Boomers Questioned Their Own Religious Affiliations

Recent reports by Pew Research and Gallup indicate that religious affiliation in the U.S. has dropped below fifty percent for the first time in more than a century. In particular, there has been a precipitous drop in church attendance in the past two decades. Mister Boomer remembers the tumultuous times of the 1960s, and places religion smack in the middle of the controversies raised by anti-war and Civil Rights protestors. Mister B feels it was a time when religion was both revered and reviled, and wonders if the seeds of organized religion rejection weren’t planted in our boomer years.

History has documented how World War II placed people together from all walks of life and from every corner of the country. After the War, this blending to “American” was exemplified by the marital mixing of nationalities, something that was discouraged prior to the War. Immigrants, like the parents and grandparents of Baby Boomers, tended to live in the same neighborhoods with others who matched their own nationality, and therefore, their religion. For decades, that comprised the major marriage pool for men and women. Boomers, like children everywhere to this day, adopted the religion of their parents and grandparents without discussion. It was the 1960s when the equation began to change on a larger scale. Organized religion has always helped people answer the big questions of life and death, and assist them in coping with the rigors and stresses of their time. Throughout history, when people no longer recognized their religion as fulfilling their needs, the religion changed, reformed, or drifted away. In the 1960s, many boomers asked questions and researched alternatives to their family religion. There were several possible reasons for the beginnings of breaks with traditional family religious affiliations by boomers, many of whom were leaning toward “spiritual” rather than “religious”:

Transcendental Meditation (a.k.a. TM): Created in India in the 1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, U.S. college students began exploring this type of mantric meditation that was based on Hindu religious principles, but was seen as a global humanitarian movement to bring about world peace through inner stillness. The movement got a boost when the Beatles spent time with the Mararishi in 1968.

Eastern Spiritualism and Mysticism: Loosely connected to TM exploration, boomers investigated other forms of religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism to compare and contrast with their mainly Western, European-inspired religious upbringing. Influence can be seen in the clothing of the late sixties as well as psychedelic music and drug experimentation.
Native American Culture awareness: Boomers became more aware of the beliefs of Native Americans, especially their connection to the land and Nature.
Social Justice movement: Civil Rights, anti-war, religious and personal freedoms were seen by an increasing number of boomers as moral issues. As such, they looked to their family religious affiliations to see how these institutions addressed — or failed to address — the injustices they were seeing. Some boomers forget that Martin Luther King was a minister, and his speeches all talked about Civil Rights and the Vietnam War in terms of religious morality.

At the same time as boomers were reaching out to the world for religious validity, there was a traditionalist backlash in the country to counter any break from the status quo. Television became a cultural battlefield as the U.S. Congress debated what was moral and right for boomer children to view. The same held true for violence and language in comic books and language and nudity in the movies. As a result, morality laws and regulations were enacted, many of which are still in place to this day.

There were boomers tending toward Fundamentalism in each of the major religions during the boomer years, as well as the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements. The term “televangelist” was first used to describe Bishop Fulton Sheen, a Roman Catholic bishop from Newark, New Jersey, whose radio program, The Catholic Hour (1930-1950), had labelled Adolph Hitler an Anti-Christ. In 1952, his weekly television program entitled, Life Is Worth Living, began broadcasting in prime time, earning him the designation. Evangelical ministers, most notably Billy Graham, Oral Roberts and Rex Humbard, soon had their own television programs.

In 1957, the U.S. Census had, for the first time, a question about religious affiliation in its Current Population Survey. There was immediate backlash by a wide section of people on both sides of the political spectrum, and subsequent discussion eliminated the question from future government queries on the basis of separation between church and state. Since then, the Census collects information on organized religions only as any other county businesses.

Mister Boomer grew up in a Catholic family in a very Protestant neighborhood. In his own family, something that made a profound difference in religious terms was Vatican II (1962-65). Pope John XXIII had called bishops together to discuss possible cultural changes, something that had not been done in the Catholic Church for over 100 years. Mister B recalls the biggest change in his family’s church was that the services were no longer spoken in Latin. Suddenly, the priest spoke English and faced the congregation rather than an altar. Traditionalists like Mister B’s aunts were appalled and opposed to any change in church services whatsoever, but his family embraced the changes. Soon after, the first guitars made their way into special Sunday services, billed as a way to keep young people in the fold. These services left the church organ behind in favor of folk singers with acoustic guitars and newly-minted songs to replace the centuries-old music from the pages of church hymnals.

Mister B’s own religious journey began in earnest in high school, when he explored the world beyond his own upbringing by reading about Western philosophy and ultimately, the tenets of Buddhism. Other religions all seemed very much in line with each other in terms of their professed beliefs of peace, love and understanding. Yet what was visible on the evening news and the actions of people associated with these organized affiliations did not match their stated beliefs. At the same time, priests and nuns who were his teachers and family friends began leaving the Church at an alarming rate. Those contrasts led him away from organized religion at an early age. He has had no affiliation for many more decades than he did in an organized religion as a child.

Therefore, in his experience, Mister Boomer humbly theorizes that the seeds of distrust toward religious affiliation were planted in our boomer formative years. He in no way is disparaging anyone’s beliefs or affiliations; in fact, quite the opposite. He, like many boomers, adopted the ideal of personal choice early on, which means we each maintain that freedom to decide for ourselves. Yet, since we were a generation known for questioning the status quo, is it any wonder that our children and grandchildren are choosing “none of the above” when it comes to religious affiliation faster than we did?

How about you, boomers? Did your children drop the affiliation you had when they were young? Did you drop your religious affiliation in the past few decades?

Boomers’ Moms Weren’t June Cleaver, Then or Now

We boomers grew up watching sitcoms like Father Knows Best (1954-60), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66) and Leave It to Beaver (1957-63), where the mom character was the official domestic engineer and chief child-rearer. Evidently, a dress, pearls and heels was the required uniform, whether washing dishes, vacuuming or cooking. Only the addition of an apron helped to differentiate between the household tasks.

By contrast, the man of the house went to work and, it appears, according to boomer-era TV shows, his only job when he got home was to sit in a chair, relax, read the newspaper and, for most of them, smoke a pipe. Occasionally, he was forced to issue dad advice or verbal punishment for his children’s misbehavior, which was brought to his attention by his wife.

Animated female characters didn’t fare much better. By the 1960s, Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble, on The Flintstones (1960-66), were drawn to be virtually the same as Margaret Anderson, Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver. Wilma and Betty’s Stone Age dresses, complete with necklaces, brought 1950s sitcom fashion into the 1960s.

The Jetsons (1962-63) was the futuristic-family answer to The Flintstones. Although pictured in the future, where a “female” robot named Rosey had taken over most of the household chores from the mom character (complete with apron), Jane Jetson was still the homemaker and mother. Jane’s job was to make life as smooth and easy as possible for the family, which she did with the help of space-age inventions. On the other hand, George Jetson wasn’t the one pushing any of the household buttons, despite his grueling work schedule of one hour a day, two days a week. In fact, his encounters with technology often required asking for his wife’s help. His main household chore appeared to be walking the family dog, Astro.

Our TV mindset was so ensconced on the woman controlling all the housework that it became the visual joke on My Three Sons (1960-72). The series starts with the audience knowing that character Steven Douglas, father of three boys, is a widower. Does he immediately jump into the job of homemaker and enlist the help of his growing children to handle the household chores? No — instead, his deceased wife’s father, Bub, grandfather to the children, becomes the live-in housekeeper. The part was played by William Frawley. When he became too ill to continue in the series in 1965, his role was replaced by Uncle Charley (played by William Demarest), the great-uncle former merchant marine who tackles the household chores while wearing an apron (the 1950s signifier of the homemaker), but chomping a cigar lest his character seem too effeminate.

Boomers, however, despite this gender indoctrination, knew their mothers did not live the glamorous sitcom life of June Cleaver; but they were the homemaker and person in charge of the daily home schedules of the children. For Mister B, like many boomers, his mother quit working once the first child was born. She stayed home raising the children and doing the cooking and cleaning until Mister B and his siblings were in high school, when she found a job outside the home.

A prevailing thought, both at the time and even today, was that the Women’s Liberation Movement would change the dynamics of work within the home to a more equitable relationship. Fast forward fifty years and studies are showing that though men are doing more work in the home than ever before, in most relationships it is far from a 50-50 split that many people see as the ideal sharing of responsibility.

Our boomer history came into focus this week for Mister B when reports indicated that during our world-wide pandemic, women are being affected far more than men both in the workplace and on the homefront. Before COVID-19 hit the U.S. a year ago, women made up half the country’s workforce. Indications now are a good portion of unemployed women have left their jobs in order to care for children, who are now required to be home while schools remain closed. To make matters worse, studies show by far women remain the main housekeepers, handling cooking, cleaning, laundry and in many cases, their own work-at-home job situation, while troubleshooting home tech connections for their children and assisting teachers in attempting to reach their on-screen classes.

Even though today’s woman is in a far different situation than June Cleaver, we are witnessing that though many things have changed, much has not. Mister Boomer has no answers, advice or pithy inspirational messages to relay here. He merely tips his hat and humbly bows to mothers everywhere. Where would we be without them?

Has the pandemic brought into focus the dynamics of your own homelife or that of your children, boomers?