american grace (2)

The anxieties of World War II seem to have revived American interest in religion that had flagged in the 1920’s and 1930’s – “no atheists in foxholes,” it was said – though elsewhere wars have often been associated with a decline of religion. Postwar affluence, social mobility, and the onset of the Cold War and its attendant nuclear standoff encouraged a paradoxical mixture of optimism and anxiety and a renewed appreciation for traditional values, including both patriotism and religion. Most important, the returning veterans and their wives began producing what would soon be called the baby boom. Then, as now, getting married, settling down, and raising children were associated with more regular churchgoing.

The resulting surge in religious involvement during the 1950’s was truly massive, even compared to the seismic events later in the century. …

The upsurge was heavily concentrated among the twenty-somethings. … while all generations participated in this postwar upsurge, it was especially marked among young adults in their twenties in the 1950’s. In that group, weekly church attendance skyrocketed from 31 percent in February 1950 to an all-time record for young adults of 51 percent in april 1957, an astonishing rate of change in seven years, implying millions of new churchgoers every year.

Who were these unusually pious young men? Of all American men born in the 1920’s, 80 percent had served in the military during world War II, and after the war many took advantage of the GI Bill to become the first college-educated persons in their families. It was this GI generation who as young husbands and fathers, together with their wives, led the surge to church in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. …

The postwar boom in churchgoing was fueled above all by men who had survived the Great Depression as teenagers and World War II as grunts, and were now ready at last to settle into a normal life, with a steady job, a growing family, a new house and car, and respectable middle-class status. Churchgoing was an important emblem of that respectability. …

It was not just private fervor that brought people to church in postwar America. At least as important was social pressure. In 1948 a national sample of Americans was asked “why do you go to church?” The single most common answer (32 percent) reflected a spiritual motivation: “the need or desire for some sort of inspiration or uplift.” However, virtually all the other commonly cited reasons for churchgoing were more social than theological. In declining order of frequency they were “obedience to convention or duty,” “habit,” “to hear the sermon,” “to set a good example,” to hear the music,” and “to see people.”

For many of the families now packing the pews, religious attendance was less an act of piety than an act of civic duty, like joining the PTA or Rotary, organizations whose membership rolls, not coincidentally, were also exploding in these same years. …

It was so, in part, because in the era of the Cold War against “atheistic communism,” religion represented patriotism, a central, unifying theme of national purpose, or what sociologist Robert Bellah would later term “civil religion.”

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell (Simon & Schuster, 2010), pp.83-84,85-86,87-88