How hippie Christians became evangelical conservatives

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.


  1. says

    Like you, I don’t have much knowledge of the Jesus People, as they were way before my time. But I wonder if this just isn’t partly due to a cultural shift. Surely some of the former Jesus People are now liberal Christians with varying widths of the evangelical stripe (yes, there is such a thing as a liberal evangelical–they’re kind of annoying, but they’re there), like some former hippies are now short-haired progressive office workers. Similarly, is the existence the Tea Party-Jesus People maybe due to the same forces that took a few of the more libertarian stripe of 60s hippie and turned them toward Reagan in the 80s, regardless of religion? Maybe this is just the Christian flavor of that.

    Wish I had a subscription so I could read the full article, but thanks for the excerpts.

  2. jdguil says

    I see one huge problem with Luhmann’s thesis. The Tea party didn’t form until Obama was elected president. It looks to me like the Tea party was formed based on plain old American racism, and all the talk of antigovernment is just that, talk.

    An important point to me is that when the Tea party candidates won so heavily in the 2010 elections they didn’t start dismantling government, they started dismantling social programs for the poor and minorities. Much of the legislation proposed by Tea partiers has been to increase government intrusion into the lives of private citizens. The Tea party legislation goes right along with racist and christian supremist beliefs, not smaller government. Another point is this undying attack on Obama personally for being Muslim, atheist, not a natural born citizen, etc. They just can’t seem to get over the idea that a black man could really be legitimate president of the US.

    Am I missing something?

  3. garnetstar says

    My impression at the time was that hippies were attracted towards Christianity by the gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild, promotion of peace and love for all, aspect of it. Or at least that that was a part of their stance.

    I don’t know how some would have become right-wing evangelicals, but as nkrishan says, surely some stuck with the moderate, more liberal, version of religion.

    And, jdguil, I don’t think you’re missing anything.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    I date from the relevant era, and I have some problems with this scenario.

    For one thing, we called them Jesus Freaks, and the core faction was a cult known as Children of God (who proselytized with a zeal that Jehovah’s Witnesses could only envy – everybody else avoided them whenever possible).

    When the “hippie” movement faded (due to economics, drugs [in themselves, and the War on them], the inadequacy of herbal-etc healing, difficulties in group living among individualists, and so on), most of us made the necessary adjustments to find employment, fit into existing social milieux, raise kids, whatever. Those with a Jesus addiction found churches as part of that process – either existing neighborhood places, or wherever they were led by those who evangelized to them. (Most of the latter were never genuine members of the movement, but those who entered it as missionaries from “straight” religious enterprises with classically narrow viewpoints.)

    The Tea Party people I’ve met seem all to have come from the straight/middle-class side of the tracks; even political conservatives from the redneck/hippie overlap zone sneer at the colonial costumes, Glenn Beck-olatry and general prissiness of the core teabaggers. Their ideological ancestry derives from John Birchers, the pro-war-on-Vietnam blue-collar “hard hats”, and Moral Majoritarians, not Stephen & Ida May Gaskin, Ram Dass, Paul Goodman, R.D. Laing, or other now-forgotten voices of the “counterculture” of 40-50 years ago.

    We – the “freaks” – scattered to the four winds; we did not execute a right turn in mass formation.

  5. smrnda says

    I’m too young to have any firsthand experience of these things and don’t really know that much about the Christian hippies, but I suspect that people today overestimate the radicalism of young people during the hippie era. I think a lot of young people of the time really weren’t politically aware and were probably totally self-absorbed, into the drugs and such, but that a little bit of faux radicalism kept you popular, the way an upper middle class white college kid out to get an MBA might put up a Che poster today.

  6. MNb says

    As I’m from 1963 hippies were just before my time (as a child I called all hippies “Beatles” because of the long haircuts on the sleeve of Sergeant Pepper). Moreover I never was aware of the christian component. I suspect it was largely absent in Europe. The French student movement that forced De Gaulle to retire was largely marxist. Bhagwan was also very popular.
    So I suspect that the phenomenon christian hippies form Tea Party is typical American. I do know that Dutch neo-cons generally strongly dislike everything that has to do with the 60’s, including the hippie movement.
    At the other hand PR Butler might be right. In The Netherlands the last event was the Kralingen Festival of June 1970. At that time music-wise the future belonged to hard- and progrock. When I entered secondary school in 1976 the movement belonged to the past. But the continental leaders of the hippie movement generally stayed at the left side of the political spectrum. Roel van Duijn became a municipal executive (wethouder) in Amsterdam, Joschka Fischer (Germany) Vice-Chancellor and Daniel Cohn-Bendit member of the European Parliament. Might it be relevant that the American political system never was able to translate the hippie ideas in something political?

  7. ildi says

    Totally distracted by Godspell! My favorite song on that album was “By My Side” followed by “All Good Gifts”. My older brother left it at home when he went off to college…

    He fits the bill transitioning from Jesus freak to charismatic Catholic birther, even to the delicious irony of working for the federal government while hating pretty much all forms of it. He started out as a liberal Newman Center Catholic/going to join the Peace Corp after college/antiwar type, though, not the sex/drugs/rock and roll/antiwar hippie. I’m not sure how the transition happened; he’s quite a bit older than me so I wasn’t there to witness it first-hand. There was an ugly divorce in the middle of it all that may have been a catalyst. One of the justifications he gave for applying for a Catholic divorce was that he had smoked a joint laced with something once, so that made him unable to make an informed decision about marriage or something? Hey, it worked.

  8. hoary puccoon says

    The hippy movement, in my experience, had one, overwhelming political component, and that was opposition to the draft. I talked about women’s rights back then. The answer was always, “not until we end the Vietnam War and STOP THE DRAFT.” A friend talked (prophetically, unfortunately) about the resentment the CIA was stirring up in the Middle East. The answer was, “what’s that got to do with how we STOP THE DRAFT?” Another friend warned of the anti-American sentiment the US government was causing in his home country, El Salvador. People either listened politely, or rudely interrupted, to get back to the only real issue, which was how to STOP THE DRAFT.

    I know not everyone agrees with me. But what I saw in the Vietnam era was a liberalism that was tissue paper thin. Women and minorities were hardly ever, as far as I could tell, seen as people with important issues of their own. And now we find out at least one group swung sharply to the right after the draft was abolished? Well, yeah.

  9. flex says

    While I’m a bit after the hippie movement, I’ve spent most of my working career alongside older men who lived through the period. In the Detroit area in automotive plants.

    My impression is the same as Pierce R. Butler. There are lots of stories of pot-smoking on non-working hours, and then some stories about idiots who were high at work. There are also lots of stories about how worthless the hippies were, how the blacks destroyed Detroit (and they smell funny), how anyone on welfare is a worthless bum, how the Indians (Hindu) are taking all our jobs (in the 1990’s it was how the Japanese were buying all our industry), etc.

    These people jealously guard their perquisites, while simultaneously denying that they have any. They do not recognize that taxes provide services, and complain both about the bad roads and the amount they pay in taxes. They are not overtly religious, and I think that targeting religion as the way to change their minds is a mistake, they attend services but there isn’t talk about the services. Going to church allows them to meet like-minded people and re-enforces their prejudices, but their prejudices are not created by religion, but because they live isolated lives.

    They are members of Evangelical churches because that’s where their friends go, but they are more interested in the skate-park than the sermon. It is a matter of pride to them that their church has a dry-cleaners, but I doubt that they all know the name of their preacher.

    In my experience, the members of the Tea Party are not drawn from a specific religion, but from the lower middle class who are afraid, very afraid, that their lives are getting worse. And they are right.

    So they latch onto ideas which seem like common sense to them. Ideas like that everyone on welfare is a drug addict who deserves to be tested for drugs before they get state money (this came up in today’s lunch conversation). Ideas like that the government should manage it’s money like a household. Ideas like immigrants should be deported because they are taking our good-paying jobs.

    These people are working in lower-middle class jobs, who want enough money to get their cabin up north or boat, but don’t care all that much about the job. They share similar dreams and desires, and even activities. They watch prime-time television, and they watch whatever is on. They turn the television on right after dinner and rarely change the channel until they go to bed. Their internet usage is primarily you-tube, and primarily the stupid human tricks section.

    They love to complain about seeing people just standing around, road workers are often reviled because the lanes may be closed for a few weeks and they don’t see anyone around when they happen to drive by. The inconvenience they experience can only be explained by laziness, other possible explanations do not enter their minds.

    I do what I can to give them alternative views. I show them studies which demonstrate the relationship between government spending and economic growth. I gently chastise them for blatant racism, and often get them to admit that race has nothing to do with their complaints. I discuss economics and the importance of raising the minimum wage to a living wage, and how that would improve not only their lives but the entire economy. I appeal to their selfish motives in issues like taxation, showing them how they would save money on health care by supporting a single-payer system. It’s like beating my head against a wall, but sometimes a brick dislodges. (And I’m not claiming to be a saint, I let a lot of shit slide rather than confront every issue.)

    They are defined by their parochialism and there are a lot of them. They are the Tea Party.

  10. says

    First, I don’t see this as analyzing the entire Tea Party or even necessarily the roots of the Tea Party. I saw this as only trying to explain why these former hippies would join the Tea Party movement, though I realize that the part “In this telling of the story, what began as the Jesus People ended up as the Tea Party” could be read as these hippies being the origin of the Tea Party. It may be, however, just not the best worded statement and doesn’t actually mean what you might be interpreting it to mean.
    Second, I guess I would investigate weather or not these hippies held many raciest attitudes back in the day. I might think they wouldn’t have, imagining them jamming to the likes of Hendrix. Then again, I suppose because one may like some black guy’s music doesn’t mean they don’t hold a bunch of raciest views otherwise.

  11. says

    I knew some of the Jesus People, back in the 60s. I was even greatly influenced by a few. They were a welcome change from the theology-and-rules Christianity I had grown up with; more about feeling than obeying, more inclined to “love” Jesus than to read about him, willing to challenge cultural assumptions, more people-oriented, more forgiving.

    Although I lost contact with them later, I began to consider myself, in many ways, a Christian hippie, and to be open to the Charismatic movement, to the great consternation of my parents. But I couldn’t abandon my belief in studying the Bible, as it was, not as I wished it to be, so eventually found myself back in the rules-based churches again, though still with a soft spot in my heart for the old Jesus People and their freedom. And, with time, still based on my study of the Bible, out of Christianity altogether.

    In some ways, I see the continuation of the 60s in today’s evangelical Christianity. It still follows cultural rules, although the rules have changed drastically. It still goes mostly be feeling, rather than by obedience (at least as it applies to themselves). It is even more ignorant of the Bible than even the most extreme of the Jesus People were. It is still as brash and in-your-face as the hippie leaders were.

    But the cultural shift has been back into the churches and the old formats. The rebel youth of the 60s has become their own parents. How many of those reincarnated parents are Tea Party types, I don’t know. Not all, by any means.

    (And yes, up to a point, I have become my own mother, except without her belief system and her focus on rules. I think I’ve kept the good in her, and left behind the heavy indoctrination she had been subjected to.)

  12. says

    “by” feeling, not “be”. I don’t know how I can read something twice and not see the typo until it has been submitted. 🙁

  13. Mano Singham says

    That’s right. I should have said that they ended up in the Tea Party, not that they created it.

  14. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    But what I saw in the Vietnam era was a liberalism that was tissue paper thin. Women and minorities were hardly ever, as far as I could tell, seen as people with important issues of their own.

    What made the feminists coalesce was the way they were treated by many of the men in the anti-draft and anti-war movement.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    smrnda @ # 5: I’m too young to have any firsthand experience of these things and don’t really know that much about the Christian hippies, but I suspect that people today overestimate the radicalism of young people during the hippie era.

    Why do you “suspect” that there was no core to the movement, in contradiction to both living eyewitnesses and participants as well as thoroughly documented histories in print and film?

    The poseurs you mention popped up again and again, but they were secondary to those of us actually on the streets. For example, I live in a town where anti-war protesters took over a major intersection, refusing to allow “business as usual” (a Nixon slogan) – and held off the cops for two days. Believe me – there were and are easier and more effective ways to meet chicks.

    For a look at the sparkplugs of the ’60s (among US whites, that is), I suggest starting with Abbie Hoffman.

  16. smrnda says

    I don’t suspect there was no core to the movement nor that it wasn’t pervasive among many if not most of the young people. However, growing up I was always fed the idea that *EVERYBODY* of the era was protesting the war and marching in the street, and as I ran into people older than me who talked about smoking pot and then going ahead and voting for Nixon, or not caring about Vietnam since they weren’t going to go since they were in college, I was thinking that *this group* of people could coincide with the hippies turned Tea Patriers.

    I was incorrect to say the level of radicalism was overrated – I should have written that there were probably some people who simply weren’t politically aware but who might have appeared to be similar to those who were in terms of lifestyle and appearance.

    Thanks for the info though, hadn’t read Hoffman in along time.

  17. bad Jim says

    A side issue: as Fred Clark at Slacktivist has pointed out, the evangelicals were not traditionally anti-abortion or anti-contraception. They were politicized by the revocation of tax-exempt status for segregated religious schools in the 1970’s, and took up opposition to abortion as the result of their racially-motivated alliance with the conservative movement.

  18. Brad says

    Great article Mano. I was part of the Jesus movement ( got involved in 73). Nothing is ever as black and white or simplistic as we tend to want to perceive it be.. I’m glad you rephrased “they ended up in the Tea Party, not that they created it. Some thoughts from one who experienced the phenomena FIRST HAND

    The Jesus movements shift to the right did not take place over night. When Carter first ran for president in 76 a lot of young “christian” hippies voted for him enmass, as well as many of the “Established Church” because of his very public Christian faith. i remember the slogan a vote for “JC is a Vote for JC.”.

    Carter’s spiritual transformation did not compensate for his liberal policies. The Democratic Party became identified with pro-choice and ‘nontraditional” societal values.

    In 1981 Francis Schaeffer who’s L’Abri Community and writings deeply influenced the Jesus movement, published ” a Christian Manifesto” urging evangelical participation in politics. As a result Schaeffer is widely credited with providing the impetus for evangelical political action against abortion.

    Those of us who converted left behind the counterculture of the 1960s with it’s drugs, eastern religion and sexual promiscuity. The churches that absorbed the Jesus movement into their ranks were largely Pentecostals and Evangelicals. These denominations were social conservatives. who were making a large shift to the right. as Jerry Farwell and company began to mobilize the christian vote. To to these conservative Christians the world the Jesus freaks had left behind was seen as as part of disintegrating social order.

    Much of the Christian right’s power within the American political system is attributed to grass root organizing.
    The hippies and the politicized youth brought the same passion into the development of the religious right that they had in to the anti war movement. and were key in this mobilization.

    There was a trade off, the hippies moved to the right politically ans many of the churches made changes in form, but not theology. for example relaxing dress codes, embracing contemporary music for worship, more emphasis on community and nurturing an experiential relationship with God (miracles, healing etc.). Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard Christian Fellowship are examples of this, their roots can be traced back directly to the Jesus movement.

    Interesting side note there has been a shift taking place in Christianity over the past decade. The religious rights power base is shrinking as socially liberal young and non whites swamp the ranks of the evangelicals, with more concern for social justice issues. Many of the older leaders in the emerging Christian movement were Jesus people, who in many aspects have gone full circle.

    Of course this just scratches the surface, but i thought some of this would be helpful rounding out the discussion.

  19. Mano Singham says

    That was very interesting, nice to hear from someone with first-hand knowledge.I had not noticed the change in the views of the younger generation except in the area of same-sex marriage but I am glad to hear of it.

  20. Doug Yearight says

    When I hear about Jesus People or Jesus revolution i light up because that was my time and experience. I was saved through street witnessing Christians and became a part of that movement in larger cities witnessing on the street with Jesus people or essetially hippies that became christians. We were all very adamant about the transforming love of Jesus and we felt we were living out a Christian life similar to what we believed Jesus and the disciples would live today. I still retain through it all that adamant no compromise attitude but God’s love and grace mean so much more now. I get into politics because I think the church, that is the fundamentalist evangelical church, has drifted much too far to the right. This is my blog –

    Sorry if it comes across as opinionated but I’ve seen and heard alot from so many on the religious right and felt that this point of view needed to come across in a stronger way.

  21. says

    I don’t think John the Baptist would be very welcome in these crewcut, 3-piece-suit-wearing conservative churches. He’d be excoriated for living out in the desert with no job, no health insurance, no SUV, no bank account, or any of the trappings which make a man look “respectable”. Where in the Bible does it state you have to look like a Forbes-500 business executive to get to heaven? The so-called 99% of struggling Americans are beginning to associate an expensive business suit with banksters and other oppressors of the poor. The most conservatively dressed Christians tend to be the most judgmental and worldly.

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