Kyrie Eleison Plus Kumbaya

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December 1, 2003
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Reviewed by Stephen J. Whitfield

Mark Oppenheimer, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture (New Haven: Yale University Press): 273 pp., $30.00.

When the press exposed Richard Nixon for belonging to a New Jersey country club that lacked any black or Jewish members, a spokesman explained that the former president would not resign because he “prefers to work for change from within.” With far greater commitment to reform than Nixon himself could presumably muster, religious activists mobilized themselves in the era of his presidency and called upon the faithful to purify themselves of assorted injustices, and to discard empty rituals so that principles could be more consistently honored. Mark Oppenheimer not only detects the Aquarian signs of the 1960s in racial desegregation, radical politics, or raised consciousness but also acknowledges the ways that even mainstream churches were diverted into “formal and aesthetic” innovations. “What worship looked like and who performed it” became different thanks to the counterculture that had formed by the end of that decade. By studying the impact of the 1960s on Unitarians, Episcopalians, Roman

Catholics, Southern Baptists, and Jews, Oppenheimer has produced a splendid case study in comparative religion and in contemporary history. Knocking on Heaven’s Door should also interest readers who are curious about the methods and limits of institutional reform.

When the Unitarian Reverend James Stoll announced his sexual orientation in 1970, homosexuality was still widely abhorred (to quote Davy Crockett on the rules of spelling) as “contrary to nature.” Yet Unitarianism did not put up much of a fight against the rights of gays like Stoll to full recognition, since his co-religionists operated within a tradition ardent to tolerate – if not embrace – everything but intolerance. Far more embattled were the Episcopalian women seeking female equality and especially priestly ordination. After all, the royal founder of the Church of England had shown such a proclivity for spousal abuse that Henry VIII became a serial killer. Nevertheless, the struggle begun by the “Philadelphia Eleven” culminated in victory when ordination was granted Episcopal women in 1976. The aggiornamento of Vatican II earlier in the 1960s had already eroded some of the resistance of Roman Catholicism to change, especially in the Mass. Latin went out, and rock cantatas came in. Instead of Missa Solemnis, Simon and Garfunkel. In 1968 the largest of all Protestant organizations faced an insurrection led by Chapel Hill-educated Terry Nichols, who opposed the military intervention in Vietnam. Historically, Baptists had pacifist proclivities, and the war was evidently a pointless, wasteful, lethal folly. While the Baptist Students Concerned did not persuade the Southern Baptist Convention to condemn the war in Indochina, the confrontation was handled with a y’all-come-back affability.

Jews who wanted to create havurot were also knocking on heaven’s door; it easily collapsed. Other than the Unitarians, no group was more eager to embrace the counterculture than organized Jewry, which welcomed alternative versions of worship. Sometimes the settings were within the synagogue – the subject of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis’s first Rosh Hashanah sermon at Valley Beth Shalom congregtion in 1970. Even when new prayer and study patterns emerged as parallels to the synagogue (Havurot Shalom in Somerville, Massachusetts, the New York Havurah, or Fabrangen in Washington, D.C.), the establishment hardly reacted as though threatened. The story of the havurot has been told elsewhere, but Oppenheimer offers a richer context, acknowledging resemblances to Christian revivalism that are far from obvious. Highly educated by secular and religious standards, countercultural Jews constituted an elite who would achieve distinction within communal and academic life in the succeeding decades.

Oppenheimer emphasizes how deeply all five groupuscules were indebted to the precedent of the civil rights movement. But he misses the shock that black antisemitism registered upon Jews, whose sense of cohesiveness was thereby fortified. The author also falters in claiming that young Jews, in absenting themselves from shul, were thereby joining the mood swing of the 1960s in yearning for spiritual seriousness. In fact, alienation from the American synagogue – especially in the cities – is a historic commonplace, and attendance and membership figures were far lower earlier in the 20th century. This book nevertheless makes a strong case for the force of progressivism. It was defeated in politics under the Republican ascendancy of the past three decades and has been unable to reduce the enormous disparities of wealth and power. But liberalism did not exactly lose the culture wars.

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Stephen J. Whitfield teaches American Studies at Brandeis University and is the author of In Search of American Jewish Culture (1999).

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