Recently I read a book by Alan Petigny called The Permissive Society: America, 1941-1965. In this book Petigny challenges the stereotypical ideas that this was a conservative period of Wally Cleavers and dives deep into the true radical changes taking place in American life at the time. He discusses a variety of topics from sex to rock ‘n’ roll, from psychology to religion, and gives the reader a true empathic picture of an emerging way of thinking he calls The Permissive Turn.
Petigny describes the Permissive Turn as an acceleration of the liberalization of values following the Second World War. He cites specific examples in detail and describes four main areas of change: psychology, religion, addiction, and childrearing. I would like to discuss the 2nd Chapter of the book specifically on addiction. However, I believe that all of these are intertwined and connected to the changes in the way of life during that time period for most Americans. In the chapter on religion, Petigny hits on several major changes values for conservative Christians of the time.
He begins by talking about the young people of conservative America and the Christian prohibitions against things like dancing, card playing, going to the movies, and many other things they deemed “worldly pleasures”. People were gradually rebelling against these ideas and even most denominations were growing more accepting of them. Bingo, what many perceived to be a form of gambling, became wildly popular, a new more contemporarily worded version of the Holy Bible was published, people were socializing with and even marrying outside of their denominations. Evangelism was slowed down, there was a growing sectarian cooperation, mainstream religious figures were filling up stadiums to speak to millions across the country, and with the national growing interest in psychology the clerics began to study how humans behave and why. This in itself is an example of the churches’ changing mindset on things like science as having a worldly solution.
Petigny spoke very specifically about the conservative portion of America’s population. Although he touched briefly on national views, he tried to tell the story of religious liberalization strictly through the most radical people of faith. It did a poor job of giving the reader a solid view of the average American at the time, but none the less, painted a picture of secularization and resistance to change from different members of the faith.
Some of the root causes he lists are veterans returning home and gaining an education, The Cold War bringing religion together as people of faith unified against the anti-religious communists (though he could’ve emphasized it more), and the “controversial discussion of religion in which each participant confesses and bears witness to his convictions, is felt to be undesirable to the American Way of Life.” (67).
I don’t think Petigny did a great job of identifying all of the causes of this accelerated permissiveness. American’s had embraced a classically liberal view of themselves (Perhaps this was in reaction to the views of the East). The great depression was over and an affluent prosperous new America was on top. People saw themselves as individuals, they had needs and desires. The war and looming nuclear war made mortality all too visible. During the war, men had served with people from all over the country, ideas had mixed and bred, commercial airlines were more popular, the interstate highway system was underway, and Americans (and their ideas) were more connected than ever before. In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act created the five-day work week. Americans had more leisure time and more time to read and interact socially. With more money in their pockets, there was more to do during this time as well. Sunday as a holy day wasn’t practical for the new leisured American. As one shop opened on Sundays to reach a new market, others had to follow to keep up with competition (more women in the workforce probably had to shop on weekends). As Americans left the house more often, they would become more tolerant of new ideas. A new, easier to read Bible had been printed, and with more time to read, this gave American Christians the opportunity to better understand and more importantly interpret the scripture’s message for themselves.
Most importantly, the churches began to teach psychology. This education probably taught them about how to better influence and reach people without them thinking defensively to scolding or having a fear of judgement. Overall, Christians were rethinking the way they knew religion. This is best described in a quote by Billy Graham, “The one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy, but love…We evangelicals sometimes set ourselves up as judges of another man’s relationship to God. We often think that a person is not a Christian unless he pronounces our shibboleths and clinches exactly the way we do.”
The entire book was a good read that debunks the myth of a conservative American cliché and paints a picture of true liberalization and self-focused thinking. Each chapter forces the reader to consider how one aspect of life affected the other and reading this would be important for any student of history to fully understand the Segway in thinking from early 20th America to our present day world.