Axel Schäfer, Countercultural Conservatives

Ever wonder how people who were hippie liberal in the early 1970s became conservative in the 1990s? How do some Shlomo Carlebach followers become Tea Party members or supporting right wing politics? Or how the liberal innovations of the 1960s in religious life become Evangelical? Or even how did the religious right win out over the religious left in the 1990s?

The standard answer to the second question is that people recoiled and retreated from the 1960’s liberalism to the safety of conservatism of Evangelicalism. A recent book by Axel Schäfer titled Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right (Dec. 2011), offers new insights into these questions. He answers both questions with the same answer. The counter culture values became transformed into evangelical religion and therefore it was the same people in both groups and the turn was not recoil from the 1960’s as much as an adaptation. Much of his analysis applies to Centrist Orthodoxy.

Schäfer starts with the conventional approach that the Christian right was a backlash as change of the sixties and seventies, but then argues that if we look at the believers of the 1980s we see continuity. His book makes three points:

First, in the 1980s, conservative Protestants were less about teaching traditional religious concepts and had more conflicting impulses, in fact, they are remarkably modern and worldly in their social world. The world they created mediated between growing worldliness and Biblical piety; conservative Protestants combine moral traditionalism with consumer society, and orthodoxy with therapeutic personal conversions. They were educated Evangelical professionals. They were outwardly worldly yet sought separatist institutions. (Sounds a lot like the Jewish case.)

Second, the Evangelicals were not monolithic—every decision was tentative and ever negotiated. There were liberal and conservative forces within this religious turn and people made allegiances to bolster their positions.

Third, Evangelicals today are not a backlash against 1960s change, rather they have learned to base their own organizational strength, cultural attractiveness, and political efficacy on the style of the 1960s

Among the many important insights in this book, is the discussion how the concept of conversion – including finding God, being born again, or becoming a baal teshuvah- was therapeutic, about personal liberation, and spoke the language of popular psychology, that is—of notions like individualism, choosing one’s own path, but also of materialism and consumerism.
The left and progressives lost because they had too many internal divisions – they spent too much time on defining spiritual mission and the narcissism of small difference. The left was too earnest and against the consumerism. It also was still in favor of intellectual elitism, like the 1960’s liberals, preaching the need for academic and profession training in order to have an opinion.

In contrast, the Religious Right shared with hippies an aversion to liberalism, bureaucracies, and the confines of rationality. The antiestablishment attitude toward the liberal society and Church (or synagogue) created a conflation of libertarian thinking and individual self-expression. The hippie ethic and quest for authenticity became the libertarian ethic of entrepreneurial self-actualization. In Judaism, the shift was delayed for a decade until the shift from producing doctors to creating business people. Both the countercultural and Evangelical revivalism shared emphasis on ecstasy and non-rational systems.

(Think of the defunct organization Edah; it was very rational and not kabbalistic or therapeutic. In contrast kiruv provided ecstasy and self-fulfillment. Edah also still valued the 1950s ideal of Rabbi Dr, which does not speak to a hippie ethos.)

Why did Right Wing religion succeed? (1) it was more accomidationist than traditional religion—it was protean and adapted; (2) It spoke a language of spiritual pluralism and market orientation; (3) It worked on coalition building; (4) It actually hides greater secularization behind its new religiosity; it emphasized certain elements to display its religiosity but secularized many others; and (5) It fit the suburbanization of the era and offered the needed social support. It spoke a world of private schools and careerism.

The new Religious Right ethos was as atomistic individual and volenteeristic in association, we personally choose to return to God’s true path. Everything else in our lives is only contractual since our real covenant is with God.

The counterculture values of love, awareness, and good vibes, inner feelings, divine inspiration, and human relationship were similar enough to Evangelical values of spontaneity, emotionalism, public confession, revival, and conversion. Confession of one’s life story and conversion to a religious life is closer to hippy values than a return to 1950s religion. Both hippies and Evangelicals disliked the older liberalism of institution, rationality, intellect, and hierarchy. Of course, there is the overlap of Christian rock with hippie culture.(See my prior posts on the topic) They also have similar rhetorical styles, organization patterns, and expressive modes.

Both groups believe that one does not need to follow the values of WASP America and therefore, getting into Harvard, the country club, and the white shoe firm are not defined as “making it”. Both the counter culture and the new right denounced the older liberalism of the 1950s and 1960s as less religious and requiring assimilation into a WASP culture. On one hand, the new religion of the right became less religiously sophisticated , but many of the Religious right became lawyers and doctors upwardly mobile and educated in their professions.

Evangelicals were good at infiltrating hippies, so too Kiruv organization were equally as good at infiltrating counter cultural social groups. And for many parents whose children flirted with cults, and Asian religions, the American religious right seemed a better fate.

Schafer shows how Evangelicals who claimed to be entirely traditional and Christain Orthodox in dogma., nevertheless presented themselves in situations of outreach or in public, as a looser, more liberal and fluid approach. One bought into the counter cultural approach shown during outreach and then settled down to gradual adhere to the more conservative versions.

According to Schäfer, in the late 1970s, one would have thought a liberal version of this new ethos would have triumphed—the swing to political right was not forgone conclusion. However, the left was fractured over ideology. The left considered anyone even slightly dissimilar as an outside. if someone on the left strayed one inch to the left of the accepted version of orthodoxy they were considered outsider and equally one step to right placed one as an outside. It did not embrace broad contradictory tent. In contrast the right as typified by Reagan combined biblical religion with new age astrology- conservative values with 12 step thinking. The Right was also much better networking. The right even created a cultural war alliance with allies among Protestants, Catholics and Jews.

The Right was against questioning of theological absolutes and rejected the 1960’s liberalizing tendencies, they sought to create a new neo-fundamentalism but it was in the hands of the ordinary believer who really did not speak theology.

AB- I remember a point in the late 1990s where the complexity of the beit medrash and expert authority gave way to people with just a gap year background arguing from English Torah books they read, public discussions of Jewish thought that formerly used Maimonides and Lonely Man of Faith were replaced by Lawrence Kellerman and vortlach. To apply Schäfer’s approach to the Jewish case, the reason for the success of the right was not a backlash against feminism and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, rather the right were trans denominational reaching out to other groups on the right, they had a new social agenda, they made cultural accommodation. Most importantly, they had the social concerns of suburbia; the concerns of the right transcended the Edah world limited to the concerns of the Upper West Side.

Old time racism and sexism was phased out, which was good however, there was a transition to new forms of blaming welfare moms and those were are deviant from the social world of suburbia

Evangelicals accepted literal Christian doctrine but have no study of doctrine, they accept a literal understanding of topics like virgin birth, resurrection, second coming and inerrancy but treat them as emotional assents, rather than intellectual. One accepts literal forms of dogma when one has one’s emotional conversion without any cognitive content. Theology is acquired in a revivalist conversion not a classroom (think of a kumzitz or ebbing- see my prior post). In the communities, they talk about business ethics or social ethics or sexual ethics reflecting issues of suburbia. Evangelical lack of theology thereby causes adherents to have a greater secularization that can accept respectable hedonism. Family values made more sense to people who did not really understand the concepts of advent and rapture. Rhetorically, they were a return to old-time religion but now the conversation is entirely about self-fulfillment through conversion and to be rightly ordered through family values

AB- I can see that all around me. Try teaching Eliyahu DiVidas Rehsit Hokhmah or Gra on Mishlei to Centrist Jews, the entire other-worldly and metaphysical traditional language is gone. Now, people are self made believer without saints, without kabbalistic musar, and without any of the traditional Jewish puritanism.

What of the conservative economic doctrine? Schäfer shows how they spoke of capitalism as self-reliance (or even as Torah uMAdda)- it hides the careerism, instant gratification, and creation of artificial needs involved. The authenticity and personal liberation derived from the hippie counterculture became cloaks for consumerism. Hippies and evangelicals could both be rebellious against the 1960s Great Society programs as against the true religious tradition of self-reliance, Yet blind to how their own consumerism is against the tradition. They both spoke the language of counter-culture, apocalypse, home-schooling, and crunchy gardening. Both sought to create alternatives to the institutions of the 1960s.

In April of this year, Axel Schäfer put out a sequel to Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right, called Piety and Public Funding: Evangelicals and the State in Modern America which was limited to the economic thought of the aforementioned groups. He answers the question: How is it that some conservative groups are viscerally anti-government even while enjoying the benefits of government funding? How can they support libertarian economic policies, yet taking aggressive advantage of expanded public funding opportunities for religious foreign aid, health care, education, and social welfare. I look forward to reading that one.

Any thoughts? Does it ring true?
How does it apply to Centrism? to Engaged Yeshivish?

3 responses to “Axel Schäfer, Countercultural Conservatives

  1. 1.I wonder how going from hippie to right winger works genetically .I read that liberal or conservative tendencies are very much genetically influenced.What you are actually inferring if I understand correctly is that these former hippies have at core remained hippies and just found a different outlet for those urges.
    2.What percentage actually moved from left to right?If I had to guess I would say that most liberal Jews remained liberal and a good portion actually radicalized their liberal tendencies.
    3.If people in your surrounding can’t fathom Reishit Hochma ,gra,Tanya or the likes that is very sad.It is a spiritual handicap which leads to harsh questions about the spiritual capabilities of American Orthodox Jews.

  2. I’ll confine my comments to the question why in Modern Orthodoxy the left and the liberals failed, while the right became a large majority. Reform and secular Jews arrived on average earlier in America than the Orthodox who remained Orthodox. There was a background of mass socialism and labor movement organizing in the period 1870 to 1920, communism in its Stalinist and Trostskyite variations in the 30s and 40s, and anti anti-communism in the 50s, all of which gave a progressive slant to the non-Orthodox Jewish community, much less so with the Orthodox. The same can be said for the Yiddish culture of the left. Not very important. What did count were the benefits of the New Deal and the welfare state, which in time became accepted as a given. Orthodox Jews voted for Stevenson over Eisenhower not because of a passion for the liberal sensibility, but because Jews were Democrats. So going into the 1967 War there was no strong leftist or liberal-civil rights tradition in MO that could provide a counter force to the right wing politics of the occupation, the Gush and in time the Likud. The darkei noam ways of the Mizrachi movement divorced from any strong attachment to European social democrats disappeared, to be replaced by the Gush and the religious zionists of the Mercaz Harav Kook type. MO Jews who originally had embraced a tepid non-threatening version of Zionism now felt obligated to defend the occupation, which led to a preference for neo-Conservative solutions over more balanced approaches, whether those of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. The post 1967 generation went to hesder yeshivas, where even the most liberal were far more to the right than the American Jewish community at large. Jews were no longer union members, had as you emphasize moved to the suburbs, and distanced themselves from their generally poorer charedi counterparts. Being on the right in foreign policy and in a position to benefit from Republican domestic policies, the transition to becoming an enthusiatic right winger was not difficult. I have some problems with thinking of the American friends of Chevron as the heirs to the hippie movement.

  3. What is says about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneeerson’s leadership of Chabad is astounding. The way you portray the book makes it more readily understandable how the Rebbe worked and succeeded. I would assume that centrist orthodxy followed his lead albeit maybe by accident. .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s