This is not a book review, it’s a complaint.
I have been reading—and, I confess, enormously enjoying—David Halberstam’s The Fifties (Villard), yet another of his blockbuster best-sellers. It’s great nostalgia, wonderfully evocative, and above all, about my generation. Like my students today, but from the other side of the great divide, I am tired of hearing about the sixties and the baby boomers, who seem to think they invented everything that matters in contemporary America, which, moreover, as they smugly and triumphantly remind us, they are now running.
Well, grump. Having suffered long enough with their contemptuous dismissal of the fifties as the time of the “silent generation,” the conformist, smug, insular Eisenhower years before Camelot and Woodstock rescued the country for more exciting adventures, I cheer a book that details many of the truly revolutionary creations of this maligned decade. It makes an impressive list: television, The Pill, the civil rights movement (yes, it belongs first to the fifties), the women’s movement (at least the fuse was lit in the fifties), rock and roll, the H-bomb, fast food, the leap into space. The fifties had its own nasty, dangerous, and problematic war, too, in Korea. Maybe, I found myself thinking, defensively and no doubt unfairly, all the sixties added was noise.
So I admit to having had a lot of fun with this book.
But, probably out of pure professional deformation, I began noticing something else that I liked a lot less. This was the decade where I came of age, discovered theology, embraced my vocation at the intersection of Church and society. What has Halberstam to say about my fifties? Virtually nothing. Religion is a mysterious void in his book.
At first I noticed that he identifies Jews—who are invariably “brilliant,” and hugely successful—without mentioning the religious affiliation of anyone else a reader encounters in the first few chapters. He is also quick to note anti-Semitism, even if only a trace, even if only a suspected trace. Curious, I thought, but let’s not jump to conclusions. His references seem to be simply ethnic tags having little to do with Judaism. Read on.
He does finally have to turn on one Jew he identifies, Edward Teller, after duly noticing his Jewishness and his brilliance—but only because a choice must be made between Teller and J. Robert Oppenheimer. He fails to identify Felix Frankfurter (or for that matter Meyer Lansky) as a Jew, but then, he doesn’t like Frankfurter especially, and even quotes a sharply atheistic remark of the famous justice. So maybe the author does have something more than ethnic identity in mind when he says “Jewish,” though the references finally remain puzzling. In any case, he is surely not trying to tell us anything about the state of Judaism in the fifties.
Nor, beyond his own palpable disgust, about Christianity either. It takes a while before the word “Christian” even appears. It comes at last in the midst of a vicious, savage attack on John Foster Dulles—“bombastic, arrogant, self-important, priggish,” the embodiment of “stuffiness, sanctimony, deviousness, and partisanship,” “the purest of chauvinists,” and so on, page after gratuitous page, worse than the treatment of anyone else in the book. When, alas, Halberstam makes a point of identifying Dulles as “Christian,” the word falls alongside the other descriptions of the man and carries a heavy, deliberately negative import.
Nor do matters improve as the book wears on. The Catholic Church is treated to a thoroughly bad press by this journalist. It figures negatively in his treatment of Margaret Sanger, whose hatred of that Church is duly quoted. In sketching the development of The Pill, he notes that “opposition to birth control came primarily from Catholics and fundamentalist Christians.” Thus the renowned Catholic doctor John Rock was brought on board the team to neutralize Roman Catholic opposition. Halberstam tells the story, of course, with the Catholic Church as the villain. Later an admiring sketch of C. Wright Mills notes his “lifelong resentment of Christianity” owing to a Catholic upbringing.
Halberstam’s view of Protestantism is similarly pinched and myopic. “Fundamentalists” take their predictable cheap knocks, e.g., in his biographical sketch of Marilyn Monroe or of Martin Luther King, Jr. or as noted above in the birth control saga. He does talk about Gospel music, white and black, but manages to tell the story as if that had nothing to do with real religion, and as if the whites who sang it were all racists anyway. The “middle-class white Protestants” who run General Motors are “insular, suspicious of anything different.” He indulges endlessly, tiresomely, in the usual ignorant journalistic misuse of “Calvinist” and “puritan” to mean oppressive, restrictive, cold, joyless, guilt-laden, and generally boring.
An admiring profile of Alfred Kinsey treats him as a truth-telling liberator and makes the attacks on the Kinsey Reports by Henry P. Van Dusen, the President of Union Theological Seminary, and many other thoughtful religious people seem like ignorant assaults on free speech and pure science. Although he quotes Van Dusen’s criticism, Halberstam seems to have little sense of the trouble with the Kinsey Reports or why someone with a functioning moral sense should find fault with them. He even manages to enjoy Hugh Hefner and Playboy while taking a shot at his favorite religious bogeyman. Hefner is “the grandson of Midwestern puritans,” the child of an “emotionally arid family . . . devoid of warmth and openness”; and Playboy was his rebellion “against that Calvinist ethic,” against a “Christianity [that] seemed to him a cold, emotionally sterile one.”
Only when Halberstam gets to Martin Luther King does he treat religion with more than a glancing reference, because here, of course, the subject is inescapable. But his treatment is extremely superficial and uncomprehending—a bare, unexplained notation that King preferred the social gospel to his conservative heritage, another that he was influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, but without any explanation of that influence worth mentioning. He speaks of King’s gifts, his talents, but says next to nothing about his religious motivation, save for a highly ambiguous “vision” story that is not meant to do King credit. The book’s 250-item bibliography includes nothing of King’s own writing. The role of the black church itself is described entirely in sociological terms. It might as well have been a string of athletic clubs.
What is truly astonishing, however, is not these sour or ignorant references, but the paucity of religious references of any kind. I missed them long before I realized that there weren’t going to be many. Surely, I thought, as I passed the book’s halfway point, surely there will be something on the religious revival of the decade. Surely he wouldn’t overlook such a massively reported fact. Or would he? My doubts, my fears aroused, I anxiously thumbed ahead, checking out the subjects of the remaining chapters: nothing. But of course I read through to the end anyway; remember, I admitted the book was too much fun to put down. But indeed there is nothing at all, not even in that long bibliography, about one of the major cultural markers of the decade: the extraordinary popularity of religion at all levels. It’s not just that there are no positive references to religion. There are no meaningful, significant, or intelligent references at all.
Halberstam has room to discuss Peyton Place but not even to mention Norman Vincent Peale’s phenomenally popular The Power of Positive Thinking, nor parallel books by Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman and Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen, nor the cultural significance of these men. He lavishes attention on Elvis Presley, but Billy Graham and the new evangelicalism are, incredibly, completely invisible. He has room for the ephemera of popular culture, like tail fins on cars or the Marlboro ads, but no place for the church building boom that transformed our landscape. He spends pages recapitulating The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, but not one word about the thought of Reinhold or H. Richard Niebuhr or Paul Tillich or other great theologians of the era, in a time when theology held wide general interest. He celebrates the heroic feats of his own craft, journalism (television is the real star of the book), but never once notices the truly astonishing level of specific religious affiliation among the American people of that decade—96 percent self-identified with a specific religious label in a 1957 poll and church membership soared to an all-time high of 69 percent by 1960. Instead, contrary to all evidence, he seems to think religion’s influence was actually declining in these years!
What shall we make of this tin ear, this massive secularist blindness? Is this what cultural history will be when it is told by a celebrated member of the journalistic elite? A society where Marilyn Monroe and television quiz shows reign supreme, but where nary a word is spoken about what, arguably, matters most to most people? Does it matter that a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter is completely indifferent to what moves Americans at their deepest level? If the guardians of the information age ignore religion, will it gradually decline?
Sound the warning if not the full alarm. As everyone knows, history is not just a recital of obvious facts. It does matter who tells our story.
Thomas Sieger Derr, a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things, teaches in the Department of Religion and Biblical Literature at Smith College.