I was not in the US during the time of the hippie movement and my knowledge of the Christian hippies, sometimes referred to as the Jesus People, is almost entirely shaped by the dopey 1973 musical film Godspell, not the most reliable source. It transported Jesus and his followers into New York City and portrayed them as hippies dancing and singing all over the place. It had one good song Day by Day and nothing much else going for it.
T. M. Luhrmann is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University and the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. She has an interesting article (subscription required) in the April 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine about an important segment of the conservative evangelical movement in the US that she says originated with the Christian hippies.
Luhrmann begins with one person who personifies the transition from left-wing Christina hippie to right-wing Tea Party member.
Betsy Jackson voted for John McCain in 2008. She greatly admired Sarah Palin. She thought the Alaska governor was brilliant and witty, and that she took a ferocious beating from the media because she was a woman in the limelight and that’s what the media does to such women. Jackson also loved that Palin did not keep her Christianity “quiet.”
These views are not unusual for someone in Jackson’s demographic. She is what she calls a “spirit-empowered” evangelical Christian, meaning one strongly influenced by Pentecostal practices. She is sixty-one, a gracious, gregarious, attractive woman with a big laugh and a warm smile. She lives in a sprawling suburb in southern California, the kind of planned subdivision where all the streets meet at right angles and the strip malls repeat themselves remorselessly every fifteen to twenty blocks, in a modest house filled with Bible commentaries and other Christian books. Her town borders Orange County, a Republican stronghold, and many of her white neighbors who identify with a political party call themselves Republican, as do the vast majority of evangelical Christians nationwide.
But you would not have predicted Jackson’s current political views from her early life. She grew up in a staunchly Democratic household, the child of uneducated Catholics who would no more vote for a Republican than they would walk naked into traffic.
But Jackson and many like her rebelled, left their homes and families, and joined communes where people used cheap and plentiful drugs and shared everything, clothes, cars, money, and bodies. And they strongly opposed the government, especially its waging of the war in Vietnam. So how did people like Jackson end up in the conservative evangelical movement? This is what Luhrmann seeks to understand.
Conventional wisdom says that the rise of politically active conservative evangelical movement can be traced to the legalization of abortion in the landmark Supreme court case Roe v. Wade in 1973. But Luhrmann says that there are many alternative scenarios to explain this phenomenon.
Of course, American evangelicalism has deeper, older roots, but the hippies changed what it meant to be Christian in America. They made speaking in tongues common. They made reading the Bible literally a mainstream practice. They made the idea of Rapture— the process by which believers will be spirited up to heaven when Jesus returns for the Second Coming—a cultural touchstone.
But they also went through a dramatic political transformation. We know that most evangelicals are now vehemently right-wing, and that most hippies were decidedly not. They seem to have been largely apolitical or, like Betsy Jackson, on the left. (A 2004 survey of more than 800 former hippie Christians found that only 22 percent thought of themselves as politically conservative back in the 1960s, whereas 57 percent had come to describe themselves that way.) So what transformed an Aquarian ethos woven around gentle Christian communalism into a fiery form of conservatism?
One way to tell the story is that the rightward shift was sheer accident: the happenstance of which pastors were on hand when the hippies first became Christians, and who continued to dominate the movement as nonhippies joined its ranks.
The standard corollary to this stumbling-into-the-stable account is to suggest that a few savvy individuals figured out how to manipulate these new Christians by making politics all about abortion.
There is yet another way to tell the story, which is that the politics of the Christian hippies never really changed—that the movement they fostered carries those values still. Hippies hated the government and anything that smacked of the establishment, just as many evangelicals do today. In this telling of the story, what began as the Jesus People ended up as the Tea Party.
Luhmann feels that there is yet another explanation, and that “[e]vangelical Christians are always imagining themselves as who God wants them to be” and that people can change on their own with just their god’s help. This translated into thinking that dependence on the government as the problem. Ergo, the Tea Party.
And here is where the thinking of the hippie Christians—their contempt for government, their longing for a personal relationship with Jesus, their jaundiced view of drugs—fused with that of the evangelical mainstream. Their contemporary descendants still hate what they see as the ultimate drug: the human addiction to easy solutions.
It is an interesting thesis that is worth reading. I don’t really know enough about the Jesus People to judge whether it is accurate. Maybe those who lived through those times and have first hand knowledge of the movement or have studied it can tell.