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Big Bang: The Christians

I STILL REMEMBER THE DAY at the end of sixth grade when I came home from school and saw the cover of the latest issue of Time, with no picture, just huge red letters against a plain black background: IS GOD DEAD? I didn’t read it at the time, but it pleased me. Finally, the official publication of upper-middle Americanism was ratifying what the smart people knew but were too polite to say in public: in the modern world, religion had reached its sell-by date.

That 1966 story, written by a pious Roman Catholic who later became an editor of mine at Time, is a rueful, reasonable, intellectually subtle fifty-eight-hundred-word essay on metaphysics in the modern age. Its premise: as rationalism and secularization inexorably sweep the Western world, the only way for religion to thrive is to continue accommodating reason and intellectual subtlety. The article refers only once to fundamentalism and not at all to its rise as an important counterculture of increasingly florid magical thinking. “Nowadays not even fundamentalists are upset by the latest cosmological theories of astronomers,” the writer asserted, and “even devout believers are empirical in outlook.” The joke about Time was always that any trend making the cover was a sure sign the trend had peaked. “Is God Dead?” turned out to be one of the great whoppers of mainstream media myopia. Just a year later Time ran a cover story on “The Hippies”—so it’s strange that the magisterial “Is God Dead?” article barely registered that rising tide of mysticism and magical thinking. “Is God Dead?” contains exactly one glancing reference: “In search of meaning, some believers have desperately turned to psychiatry, Zen or drugs.”

Today’s standard conception of The Sixties concerns youth and strife and hedonism. We remember the spectacular outbursts of spiritual weirdness—from Hare Krishnas to the Charles Mansonites to the Jonestown mass suicide in the 1970s—but that all rose and fell during those dozen cuckoo years and then ceased to matter, right? Meditation and yoga don’t require any specific beliefs. The 1960s branding is not Sex & Drugs & Rock ’n’ Roll & Irrational Belief in the Supernatural. In the popular understanding of the era, the most far-reaching and specifically religious craziness that detonated during those crazy years, extreme American Christianity, is omitted from the legacy.

In the late 1960s, especially in California, a small but conspicuous fraction of the multiplying hippies, aggressively convivial, were young Christian evangelists: the Jesus Movement or Jesus People, as they called themselves, or Jesus freaks, as everyone else called them. The Campus Crusade for Christ organized an “evangelistic blitz” in Berkeley and called Jesus “the world’s greatest revolutionary.” There was a Christian World Liberation Front and a Jesus Christ Light and Power Company. “At the outset practically all the Jesus People were young acid heads,” Tom Wolfe wrote, “who had sworn off drugs…but still wanted the ecstatic spiritualism….This they found in Fundamentalist evangelical holy-rolling Christianity of a sort that ten years before would have seemed utterly impossible to revive in America.” Still, it seemed like a curious secondary sideshow to the true 1960s.

When evangelicalism and fundamentalism started blowing up bigger than ever in the 1980s, becoming synonymous with the political and cultural right, nobody remembered that Christianity had been revivified and crazified in the same 1960s that produced Esalen and Woodstock. The ascendant Christians mostly didn’t look or talk very 1960s, but they shared the sense of unbound freedom to abandon reason and believe whatever they wished, some of them more fearful than hopeful, others radiating enchantment more than paranoia, some in the thrall of ecstatic experience and others, extreme doctrine. They amounted to a counterculture that emerged from one roiling postrational American sea.

Many American Christians, like hippies and New Leftists, also came to feel intolerably oppressed by the Man—culturally, politically, existentially. Since the turn of the century, American fundamentalists had reveled in their sense of persecution by an infidel elite, but in the 1960s the atheist tyranny became official. In 1962 and 1963 the Supreme Court decided in two cases, with only one dissenter in each instance, that it was unconstitutional for public schools to conduct organized prayer or Bible readings, and in 1968 the court finally ruled—unanimously—that states could not ban the teaching of evolution. Until the 1960s, biblical literalists (like white supremacists) had not been prohibited from imposing their beliefs on everyone around them. Losing that legal war added potency to their 1960s deliria. Thus the era turned out to be a curious win-win for extreme Christianity in America. The manifestations of the new anything-goes paradigm that appalled them, such as the hippies and blasphemy and sexual looseness, provoked a backlash that made them more fervently “traditional.” Yet the anything-goes paradigm was simultaneously enabling their beliefs in magic to spread and become more extreme.

PENTECOSTALISM HAD GROWN slowly since its invention by Americans in America, but remained a fringe religion, with fewer than two million practicing U.S. believers—until the 1960s, when all the exotic and exciting fringes blossomed freely and started overtaking the main stems. “Young people today are simply craving for visions,” said one of the most important Pentecostal leaders, David du Plessis, in the 1960s. “So they turn to LSD to get a ‘trip.’ ” His religion let people experience real-seeming, life-changing hallucinations. Unlike the earliest Christians who’d witnessed miracles occasionally, people could now experience magic whenever they wanted, like taking a drug. American abundance knew no bounds.

In the 1960s the TV Pentecostalist Oral Roberts started producing (at NBC studios in Burbank) and airing (on hundreds of stations) regular prime-time specials that featured celebrity performers. He was appearing on Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, Laugh-Inand Hee-Haw. He’d gone mainstream, yet he remained a full-on nut: in addition to the central lunacy of speaking in tongues, he claimed his ministry had brought dead people back to life, and that Jesus had personally appeared and commanded him to build a medical center and, another time, to cure cancer.

The Pentecostal brand still had its déclassé, hillbilly, slum-dweller baggage; other Protestants looked down on those people. But beginning in the 1960s, that stigma stopped extending to its fantastic beliefs and practices. On Easter Sunday 1960, in middle-class San Fernando Valley, the priest at a big Episcopalian church—Episcopalian, no less—announced to his congregation that he possessed the gift of speaking in tongues. This was national news, and a traditionalist Episcopalian magazine ran an excited editorial: “Speaking in tongues is no longer a phenomenon of some odd sect across the street. It is in our midst, and is being practiced by clergy and laity who have stature and good reputation.” Maybe, the high-church editorial figured, “God had chosen this time to dynamite…‘Episcopalian respectabilianism.’ ”

The respectabilian James Pike—for years head of the religion department at Columbia University and host of a weekly TV talk show on ABC, now the crusading liberal Episcopalian bishop of northern California—was among the most famous clergymen in America. Alarmed that a tenth of his Bay Area priests were speaking in tongues, he commissioned an official report, which found that the tongues craze “strikes a familiar note to the psychiatrist,” deluded people taking the Bible way too literally. Bishop Pike himself was getting into trouble for not taking the Bible literally enough—he’d called the virgin birth a “primitive myth” and said he didn’t “believe in the ascension of Jesus into heaven.” Eventually he forced the Episcopalians to put him on trial for heresy, which in turn forced the church to declare the very idea of heresy “outdated.”

In other words, he was a great man of reason—until he wasn’t. When the full 1960s erupted, middle-aged Bishop Pike, living under the volcano in San Francisco, got carried away. He became close friends with Philip K. Dick, the author of brilliant speculative fictions in which reality is always uncertain and in flux. Dick, an enthusiast of psychedelics and amphetamines, had an increasingly hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality in life. Pike experimented with hallucinogens himself. He and his mistress (the stepmother of Dick’s wife) believed they witnessed psychokinetic events in their apartment. In 1967 she used sleeping pills to kill herself there, and three months after that Pike used a psychic to try to contact his dead son during a séance broadcast on TV. In 1969, during a vision quest with his new, third wife in the Judean Desert—the wilderness where Satan tried to make Jesus prove he had superpowers and come to the dark side—Pike got lost and died.

But back to the glossolalia that he initially condemned. It started happening in all the mainline Protestant churches. Du Plessis, the guy who saw LSD as a gateway drug to tongues, became known as “Mr. Pentecostal,” the ecumenical ambassador spreading it to other denominations. Scholars and religious writers referred to “neo-Pentecostalism,” but such a ten-dollar term was never going to catch on, and it still contained the P-word. A mainline minister and public relations executive who’d spoken in tongues for years crafted the solution. The everyday magic sweeping churches, he declared, was a “charismatic renewal.”

Charismata was an obscure religious word for the supernatural powers God very occasionally gave to certain humans, so it was theologically legitimate. But even better, charismatic had just become the new go-to adjective for people who were naturally exciting, like President Kennedy. The nondenominational Protestant rebranding of Pentecostalism as “charismatic Christianity” took off. In 1967 some Roman Catholic theology teachers started speaking in tongues, and charismatic Catholicism was born. However, the charismatics also created their own new churches and sects, because that’s what Americans do. The most important early ones started in southern California.

In 1965 a minister left the L.A. Pentecostal faction founded by Aimee Temple McPherson to set up his own church in Orange County, not far from Disneyland. His Calvary Chapel specifically targeted youth. “The people in my generation,” his baby boomer son-in-law explained recently, having succeeded the founder, “could relate to Calvary Chapel. You could wear your surf trunks, T-shirt, and flip-flops to church and carry your Bible.” Also, a regular “afterglow” period followed each sermon, when people spoke in tongues. Calvary Chapel services became so popular, the founder had to buy a circus tent to accommodate the crowds.

Soon seven thousand charismatics a week were attending services, and the church started bursting forth spores, reproducing by the hundreds across the country. In the American Protestant way, these new churches were really franchises, sharing a brand—the name, the groovy music, and the belief that God is still granting ordinary folks magical superpowers. And because Calvary Chapel, a large denomination, was created in America during and after the 1960s, it insists it’s “nondenominational”—like American politicians who began insisting at the same time they’re antigovernment.

One of those Calvary spores sprouted nearby, in a fancier Orange County town. Its minister, John Wimber, was not just targeting unchurched young SoCal baby boomers: he was their cool older brother, a bearded rock ’n’ roll keyboardist who’d played with the Righteous Brothers and been a Quaker pastor before turning evangelical and then neo-Pentecostal. In fact, for the more conservative Calvary Chapel founder, he came to seem too relaxed and nondoctrinaire. So Wimber split, aligning with a charismatic Christian group that held services featuring rock music on the beach in Santa Monica. (Bob Dylan found Jesus there.) Wimber became the “spiritual father”—it seemed he could miraculously cure the sick…make the healthy crumple in ecstasy…and drive demons from the possessed. The church was called the Vineyard, and Wimber became known as Mr. Signs and Wonders, presiding over its rapid national franchising. Excellent post-1960s branding, vineyard: plenty of references in the Bible but also chic, natural, upscale, Californian.

Because the Vineyard and Calvary Chapel were both booming, and because neither called itself Pentecostal nor obsessed over tongues, they made it easier for Christians in established churches to adopt charismatic modes. I’m weeping, I’m laughing, I’m falling to my knees or declaiming prophecy or speaking in tongues, my backache went away, the traffic jam suddenly cleared, God and Jesus are doing it all for me—I feel it’s true, so it’s true. American Christianity was incorporating more magical realism and special effects than ever. By the end of the 1970s, even Billy Graham gave his okay to speaking in tongues.

The differences among Christian true believers in the late 1960s and ’70s mirrored the differences among the new bohemian masses. The charismatics were like the hippies and New Agers, experiencing ecstasy and seeing signs and wonders, demanding cool music and clothes in church. The fundamentalists were like the New Left, insular zealots focused on arguing doctrine, hating the unrighteous, and awaiting the final battle. Charismatics were the Christian equivalent of the millions of circa-1970 hippies who didn’t so much disagree with the radicals’ critiques of the rotten world but were ultimately more interested in peace and love and awesomeness.

THE “CONSERVATIVE EVANGELICALS,” as fundamentalists were now calling themselves, doubled down on their literal readings of the Bible, on Heaven and Hell being as real as Disneyland and Las Vegas, and on the end of the world and Jesus’s return coming soon. Because it was the 1960s, that dogma was about to get even more amazing.

From the Scopes Trial up to the 1960s, even many evangelicals had accommodated scientific findings concerning scientific questions: each “day” in Genesis lasted for aeons, Earth is billions of years old, plants and animals and humans came into existence gradually, God used chemistry and biology as His means of creation. But then in 1961 a pair of diehards, a Bible teacher at a fundamentalist seminary and a civil engineering professor, published Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications. The authors had graduated from Princeton and Rice, and their book was more than five hundred pages long, so it seemed legit. Genesis Flood almost single-handedly retrieved creationism from the dustbin of Christian intellectual history—just as the academic mainstream was starting to say that science couldn’t necessarily be trusted as the arbiter of truth. The engineering professor cofounded the Creation Research Society in 1963 and the Institute for Creation Research in the early 1970s. Thus creationism in its most implausible form—God made it all in six regular days six thousand years ago—now had an institutionalized movement led by science-y Ph.D.’s. Within a generation, it would become a piece of American Christian orthodoxy.

Over creationism and other issues, hardline evangelicals began reasserting supremacy in the more conservative evangelical denominations. The most hidebound of the big Lutheran branches, the Missouri Synod, recommitted to the dogma that everything in the Bible is factually true. At its 1965 convention, over the objections of a reasonable president, it declared its “conviction that the events recorded in the book of Jonah did occur,” that Jonah was a “real man” swallowed by a “real whale” until his prayers convinced God to make the whale spit him out. The head of its most prestigious seminary explained that no, the Jonah tale is like a lot of stuff in the Bible—a parable, not a factual account. Both men were purged, and the hard-liners took over.

The author of The Message of Genesis, which came out the same year as The Genesis Flood, was a Southern Baptist biblical scholar, and the Southern Baptists’ press published it. His gist was that Genesis is all true-ish, but the famous early chapters—God creating Heaven and Earth, Adam and Eve and the serpent in Eden—are myth, divinely inspired but not strictly factual. Also, Noah’s flood didn’t cover the entire planet. Looking back from the twenty-first century, what’s amazing is that this reasonable take seemed reasonable to evangelicals.

But the moderates were beginning to lose control. After a ruckus, the Message of Genesis professor was fired from his seminary, and official Southern Baptist doctrine had its first revision ever—now mentioning Hell and the end-time and being open to the possibility of dating Jesus’s return. They elected a president who preached that Satan’s Antichrist would literally take over the world before Jesus’s return.

Outsiders didn’t register the scale and scope of what was happening as it was happening. When the Supreme Court finally decided in 1968 that states couldn’t outlaw the teaching of evolution, they figured they were just doing the judicial cleanup following the de facto die-off of primitive Christianity. “Only Arkansas and Mississippi have such ‘anti-evolution’ or ‘monkey’ laws on their books,” the sniffy majority opinion noted, and nobody had been prosecuted under Arkansas’s law, so these creationism laws were “more of a curiosity than a vital fact of life in these States.”

To the confident, complacent midcentury Establishment, this didn’t look like the tip of an iceberg, let alone what it actually was: the astounding peak of one mountain in a range rising from the American depths, part of the emerging continent of Fantasyland. Meanwhile other Christian alternate-reality institutions were popping up out of the murk like an archipelago.

In the 1960s, as entertainment became more and more a feature of every part of everyday American life, the old Sunday-morning ghetto of quasi-ecumenical religious TV came to seem impossibly dull. At the same time, the most aggressively entertaining forms of religion naturally thrived and grew and finally dominated. Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism and fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism are by their nature closer to show business than mainline Protestantism and Catholicism are: high-energy preachers, fantastic melodrama, superheroes and supervillains, amazing effects, over-the-top endings. The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), founded by the thirty-one-year-old Southern Baptist minister Pat Robertson, a Yale Law graduate and U.S. senator’s son, began in the 1960s. In 1966 it launched its flagship program, a nightly two-hour variety-and-miracles show called The 700 Club, which soon starred Robertson. The first star of the show had been a Pentecostal minister—Jim Bakker, who hosted with his wife Tammy Faye, and promptly went on to become headliners for a new network founded by Pentecostals, Trinity Broadcasting.

TO MANY AMERICANS in many different ways, the 1960s and early ’70s felt like the edge of an abyss. That feeling fed right into the revived Protestant preoccupation with Armageddon and the end-time. In 1967 Oxford republished The Scofield Reference Bible, the first fresh edition since it was created in the early 1900s—the Bible, but with parascripture about the six-thousand-year-old Earth and impending apocalypse and rapture built right in. In the 1960s this tendentious new improved American Bible was, so to speak, born again.

Starting in 1970, you didn’t even have to bother with the confusing language of Ezekiel and Daniel and Revelation. Instead of ancient and cryptic poetic prose, The Late, Great Planet Earth was an easy-to-understand explanation focused on the exciting prophecies and studded with digestible bits from Scripture. The author was a knock-around Texas evangelical named Hal Lindsey. The book’s title gives a sense of his jolly approach to explaining the imminent apocalypse. Lindsey understood the new era in which he was pitching his Bible decoder kit. The opening epigraph would seem to undermine his entire project: “ ‘We believe whatever we want to believe.’ Demosthenes.” He began by arguing that you should believe his book because nowadays people believe all kinds of nutty occult things. “Astrology is having the greatest boom in its history….The hippy musical Hair has its own staff astrologer….The Bible makes fantastic claims; but these claims are no more startling than those of present-day astrologers, prophets and seers.”

With conspiracism suddenly on the rise, The Late, Great Planet Earth purported to reveal the details of the evil über-conspiracy—how Satan and the Antichrist and False Prophet and their minions in all their respectable disguises were taking over the world. For instance, those confusing references to “Gog” throughout the Bible? Obviously the Soviet Union. And the “beast coming up out of the sea, having ten horns”? The new European Economic Community! (Even though in 1970 it had only six members.) What’s more, the EEC was created by the Treaty of Rome—and in Revelation, of course, “the great whore” Babylon is Rome! And so on. The Late, Great Planet Earth was the bestselling (so-called) nonfiction book of the entire decade, and it continued selling a million copies a year for the rest of the millennium. Its template was fill-in-the-blanks-flexible enough to incorporate all new satanic agents as they emerged—China! Iran! vaccines! Obama! Pope Francis! ISIS!

For Lindsey and American evangelicals generally, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was unmistakable evidence of the fulfillment of prophecies. Before the final events can play out, the Jews had to return to Israel. They had! And in 1967, with end-time fever beginning to rise in America, Israelis defeated the invading Arab armies and retook Jerusalem—“And they shall fall by the edge of the sword,” it says in Luke 21:24, “and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles.” In the 1960s and ’70s, with the Middle East beginning to teeter on the edge of real-life Armageddon, this particular fantasy had a massive revival and eruption.

As the new modes of Christian hysteria boomed, Americans lost interest in the reasonable and nebulous on Sunday mornings. The Southern Baptists became the biggest American denomination around 1965 and kept growing. The ultrafantasy faction of Presbyterians broke away to form their own denomination and took off. By the end of the 1960s, most U.S. Protestants were evangelicals. Back in 1960, the largest Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God, had 508,000 American members; by the end of the 1970s, its total U.S. members and “adherents” had grown to 2.6 million. The great pioneers in freakishly innovative Christianity, the Latter-day Saints, had grown slowly during the twentieth century. But the Mormons had a great 1960s and ’70s, with U.S. membership almost tripling. In fact, their strenuous outward normality as individuals—so cheerfully hardworking, sober, and square, so un-1960s—was another way outré beliefs became normalized.

It was the evangelical Christians’ involvement in national politics that finally, once and for all, made everyone pay attention to their ascendancy. And not, at first, Republican politics. In America, “the odd spectacle of politicians using ecstatic, nonrational, holy-rolling religion in presidential campaigning was to appear first…in 1976,” Tom Wolfe wrote that very fall. (The ellipses are in the original.) The vehicle was “Jimmy Carter…absolutely aglow with mystical religious streaks. Carter turned out to be an evangelical Baptist who had recently been ‘born again’ and ‘saved,’ who had ‘accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior’—i.e., he was of the Missionary lectern-pounding amen ten-finger C-major-chord Sister-Martha-at-the-Yamaha-keyboard loblolly piny-woods Baptist faith.” This was a major moment. In modern times, presidential candidates had been obliged to downplay their odd religions—George Romney his Mormonism, and Kennedy his Catholicism. But Carter’s evangelicalism helped him win.

At his second National Prayer Breakfast as president, in 1978, he remarked that “the words ‘born again’ were [now] vividly impressed on the consciousness of many Americans who were not familiar with their meaning.” Indeed so. A decade earlier, if a president had been Carteresque in this way—indeed, if any famous or powerful nonpreacher had been so religiously out of the closet—most people would’ve been weirded out.

Around the same time, as Robertson and Jerry Falwell moved into the right-wing political lane as well as their strictly religious lane, the news media began covering them as well. In the 1970s both founded their own universities, Regent and Liberty, as Oral Roberts had done in the 1960s. Unlike those brazen newcomers, America’s most famous and beloved evangelical, Billy Graham, had avoided pushing too hard against reason and science and always made nice with powerful politicians of all persuasions. Even though Graham’s basic religious beliefs were not much different from Robertson’s and Falwell’s, he now seemed even more moderate and mainstream by comparison.

For three hundred years in America, the overall Christian trendline had been in the direction of moderation, a long arc bending toward reason. The Puritans ejected Anne Hutchinson. The Methodists calmed down and became ordinary. The Mormons were quarantined in the desert, Pentecostals in hollers and slums. Creationism and end-of-the-world schedules became jokes. Midcentury American religion was like TV, respectable and bland.

But then during and after the 1960s and ’70s, supernatural beliefs intensified, proliferated, and achieved permanent traction. This time as never before, America’s renegade magical-thinking extremists won. False ideas from the past about the primordial past (creationism) suddenly had a huge dedicated constituency, as did wild ideas from the past about the predestined future (the end-time). And the conviction that the present is just like the magical past of Jesus’s time—tongues, faith healing, personal messages from Heaven—spread like mad.

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