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  • Two Great Myths About the 1950s
  • Alan Petigny (bio)

Images can be deceiving. The tendency to idealize the past often leads to false memories, even for those who were there. Unfortunately, the price paid for nostalgia is a profound misunderstanding of history. The 1950s furnishes us with examples both numerous and bold to illustrate this point.

In the imagination of most Americans, the 1950s were solidly and idiosyncratically conservative: June Cleaver performing housework in pearls, long rows of near identical tract housing, glib ad men peddling a television for every home and a tail-fin on every car—memories perpetuated by retrospective TV sitcoms and professors of history alike. Even though scholars concede that the 1950s witnessed the rise of the Beatniks, rock 'n' roll, and the civil rights movement, these oppositional developments are generally characterized as mere rumblings running against the dominant mood—seeds of discontent not to blossom until the tumultuous 1960s.1

This perceived divide between the nominally conservative, placid 1950s and the socially liberal 1960s has shaped our understanding of the early postwar years. Some see this divide as the product simply of a generation gap while others credit the civil rights and anti-war movements and the rise of second-wave feminism. Still others focus on the formation of a counterculture. But despite their disagreements over how and why, the "when" is considered settled: the decade of the 1960s was when everything changed.2 This understanding is profoundly wrong and obscures the most significant feature of postwar American culture: a dramatic liberalization of values during the Truman and Eisenhower years that has persisted to this day.

Let's dispel two great myths about the 1950s: first, that religious piety, demonstrated by climbing rates of church attendance and the popularity of Billy Graham, was on the rise; second, that the 1950s was a relatively stable period with respect to sexual behavior—it was not until the following decade that the Sexual Revolution commenced. Exposing these views as myths reveals the real story: a traditionalist moral framework gave way in the 1950s to a loosening of sexual behavior, the influence of modern psychology, and the decline of religion in the personal lives of most Americans.

In 1957 when the State Baptist Convention in North Carolina reaffirmed its prohibition of social dancing, students at Wake Forest College—a small Baptist school not far from the Blue Ridge Mountains—went on the warpath. As Life magazine reported, on the eve of the convention vote students "tooted bugles, shot firecrackers, burned the convention President in effigy, and danced the bunny hop across campus." The following morning nearly 2,000 students walked out of chapel in protest, whereupon they proceeded to gyrate and croon to "Wake Up, Little Susie" and "There's a Whole Lot of Shaking Going On." One female student stated dryly, "We ought to go and dance with those old men and see if they get all shook up."3

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Hugh Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley as Ward and June Cleaver in season one of Leave It to Beaver, 1957-1958.

The incident at Wake Forest was one of many cultural skirmishes that littered the social landscape in the 1950s. Most Americans did not deepen their religious convictions during the early postwar years. To borrow a term from German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "cheap grace" was on the rise; or, as conservative intellectual Richard John Neuhaus might have put it, a "safely neutered Christianity" became a salient feature of modern life.

Two surveys of evangelical students—the first conducted early in the 1950s, the second conducted ten years later—furnish evidence for the gradual moderation of traditional Christian attitudes.4 Both surveys asked seniors at Bethel College whether certain behaviors are always morally wrong. The results indicated an astonishing acceptance of controversial activity. Whereas nine out of ten evangelical students regarded social dancing as "always wrong" in 1951, [End Page 2] by 1961 the level of opposition had receded to 66%. In 1951 almost half of respondents believed it was always wrong to attend Hollywood type movies. Ten years later only one in seven respondents believed likewise. Finally, when it came to card...