Saturday, June 9, 2007

Hippies and fundies unite?

The cover story of the July issue of Reason magazine has an interesting title: The Aquarians & the Evangelicals (How left-wing hippies and right-wing fundamentalists created a libertarian America.)

Yes, as per usual with this libertarian magazine that seems to get wackier as the years go by, the article is tucked between a review of mushroom use and a sidebar piece that on the cover is labelled "Defending 'Prostitots,'" (the author explains why third-graders in thongs are just engaging in business as usual, so to speak -- nothing to worry about.)

But with a title like that, it's hard not to pull the issue off the shelf and give the rag a read. Brink Lindsey starts his article with two events held 3 days apart in the spring of 1967 -- the declaration of the "Summer of Love" in Haight-Ashbury and the dedication of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Lindsey calls each of these events "coming out parties," with 18,000 attending the Tulsa event (4000 were expected) including Oklahoma's most prominent elected officials, and an unspecified attendance at the press conference in San Fransisco for the Aquarians.

Lindsey correctly states that the two events "revealed an America [where] the postwar liberal consensus had shattered."

Vying to take its place were two sides of an enormous false dichotomy, both animated by outbursts of spiritual energy. Those two eruptions of millenarian enthusiasm, the hippies and the evangelical revival, would inspire a left/right division that persists to this day.

Lindsey writes that one set of half-truths were pitted against each other. The left, he writes, was "alive to the new possibilities created by the unprecedented mass affluence of the postwar years" but hostile to what had created the affluence that made the left's counter-culture possible.

By contrast, the right defended the institutions that created the affluence but "shrank from the social dynamism they were unleashing."

One side denounced capitalism but gobbled its fruits; the other cursed the fruits while defending the system that bore them.

What follows is a familiar recounting of the 1960s (perhaps useful for those who don't remember them, but otherwise nondescript) followed by the less-familiar history of the "counter-counterculture" of the evangelical revival.

There are some stylish passages, such as his concluding paragraph about the counterculture and its quasi-spiritual nexus between psychedelic drug use and political radicalism directed toward the civil-rights movement:

Guided into those transcendent realms, many young and impressionable minds were set aflame with visions of radical change. One assault after another on conventional wisdom and authority gained momentum.

Anti-war protesters, feminists, student rebels, environmentalists, and gays all took their turns marching to the solemn strains of "We Shall Overcome"; all portrayed themselves as inheritors of the legacy of Montgomery and Birmingham and Selma.

And the scent of marijuana wafted around all their efforts.

Meanwhile, in spite of the turn of the century beating it had taken, "the old-time religion did not die. In the South, in small towns and rural areas, among the less educated, the flame still burned."

The flame was directly fanned by the counterculture, to be sure, just as Lindsey says. But even more than this, evangelicals (and increasingly, traditionally-minded Christians in mainline Protestant denominations and in the American Catholic Church) watched as the old liberal social, political, journalistic, entertainment, and religious establishment crumbled before the onslaught of that counterculture, waving the white flag at every turn.

This was the same establishment that had banished "fundamentalists" to the backroads of America, and suddenly, that establishment didn't look quite so intimidating anymore.

Other factors also played a role, such as the infusion of oil wealth into families in the Southwest who saw no reason to give up the old-time religion just because they were now millionaires.

In spite of the flourishing of Christian colleges and universities during the decades that ensued, Lindsey has harsh words for evangelicals:

There is no point in mincing words: The stunning advance of evangelicalism marked a dismal intellectual regress in American religion.

...resurgent conservative Protestantism entailed a widespread surrender of believers' critical faculties. The celebration of unreason on the left had met its match on the right.

He gives a little back by acknowledging that evangelicals "summoned up the fortitude to defend a cultural position that was... worth defending." Things like family life, self-restraint, a work ethic and patriotism. He also acknowledges that most leading evangelicals were far from reactionary when it came to race -- their crusades and para-church gatherings were racially integrated long before the official church organizations were.

Lindsey sees the "Jesus Freak" movement as the beginnings of a sort of synthesis, and in the process of telling the story of the very odd Arthur Blessitt, recounts the story that it was Blessitt who led George W. Bush to become "born again" in 1984.

All interesting, but a strained analysis -- the Jesus People movement inexorably moved into mainstream evangelicalism, and had only used the language and look of the counterculture ("getting high on Jesus" and all that sort of thing) as a way of trying to attract converts from that counterculture.

Lindsey misses the fundamentally derivative character of evangelical popular culture in general -- the modern mega-church has taken this process of "Christianizing" pop-culture to an art form.

The final conclusions are equally strained -- Lindsey writes that the revival of traditional Christianity played a crucial role in the reinvigoration of capitalism in America. True enough, but then he goes on to say that this capitalism had an unintended consequence:

[It] brought with it a blooming, buzzing economic and cultural ferment that bore scant resemblance to any nostalgic vision of the good old days.

This was conservatism' curious accomplishment: Marching under the banner of old time religion, it made the world safe for the secular, hedonistic values of Aquarius.

The resulting mix is a victory for (not surprisingly) libertarianism, the only creed that encompasses fully free markets and fully hedonistic morals.

There are a few major flaws in Lindsey's conclusions, starting with the fact that a nation where most Americans labor at least a third of the year to pay their tax bill is hardly libertarian in any sense that the founders of modern libertarianism would recognize.

Lindsey's conclusions are a reflection of modern American libertarianism, which knows a lot about hemp and very little about Hayek. Everything is great because we have a mouthful of mushrooms and third-graders in thongs, but somehow the idea of resistance to the explosive and intrusive growth of government has taken a decisive back seat in libertarian circles.

Lindsey, unlike most libertarians, acknowledges the critical role that traditional thought and culture has played in defending and preserving the economic freedoms that are linked inextricably with our political liberties. But he has no explanation for why the 19th c. liberal tradition (the intellectual forbear of classical economic libertarianism) was unable to preserve the institutions that made that development of liberal (again, in the 19th c. sense) thought possible.

One recalls Paul Elmer More's biting summary of that old self-destructive liberal world: "There is something at once comical and vicious in the spectacle of those men of property who take advantage of their leisure to dream out vast benevolent schemes which would render their own self-satisfied career impossible."

As the old Liberal party in England dissolved before a surging Labour Party, a resurgent Tory/Conservative Party came to the realization that 19th c. liberalism was an anomaly that had only been rendered possible because it was perched atop a steady mass of tradition in that country. Disraeli more than perhaps anyone came to an understanding that those traditions were the possession of all Englishmen -- not just the landed or privileged classes.

Putting this in an American context, libertarians like Lindsey grasp the fact that widespread hedonism is only made possible by widespread affluence, and widespread affluence is only made possible by widespread economic freedoms.

Lindsey seems to be saying to adherents of traditional Christianity, "thanks for saving capitalism -- now hither to the backwoods where you belong!" This will leave him with his synthesis, with economic freedoms and a lack of the burdensome moral restraints of traditional Christianity.

All of this seems vaguely familiar -- a liberal consensus in politics, economics, religion... And just as the old liberal consensus crumbled in a crisis of uncertainty in the face of socialism, one suspects that this new liberal/libertarian consensus will do the same, since the dollar is not the center that holds.

If Lindsey is right, there will be another counterculture hostile to the institutions that create affluence, even though that affluence creates the leisure necessary for such a hedonistic counterculture to arise.

And then, the hillbillies with their old-time religion will need to come riding to capitalism's rescue once again.

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