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Reviewed by
Michael J. Walsh
Heythrop College, University of London
The Religious Crisis of the 1960s. By Hugh McLeod. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2007. Pp. x, 290. $110.00. ISBN 978-0-199-29825-9.)

From the impressively wide range of reading Hugh McLeod cites in this volume, there is a consensus that the 1960s ("a time when history moved faster," p. 15) was a period of religious crisis. McLeod does not dissent, but is circumspect. He prefers to speak not of a decline in religious practice—although he does, and often—because this is quantitative, but of the "decline of Christendom," which he regards as a qualitative change. Christendom he defines as a society in which there are close links between the elites of church and society, where laws are said to be based on Christian principles, and where the majority of people are presumed to be Christian. A Catholic might be disposed to think that the end of Christendom, in the integriste sense, came with the Declaration on Religious Liberty at the Second Vatican Council, but that document is not mentioned. Indeed, although he acknowledges Vatican II as being of "pivotal significance" (p. 29) in the 1960s, along with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, he devotes relatively little space to it. He does not believe that it was particularly responsible in itself for the ferment within the Roman Catholic Church. More important than the Council itself, he seems to suggest, was the disappointment felt by many at the perceived failure to implement the Council's outcomes. Proponents of Vatican II had, he says more than once, unrealistically high expectations, but he does not explicate this charge further.

McLeod's is a vast canvas. He takes in the United Kingdom (but especially England, where he has access to primary sources), the United States, France, Germany, and occasionally Spain and Italy. The "white"British Commonwealth is also well represented, but as he remarks, he has little to say of the church in Africa and Asia. Unlike several of the authors with whom he takes issue, he proposes no "master theme" for the decline of Christendom. It was, he very sensibly argues, the result of a combination of factors, although he appears to favor especially the increasing affluence of the postwar period, followed by the decay of collective identity—although this may itself have been a consequence of growing prosperity. In the prosperity stakes, he suggests, the United States had a head start, which should have led to an earlier decline in church attendance. He has interesting things to say about the apparent disparity between religious practice in the United States and in Europe, always excepting, at this period, Ireland and Italy—Malta, also an exception, does not get a mention. [End Page 87]

The major difference, he appears to suggest, between Europe and the United States is one of scale: in the United States, the Christian vote can be mobilized to make a difference, whereas this rarely happens in the United Kingdom or elsewhere. The apparent political clout of religion gives the adherents of the various denominations a sense of identity in a manner not available in Europe.While Britain, he says, had a "moral majority" before Jerry Falwell's, on the whole the churches in the United Kingdom were leftward-leaning. McLeod makes the point that much of the liberal legislation in the United Kingdom in the 1960s had the backing of the churches, including the abolition of the death penalty and, perhaps surprisingly in the current context, the relaxation of the law criminalizing homosexuality. Much of it, on the other hand, was ushered through Parliament by Roy Jenkins, a bon vivant with little overt commitment to Christianity. In the index to Jenkins's autobiography, notes McLeod, religion is referenced only three times, while champagne is mentioned five times and claret seven.