The clever saying “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be,” while having been repeated in many similar iterations, is credited to a character named Uncle Joshua in The Tents of Wickedness, a novel by Peter De Vries written in 1959.
The observation is true. Looking back is not as rewarding or beneficial as looking around or looking ahead, and in a world like ours, it is no longer constructive.
I have a beloved sister-in-law whose favorite pastime is watching reruns of Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Cheyenne. She has seen every episode of The Andy Griffith Show so many times that she recognizes each plotline from the opening few lines of dialogue. I don’t fault her taste in television entertainment, although it is certainly not my own.
But when Christians dwell longingly on the past instead of facing the challenges of the present or anticipating the possibilities of the future, I believe our focus is short-sighted and wrong-headed.
“When Christians dwell longingly on the past instead of facing the challenges of the present or anticipating the possibilities of the future, I believe our focus is short-sighted and wrong-headed.”
The politics of nostalgia
The Public Religion Research Institute is “an American nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization that conducts public opinion polls on a variety of different topics.” Founded in 2009, PRRI provides information about religion and politics in all 50 states. Its founder and CEO is Robert P. Jones, whose book, The End of White Christian America, won the Grawemeyer Award in religion in 2019. The prestigious prize, presented jointly by the University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has been awarded to such notable academics as John Hick, Elizabeth Johnson, Diana Eck, Jürgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, and James Cone.
Jones examines what he calls “the politics of nostalgia” by recalling Barack Obama’s reelection in November 2012. Two weeks after the declaration of his victory, an “alarmist email” was sent out across the country by the Christian Coalition of America, the organization begun by Pat Robertson in 1989 that was instrumental in shaping the perspectives and message of the Christian Right. The email featured a photograph of a white, middle-class family sitting around a dining table, bowing their heads for prayer before enjoying their Thanksgiving Day feast. Below the image was the reminder that “the United States of America is the only nation where Thanksgiving Day has its roots in a Judeo-Christian tradition.”
This carefully crafted bit of political nostalgia is contrasted with a quotation from Obama’s second inaugural address. America’s first Black president — the much-maligned target of the Christian Right — said:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still … . It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.
That is our generation’s task — to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.
Jones reckons that “if most readers of the Christian Coalition email found comfort in its black and white depiction of a bygone era, they were almost certainly dismayed by President Obama’s speech.” This assertion leads him to highlight two competing narratives that are still vying for followers today: “one looking wistfully back to midcentury heartland America and one looking hopefully forward to a multicultural America.”
A related PRRI investigation was intriguing. The survey inquired: “Since the 1950s, do you think American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the better, or has it mostly changed for the worse?” The tabulated results of respondents Jones denotes as “white Christian America” were particularly surprising. He reports: “More than seven in 10 (72%) of white evangelical Protestants and nearly six in 10 (58%) of white mainline Protestants say American culture and way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s. Roughly six in 10 white Catholics (58%) agree.”
Really? The 1950s were superior to the present?
The 1950s: A realistic appraisal
OK, clearly many of these Christians prefer Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show to Modern Family and Blackish. But do they truly believe American culture and way of life some 65 to 70 years ago were better than they are today?
The 1950s was a period of post-World War II prosperity, when Americans were buying suburban houses, family cars and consumer goods like kitchen appliances, washing machines and dryers, televisions and air conditioners. It was, in many ways, a simpler time — Norman Rockwellian — with more nuclear family joint activities, traditional holiday celebrations, regular church attendance, personal modesty and mutual accountability. There was less crime, although groups like mafia mobs and labor rackets controlled the streets in major cities, while in small-town white America, people typically felt insulated from criminal activity.
“Not every American felt safe or fulfilled.”
But not every American felt safe or fulfilled.
Jim Crow laws and customs relegated people of color to second-class citizenship status subject to racist bigotry, ghettoization and violent crime. In 1952, the Tuskegee Institute finally reported a year with no reported lynchings — the first since it began keeping records in 1882.
But restrictive and nonsensical laws still bound Black Americans. In 1955, Maryland passed a law that could result in up to five years’ imprisonment for any white woman who gave birth to a mixed-race baby. In 1956, an Alabama law forbade Blacks and whites from playing games — such as cards, dominoes, checkers, pool, football, baseball, basketball or golf — together. In 1958, Virginia voted to close any integrated school. In 1959, Arkansas passed a law requiring all state buses to reserve white-only seating areas. Because of these and many other unjust measures, more and more African Americans began to protest unfair treatment as the Civil Rights Movement was emerging.
Persons suffering mental illness often were a cause for shame, and many were hidden away in “insane” or “lunatic asylums,” the precursor to modern psychiatric hospitals. Since 2012, state-run psychiatric hospitals have housed some 45,000 patients, as the stigma of mental illness has decreased. Yet, this large patient population is less than a tenth of those locked in asylums in 1955.
Women were expected to obey their husbands and to center their lives in the home — which was conventional wisdom that many wives gladly received and celebrated — while others longed for the day that they would be “permitted” to pursue their dreams outside the home. To be clear, however, those who weren’t chaffing in their domestic setting certainly did not vacuum the carpet or do the laundry wearing a party dress, jewelry and heels, like June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver.
Children were subject to corporal punishment when they misbehaved, both in the home and at school. Discipline in the 1950s often has been described as “strict, harsh and oppressive.” My own parents, a kind Baptist pastor and wife, were recognized by their parishioners and friends as gentle and loving. Yet, I still was whipped, hard, with a belt whenever I disobeyed. Sadly, many other children suffered much more severe punishments.
Adults with disabilities had few opportunities beyond their family circles, although there was a nascent recognition of rights for these Americans, largely prompted by parents who wanted better living conditions and more community services for their sons and daughters. Nonetheless, there were very scarce resources or prospects for those with limited physical abilities.
“Americans who practiced other faiths sometimes endured suspicion and experienced ostracization from members of the dominant Christian religion.”
Americans who practiced other faiths sometimes endured suspicion and experienced ostracization from members of the dominant Christian religion. Acceptable spiritual diversity primarily consisted of members of several major Protestant denominations, plus a small representation of Catholics and Jews. Catholics and Protestants typically experienced tense relationships. Infatuation with Zen Buddhism or other world religions was considered rare and even strange.
Those who were free thinkers or political liberals frequently were investigated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who was searching for Americans who displayed Communist sympathies. “McCarthyism” became a shorthand reference to character assassination and defamation. Many good people’s lives, reputations and careers were destroyed by McCarthy’s campaign to root out foreign agents and “unpatriotic” Americans, which created an atmosphere of suspicion and prompted some people to falsely report neighbors or acquaintances whom they didn’t like or trust.
Americans, in general, were frightened by the Cold War and the tense political atmosphere it generated. Escalating nuclear proliferation and testy relationships with the Soviet Union meant that there were occasional bomb scares throughout the nation. As a child of the 1950s, I remember the bomb drills in elementary school when, ridiculously, we were required to crouch under our wooden desks to “protect ourselves” from any potential bomb that might be exploded over our city. The fear was real and palpable.
Scientists had proposed a Doomsday Clock in 1947, intended to measure how close in time we were to total annihilation. By 1953, they said America was only two minutes away from this destruction — a conclusion based upon our development and testing of the H-bomb, 1,000 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, as well as the Soviet Union’s similar arms advancements.
Those who did not fit society’s legally permitted definitions of gender and sexuality lived under the threat of imminent peril. Many names were bandied about to reference such Americans: “homosexuals,” “inverts,” “perverts,” “deviants.” When I was in junior high school, the negative label of choice — attached to anyone indiscriminately, without cause — was “queer.” In the minds of mean or uninformed teenage boys, calling someone a “queer” was the height of insult.
“Those who did not fit society’s legally permitted definitions of gender and sexuality lived under the threat of imminent peril.”
Thus, those who were uncertain about their sexual orientation or knew themselves to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender were likely secretive about who they were. They panicked at the thought of public exposure and rejection. They worried about being jumped and beaten. They were concerned they might be fired from their jobs. Being LGBTQ was experienced by many as a life of loneliness, anxiety, self-recrimination, shame and fear.
The 1950s were certainly not all bad. Those of us who lived through that decade may recall features of those years that were pleasant and positive. But there were certainly aspects of those years — like racism, sexism, sanism, ableism, adultism, heterosexism, cisgenderism, religious imperialism, dogmatism, antisemitism and tribalism — that were not pleasant or positive.
To encourage people to yearn for a distant and unexamined past is a tactical strategy for manipulating political loyalties. It is a shrewd politics of nostalgia. It also can be a dangerous and misleading lie to suggest that we must return to a period of former perceived greatness that no longer exists, rather than to examine and confront our present challenges and work collectively to shape the world into a better, more just and equitable home for all people.
“To encourage people to yearn for a distant and unexamined past is a tactical strategy for manipulating political loyalties.”
Baptist ethicist David Gushee, in his 2008 book, The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center, faults the Christian Right for not being motivated by the gospel but instead by “nostalgia for a less-religiously and morally pluralistic age, when specifically Christian practices dominated American public life in a way that is now impossible and should be impossible under our constitutional system.”
Similarly, Congregationalist pastor and columnist Robin Meyers claims that “there is a deep hunger for wisdom in our time, but the church offers up little more than sugary nostalgia with a dash of fear.”
I conclude that looking back to an America that was more bigoted and less diverse, more judgmental and less accepting, more confining and less enabling and more legalistic and less compassionate is not what we ought to do. Instead, I believe we must look around to engage the present moment and look ahead to envision and claim a better, more just world for everyone.
Uncle Joshua was right: Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.
So, it startles and saddens me that a majority of white Christian America favors the 1950s over today.
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is a past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.
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