kitchen was yummy and my mum helped with part time work and we were respectful to each other and our elderly were known as Aunt, uncle and Rev, or domineee, expression on grief and sex were silent and children innocent but conversation was on the meal times and bible read, with prayers., TV slowly distracted us.racial language not known in our household, just you were a hippie if the men’s hair was longer then the ears by Dads opinions and hardly had a sickie inhisworking life.
As an isolated country bumpkin baby boomer, I had a great childhood, but we don’t need to bring back the good old days at all – much of it is alive and well –
We still hear (some) Christian leaders speaking out against same sex relationships who aren’t actively seeking redress for the abused, or to prevent abuse continuing –
In my work I visit many lovely Christians from all walks of life – many ‘believe our country is being overrun by .. refugees. Who are really here to take over and subjugate us all. Witness the facebook memes about refugees and foreign aid to judge if our society is prejudiced or not –
I am glad women no longer HAVE to be the homemaker – but I wish that vital role was celebrates more, whichever parent performs it, and valued properly.
I am sad for the women who weren’t able to be independent – and for the men, who were filled with guilt and shame for not being a sufficient provider so their wives had to work. I’m all the more astonished at the women in my own family – successful doctors, vets, property managers from as far back as 1920 –
We don’t need to bring back the good old days, and blindly follow, but I very much agree – we need to consider well what they did right, not just what they did wrong – analyse success as well as failure (ref Rasmus Ankersen).
Keep writing Mike!
What a well balanced, well considered article, Mike. My parents, fearful of the much touted “domino effect” thought it an honour for me to be conscripted to fight in Vietnam.
Fast forward forty years and I would have encouraged my son to be a conscientious objector.
Teaching “Thou shalt not kill” in Sunday School one week, and beginning training in operating an assortment of deadly weapons the next contributed to my PTSD as much as my experiences in the war zone.
Thank God it taught me to begin questioning the rampant authoritarianism and conservative fearmongering I grew up with.
Do we really have to accept all the values of the “progressive left”??
Some good thoughts there Mike but a little under reasoned though. Yes let us by all means recognise the good progress some civilisations have made in some areas but you seem to have missed “it” in your enthusiasm for progress.
…”I regularly hear people calling us back to the Christian values of our fathers’ generation.” The main reason people shake their heads & want to go back is because of the many places that progress has taken us & we don’t like it.
You talk about the overtures of “I love Lucy” & “Love thy neighbour” which you found oh so disgusting but you forgot to mention those wholesome TV programs & films we have progressed to. Now you can have as much “Sex in the city” as you like, “Married at first sight” or even “Bad mothers” just to mention a few. Your progress has even ushered in a sexual revolution with abortion or child murder on demand but who cares about a small inconvenience like that?
There can be a huge difference between “Christ’s values” & man’s values.
The conservative Christian rightly wants conservation of righteous biblical & Godly values, based on the truthful teaching of scripture from God & the life of Christ. Values & traditions formed by fallible men & women of Christian thinking are not necessarily Godly. Unfortunately a correct Christian value can be so easily distorted & thus mocked as a result of the practise of hypocritical living as you have pointed out.
“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?”
That is quite a judgement from a progressive but the Church is very used to being wrongfully “cast” & judged by a world which cannot tolerate the righteousness of God & who want to call right wrong & wrong right. The conservative Church is not going to reinterpret or change scripture just to please the world or even yourself because you have had some sort of progressive enlightenment.
If you were a woman, an Aboriginal, disabled, or LGBTIQ I’m certain you wouldn’t be thinking you wanted to go back to the old days. Your white male privilege has blinded you to the value of social progress over the past 50 years.
Not at all Mike. I agree with you on that. “Yes let us by all means recognise the good progress some civilisations have made in some areas ..”. I actually never said I want to go back!! Your Left progressive outlook is trying to put me in in a box. Once again there are changes for the worst & some for the better with which you do not compute. There is no way my 8 year old grand daughter should be told that she is free to choose which sex she would like to be at her age. If you think abortion on demand is a good thing then I would need to reassess where I think your christian values come from.
You are so trapped in this left/right, conservative/progressive binary that you are blinded to the possibility of being able to both celebrate social progress for the disadvantaged and be pro life. There’s a refusal in you to be open to the views of those you deem to be ‘left’ that is very unbecoming in an older man.
Been away for a while. Sorry Mike I cannot agree with your statements about me. You continually want to sum me up & put me in a box. You are good at that.
I have no refusal to be open to other views on whatever spectrum you want to consider. Why do you think I read your column? I do celebrate good social progress but quite clearly you & I may differ on what is deemed good. As I said previously, you mentioned some good areas but failed dismally in recognizing there are many ungodly areas as well.
So far you have mentioned the colour of my skin & my age as a means to belittle me without addressing any of my points. I get that a lot when trying to discuss differences of opinions with those whom stand with your leaning & tolerance for other opinions. I wish you well my Christian brother.