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Changes during 1970s still rattle American society

(ran PW, PS editions)

If you are looking for a fun but substantive book to read this summer, I recommend David Frum's marvelous essay in social history called How We Got Here: The 70s _ the Decade That Brought You Modern Life, for Better or Worse (Basic Books, $16 paperback).

Frum's thesis is that it was not the swinging 1960s but instead the turbulent 1970s that ushered in the social transformation whose effects we continue to wrestle with in American society. Our nation was simply a very different place after the '70s came to their merciful close than it was before.

For one who grew up during the era, Frum's book was an eye-opening trip down memory lane. I nearly dug out my white leisure suit.

The book describes transitions in our culture in five primary areas: trust, duty, reason, desire and rights. The Vietnam War and then Watergate contributed to the collapse of American trust in government. Frum rightly notes that the 1950s were the high-water mark of American confidence in our major institutions, especially government. But by 1979, this confidence was shattered.

We have never quite recovered from this, as wave after wave of scandals wash over our politicians and anti-government cynicism is ubiquitous.

The 1970s also marked the collapse of an ethic of duty in American life.

Americans rose in rebellion against the stoic values embodied by what we are now nostalgically calling "the greatest generation" _ those who lived through the Depression and World War II.

"One can fairly call it the greatest rebellion in American history. . . . Americans in their multitudes shucked the duties and broke the rules that their parents and grandparents had held sacred. From now on, Americans would live for themselves," Frum writes. What followed was a relentless quest for self-fulfillment that destroyed individuals, families and very nearly a social order.

Frum notes that reason gave way to feeling in American discourse. American education dumbed down, the center of gravity of our religious life shifted from rationalistic mainline traditionalism to heavily emotional renderings both of Christianity and an array of alternative religions, and nearly any apocalyptic scenario of mass starvation, environmental disaster or Armageddon sold millions. The best-selling religious book of the 1970s was Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth, a dire apocalyptic fantasy that was the first book after the Bible that anyone put into my hands after my conversion in 1978.

The 1970s were also the decade that witnessed the unleashing of sexual desire onto the front cover of nearly every magazine one might see on the newsstand, not to mention in music, movies and television. Americans were told they had the right to ever-increasing paroxysms of sexual pleasure with whomever, wherever. This included homosexuals, who burst onto the American public scene quite flamboyantly during this decade as well, demanding their rights _ along with everyone else.

Rights-talk became central in the '70s as it never had before. Our society fissured into endless interest groups clamoring for social recognition and goodies at the public trough.

Meanwhile, aggressive government efforts to engineer social harmony and enforce equality sometimes backfired dramatically, as with the disastrous results of forced busing in many school districts.

Frum's grand thesis is that the 1970s marked a collective spasm of rebellion on the part of a society shaking off the discipline and self-control that had been required to fight and win two world wars. We wanted to relax and do what we wanted for a change. That we surely did. Our society has been irrevocably marked by this rebellion.

Yet there is also a collective sobering up. The morning-after headache is upon us. A growing sense of discontent with what we have spawned is perhaps the most hopeful sign of a brighter future.

_ David P. Gushee is an associate professor of Christian studies at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.