A Utilitarian Faith, 1970s Edition

I’ve spent a little time at this blog critiquing the role of religion in American life in the 1950s — rightly, I think — because I believe that faith to be a fairly shallow, conformist, and overly utilitarian faith aimed largely at producing good citizens rather than well-formed followers of Jesus Christ.

But it isn’t the only era in recent American religious history worth examining.

I grew up listening to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, a 1970s effort to revive radio drama (successful, in it’s way , for nearly a decade), and I’m listening again to a few episodes from the beginning of the show’s run in 1974.

There are a lot of religious adverts — the Mormons running a funny series of spots about paying attention to the people you love (“When you really listen, love is what you find…”), the Catholic Church’s Campaign for Human Development ran spots highlighting the need to combat poverty, and something called Unity Church in New York City ran a series of somewhat creepy spots focusing on finding meaning in the mid–1970s.

But the adverts that are actually the strangest — and the most charming — were a series of spots run by the Franciscan Order. Such as this one, from January, 1974. The voice is that of a rough-hewn male, an Archie Bunker-type:

You know, you hack it through life, and you struggle to get a lot of things. But the one thing you really want is for someone to say, “hey, you did a good job.” Or to really care how you feel. Maybe even look up to you. Ain’t it funny, those little things? And so you fake it a lot, and you pretend you’re a winner, you pretend you’re something special, and that you’re worth loving. But it don’t work. And that every-day kind of love, didn’t happen. So, I just got tired of faking it, trying to be somebody else. And I can remember saying, “Look, I’m sorry, but I don’t know everything. And I can’t do everything. And I … I make mistakes.” And you know what? That’s when they started to say they love me. Ain’t that funny?

From the Franciscans. With love.

This last bit was a female voice, sounding a bit like Didi Conn (a bit player in many 1970s TV shows and movies).

This is definitely moral therapeutic deism. And just as utilitarian as the 1950s spots about how faith in God can answer troubling questions and make life easier. And yet there is as much truth to this as there was to the 1950s spots. Yes, this resonates with me more — I am a child of the 1970s, after all — than the more collectivist and communal ideals of the 1950s. But there’s a truth to this.

Missing from this, of course, is Christ. While the focus here is love, it’s a utilitarian love designed to make life better. But rather than focusing on the community and the nation here, the focus in this advert is all about the individual — acceptance, love, belonging. These have become, by 1974, ends unto themselves.

What is really interesting, however, is that by 1976 (or thereabouts), the religious adverts had largely disappeared from radio. (At least from the sample of CBS Radio Mystery Theater episodes that I have.) No one — not Franciscans, not Mormons, not creepy new agers, were buying adverts anymore.

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2 thoughts on “A Utilitarian Faith, 1970s Edition

  1. My wife and I went to a Unity church for a while in the early 1990’s. They actually originated in the late 19th century, as part of what I think was called the “new thought” movement (latter ‘fact’ maybe unreliable). This included the Theosophists and Christian Scientists. It is based in Missouri, near Kansas City.

    Unity had a definite way of looking at things, very similar to the New Age 70’s. But they were extremely averse to formal ideology or dogma. Perhaps they feared falling into the cult-like authoritarianism which sometimes characterized Christian Science. Once (in the 1930’s?) a daughter of the founder put together an informal account of what she considered to be basic Unity principles; she was criticized all around, as if she were trying to make herself a Pope. Anyway, it was full of the usual positive-thinking, visualization, actualization, mind-is-creative, god-is-in-all-of-us sentiments. They tended to be very nice people. But they also seemed to shy away from unpleasant realities which might press their faith a little too hard. A common mantra was “This cannot show me darkness.”

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  2. I should add that, unlike many similar movements, Unity remained avowedly Christian. But all things Biblical were given a “metaphysical” interpretation, which translated them into accounts of the struggles within the mind of each individual. So — kind of Gnostic. But a friendly, low-key, suburban, live-and-let-live sort of Gnosticism.

    They had a song with the line “I see the Christ in you.” In more general new-age terms, this translates as “I see your ‘higher self’, and I choose to speak to and interact with this higher self in order to help raise us both to a higher plane.

    It was pleasant and well-meaning, but ultimately insufficiently robust to deal with a world of crisis and suffering.

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