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  • Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture
  • Michael Alexander
Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture. By Mark Oppenheimer (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2003) 304 pp. $30.00

The study of religion is a great avenue for understanding the more nebulous trends of a larger culture, since it is the business of a church to mediate meaning by translating it coherently into the realms of aesthetics, ritual, doctrine, narrative, and authority. Oppenheimer's study of American institutional religion during the Nixon years shows how various churches were influenced by the cultural trends of their day, and draws unexpected conclusions about how those churches influenced the larger society. According to Oppenheimer, the Unitarian acceptance of homosexuality, the Catholic folk mass, the Jewish havurah (friendship, community) study movement, the Episcopalian feminist movement, and the end of Southern Baptist pacifism, all had their roots in a broader Nixon-era counterculture that related more to aesthetics than to politics. His study provides five elegant examples of how American mainline churches are deeply intertwined with the trends of larger society.

It is difficult to keep faith with a popular understanding of the churches as the last stronghold of authority against the counterculture in the face of Oppenheimer's numerous counterexamples. Civil rights, gay rights, and women's rights found some of their earliest support in the churches, often earlier than the traditional historiographical birthdates of these movements. "Hierarchicalism," Oppenheimer concludes, "can facilitate, rather than inhibit, change" (223). [End Page 324]

What these religious trends disclose about the content and scope of the broader American counterculture is often surprising. As Oppenheimer concludes from his study of these five churches, the "political counterculture" directed against the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War was disjointed and small compared to a larger "personal counterculture" directed against inherited aesthetics and gender roles (219). The rebellion against authority often began in the mainline churches before it extended outward, and sometimes these new feelings about the aesthetics of authority were initiated by those churches.

Oppenheimer suggests that "old-style, denominational religion is more important, and more fun, than might be supposed" (26). His is an innovative church history that should be of interest to scholars of religion and to those of American popular culture. It is reminiscent of the integrated and intelligent social church history that Troeltsch introduced at the turn of the twentieth century.1 For those who read it carefully, Knocking on Heaven's Door may spark a revolution in their thinking about American religious life, which is more interesting and countercultural than it may seem.

Michael Alexander
University of Oklahoma


1. Ernst Troeltsch (trans. Olive Wyon), The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Louisville, 1992), 2v.



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pp. 324-325
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