Prominent Christian nationalist leader Donald Wildmon, the founder of the American Family Association (AFA), once waxed nostalgic about his idyllic upbringing in small-town Tupelo, Miss., in the late 1940s and ’50s.
“Society as a whole viewed moral behavior as being an important element in life,” Wildmon wrote in the AFA Journal. “The combined pressures from society’s institutions managed to keep the publicly accepted morality based on Judeo-Christian values.”
Wildmon added, “Back in those days our streets were safer, our homes and families more solid, our crime less violent and our moral standards higher. Sure there were wrongs. But there was also a norm which could be used to address these wrongs.”
Wildmon’s not the only figure on the far right who pines for the allegedly placid 1950s. In an article titled “Two and a Half Cheers for the 1950s!” that ran on the website of “The Natural Family,” an anti-LGBTQ group that extols “traditional” families, Bryce J. Christensen admits that the decade had some issues – he cited the Soviet arms build-up and economic problems – but goes on to assert, “Yet those problems should not themselves obscure the social and cultural achievements of the decade, many of which are traceable to a remarkably vibrant family life that was – for all of its real defects and inadequacies – demonstrably stronger and healthier than the family life of the early twenty-first century.”
It’s a common refrain among the Religious Right: The 1950s were a golden age to them; it’s a period worth replicating today. In 2016, 70% of white evangelicals told Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) that they believe the country has changed for the worse since the 1950s. They were the only group that felt that way. Black Protestants, Latino Catholics, religious minorities and religiously unaffiliated Americans all said the country has improved since the 1950s.
It’s not surprising that Christian nationalists would have a love affair with the 1950s. Their movement is overwhelmingly white and promotes male dominance in both church and state. For many white Christian men, the 1950s were a great time – after all, they had dominant power and control, and it was their values that usually drove public policy.
For everyone else, the decade left a lot to be desired. The obvious fault of the 1950s – one that’s rarely discussed by Christian nationalist groups when they’re extolling Ozzie and Harriet – is the rampant racism that permeated just about all aspects of American society and the use of terror, bombings, murder and denial of the vote to systematically deny basic rights to Black citizens.
Jim Crow was the official policy of the South, and non-whites could legally be denied service in restaurants, hotels and other places. Black motorists traveling long distances often relied on a “green book,” a publication that listed places willing to serve non-white travelers.
Violence was a constant threat. Racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan used lynchings as a method to spread terror. Last year, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., unveiled a monument dedicated specifically to victims of lynchings or racially motivated murder during the 1950s. It commemorates 24 men and women.
A unanimous Supreme Court had handed down Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, ordering an end to the racial segregation of public schools, but the decision was actively resisted throughout the South, leading to the rise of private, predominantly Christian schools and private school voucher programs so white parents could avoid sending their kids to integrated public schools. All over the country, Blacks were kept out of certain neighborhoods due to restrictive covenants or were told to stay off the streets after dark in “sundown towns.”
In short, the ’50s were idyllic for some people – mainly white Christians who held power. Today, their descendants in the Religious Right continue to idolize the decade. Why? Here are five reasons:
White men dominated politics, business and other spheres of public life. Feminism was still in the future, LGBTQ rights were unheard of and nonbelievers kept a low profile. Few women attended college in the 1950s, and some Ivy League schools flatly barred them. Looking at higher education across the board, the student ratio was nine men for every woman. Women weren’t encouraged to go to college: Public high schools often assumed that women would marry within a few years after graduating, and thus focused on ensuring that they had a strong grounding in the domestic arts (such as with coursework in “home economics”).
Women who started college in the 1950s often dropped out to get married. In 1950, of all the bachelor’s degrees issued in America, only 27 percent went to women. Part of the problem was that there was great resistance to women entering professional fields. While certain jobs were deemed “feminine” – nursing, secretarial work and teaching – women faced an uphill climb breaking into male-dominated professions such as law, medicine, corporate management and others. In 1952, there was one woman in the U.S. Senate and 10 in the House of Representatives (compared to a total of 127 in both chambers today).
Women in the 1950s had a very difficult time establishing credit, a situation that was not remedied until the passage of federal legislation in 1974. And while women had achieved the right to vote in 1920, the franchise was routinely denied to non-white women until 1965. Women of all races could also be summarily dismissed from juries.
A time traveler from the 1950s would hardly recognize the situation in 2020. More women than men now attend college, and in 2014 the number of women with a bachelor’s degree outpaced men for the first time. While women still face discrimination, sexual harassment, a wage gap and other challenges in the workplace, a range of professional fields is open to them that would have been unthinkable in the 1950s.
During the 1950s, Americans who identified as LGBTQ stayed firmly in the closet. Even an accusation that you were gay could cause a job loss – and there was no legal recourse. Atheists, freethinkers, humanists and other skeptics of religion tended to keep their views to themselves. During an era when being godless was tied to our arch-enemies in the Soviet Union, few people were willing to run the risk of being openly critical of religion.
The culture was tightly controlled and often bowed to religious norms: Censorship of the arts was fairly common in the 1950s. The Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as the “Hays Code,” was in effect and imposed a strict version of traditional morality on movies.
The code stated that no film should lower “the moral standards of those who see it.” Among the things it prohibited were any profanity that included the words God, the Lord and the Lord Jesus Christ; ridicule of the clergy; and willful offense to any religion. (Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America during the code’s adoption, was a Presbyterian elder; the code itself was drafted by Martin Quigley, a Catholic layman, and the Rev. Daniel A. Lord, a Catholic priest.)
The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1915 that movies were not protected by the First Amendment. That decision would later be overturned, but filmmakers had voluntarily adopted the code to avoid government-imposed censorship.
Novels, stage plays, magazines and other forms of media were often subject to review by censorship boards and/or religious leaders. While material that touched on sexual matters could be published, it was often difficult for the authors of such works to see them distributed because of pressure from local religious leaders. In an age when many shops were locally owned, it was easy for religious pressure groups to sway skittish businessmen.
“Christian nation” beliefs were popular: In 1955, 92 percent of Americans identified as Christian – 70% Protestant and 22% Catholic. Even though the U.S. Constitution says nothing about Christianity receiving favored status, the cultural assumption was that WASPs – White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – were at the top of the heap and others lived in the country by their benevolent sufferance. Anti-Semitism was ingrained in many ways in public life.
The rights of religious minorities often weren’t respected in public institutions. Several states required daily prayer and/or Bible readings (usually from the King James version) in public schools. The best dissenting parents could hope for was that their children might be allowed to leave the room, a move that carried its own risks of highlighting a student’s “otherness.”
The 1950s also saw the last great wave of attempts to rewrite the Constitution to add language stating that America is officially a Christian nation. Proposals like this had been introduced during the Civil War and late 19th century but didn’t pass. They resurfaced in the 1950s.
The leading proposal was introduced by U.S. Sen. Ralph E. Flanders (R-Vt.). His amendment consisted of three sections, the first one reading, “This nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.”
Flanders introduced the amendment in 1954, yet did little else to promote it. He even told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he had introduced it only because some constituents asked him to.
“I was dubious myself as to the desirability of such an amendment,” Flanders said. “But I could see the viewpoint of those of my constituents who thought such a reference to the Deity should be made a part of our Constitution. It was my opinion that they were entitled to a hearing and that at the hearing the issues could be brought out.”
A subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the amendment May 13 and May 17, 1954. While several witnesses testified and implored the subcommittee to pass the amendment as a way to ward off juvenile delinquency, no action was taken. Versions of the amendment continued to be introduced into the 1960s, but the 1954 hearing marked the last time any of them received anything like traction in Congress.
“Civil religion” was at its peak: While the “Christian nation” amendment fizzled in the 1950s, generic “God and country” rhetoric became very popular during the decade and firmly established itself in patriotic exercises, in the national motto and even on our money.
The phrase “In God We Trust” is ubiquitous today, so much so that many people undoubtedly believe it stretches back to the founding period. It doesn’t. Its roots go back to the Civil War, when a minister in Pennsylvania suggested stamping “God Is Our Trust” on coins.
Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase liked the idea, but tweaked the phrase a bit. “In God We Trust” was used sporadically on coins from then on but was not mandated. During the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, there was an effort to remove that declaration from a series of new coins. It was not codified for use on paper currency until 1956.
At the same time, “In God We Trust” was named the national motto. The country had not had an official motto before that, although “E Pluribus Unum” (Latin: “Out of Many, One”) had filled the role unofficially.
Two years before, in 1954, the words “under God” were slipped into the Pledge of Allegiance after a lobbying campaign led by the Knights of Columbus. The original pledge, as drafted by the Rev. Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist, in 1892 had been secular.
Explaining his support for adding the religious phrase to the Pledge during a signing statement, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed, “From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this rededication of our youth, on each school morning, to our country’s true meaning.”
(Eisenhower was known for his support of civil religion – sometimes called “ceremonial deism” – and famously remarked during a 1952 speech, “In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”)
They weren’t the 1960s: The main reason so many Christian nationalists are enamored of the 1950s may be because of the decade that followed. The 1960s, according to many Religious Right activists, is when it all started to fall apart.
To be sure, the ’60s were a tumultuous decade marked by antiwar protests, rights movements and challenges to authority and tradition, a time many Americans look back at today as a painful but necessary reckoning.
For Christian nationalists, the decade got off to a disastrous start when the Supreme Court ruled in 1962 and ’63 that public schools could not sponsor prayer or Bible reading, nor could they pressure students to take part in worship. To Religious Right propagandist David Barton, these rulings marked the beginning of America’s decline.
It was a decade marked by sexual experimentation, radical fashions, hippies who advised not trusting anyone over 30, psychedelic rock bands, drug use and even an April 8, 1966, Time magazine cover that dared to ask “Is God Dead?” – and it left the Christian nationalists reeling. Some have never really recovered.
Can Christian nationalists succeed in taking the nation back to the time of cars with tailfins, hula hoops, poodle skirts and sock hops? In some ways, it’s already happening. Thanks to rulings by the Supreme Court, birth-control access has been curtailed for many women; and during the Trump years, we’ve seen a steady erosion of LGBTQ rights. White supremacists have been emboldened and march openly, sometimes ominously in the form of extralegal militias and posses.
But some observers say the country has simply changed so much culturally and demographically over the past 60 years that any attempt to resurrect an officially white Christian America is doomed to fail.
Writing in The Atlantic in 2017 several months after Trump’s victory, Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer of PRRI, conceded that white evangelicals had won a short-term political victory in Trump’s election but added, “Twenty years from now, there is little chance that 2016 will be celebrated as the revival of White Christian America, no matter how many Christian right leaders are installed in positions of power over the next four years. Rather, this election will mostly likely be remembered as the one in which white evangelicals traded away their integrity and influence in a gambit to resurrect their past. … At the end of the day, white evangelicals’ grand bargain with Trump will be unable to hold back the sheer weight of cultural change, and their descendants will be left with the only real move possible: acceptance.”