In previous articles, I have explained at length how at the end of Victorian era there was a consensus in America on national identity, morality, culture and the meaning of progress, which has steadily eroded over the last century. The Victorian generations believed in traditional morality. They were optimists who celebrated scientific, technological, material and moral progress. Protestantism was at the center of American life and dominated the culture. WASPs ruled America. The Victorian home was a school where children were taught the moral virtues which made up their character. Collectively, the Victorian family, church and school were the trinity of institutions that forged the prized “character” of young people, taught them their history and transmitted to them their identity and values.
From Henry F. May’s The End of American Innocence, 1912-1917:
“The dinner was really a testimonial to the unity, excellence, and continuity of American nineteenth-century civilization. Most of the speeches and press comments pledged the country’s allegiance to the three central doctrines of that civilization. These were first, the certainty and universality of moral values; second, the inevitability, particularly in America, of progress; and third, the importance of traditional literary culture. The last, especially, was sometimes praised in a slightly defensive tone. Many of the diners assembled at Sherry’s knew that some Americans valued one of these doctrines more than the rest, and even that a few misguided young people, usually through the effect of European corruption, defiantly rejected all three. This was all the more reason for honoring Howells, since these three major American commitments were almost perfectly summed up in his long career. …
When we encounter this bland vision in the year of the beginning cultural upheaval, when we remember that every article of the standard creed was being sharply attacked, when we remember that young men had long been reading Marx and Nietzsche, that Veblen and Shaw and Mencken had loosed their arrows, we have a sense of double vision …
In 1912, the champions of moralism, progress, and culture still retained a hold on nearly all the strategic centers of cultural war, on the universities, the publishing houses, the weightier magazines, and most of the other centers of serious opinion. This led to something like a Maginot line psychology; those centers were to prove less solid than they looked. To understand their strengths and weaknesses, we must look closely at a few of them, with their garrisons intact and their flags still flying.”
In the 21st century, we live in a secular country where Christianity is a subculture and a lifestyle preference. White identity is proscribed as “racism” and “white supremacy” while all other identities are publicly celebrated in the name of “progress.” Morality has become the laundry list of -isms and -phobias derived from Freudian psychoanalysis, critical theory and postmodernism. Things which previous generations would have understood and universally condemned as sin, vice and criminality are publicly celebrated while virtue and obeying the law is forgotten or no longer celebrated. The Hunter Biden scandal no longer shocks the conscience of the nation because we expect the political class to be moral degenerates.
It is difficult to exaggerate the cultural distance we have traveled over the course of the past century from a culture that revered its Founders to one that despises them. The culture has steadily become more coarse, modernist and libertarian since the 1920s and the flaccid Center Right and its philosophy of conservative liberalism has been all but useless to those who have wanted to resist these changes. If anything is true, it is been an obstacle to change and a handmaiden to the status quo.
Today, we are looking at how one of the key institutions that controlled Victorian morals and character broke down in the early 20th century: the Protestant church. In 2020, we’re about a century out from the Victorian family, church and the school losing their control over American culture.
The following excerpt comes from the chapter “The Children of Our Discontent” in Paula S. Fass’s book The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth In The 1920s:
“Progressives and traditionalists disagreed sharply about the significance of youth’s behavior, but both insisted that contemporary youth were unlike previous generations, and neither would have challenged the truth of James Truslow Adams’ observation that amidst all the hysteria about the younger generation no one was fool enough to believe “that the babies born between 1900 and 1910 all received a hypodermic injection of new original sin.” No, the source of youth’s problems lay not in their nature but in their nurture, and whatever their orientation – to the traditional past or the reformed future – contemporaries directed their attention to American social institutions …”
In the 1920s, traditionalists and progressives both agreed that the culture of the younger generation, which is to say, the Losters and the youngest cohort of GIs (those born between 1882 to 1910) was a major break with the values of their elders. They were the first Moderns.
“If the family was in trouble, the church was in ruins, and the more the churches adjusted, the less they seemed to matter. In the stable world, the traditionalist remembered, the church had been the second pillar of social order and social morality. But the young had simply “thrown religion overboard.” “We are not looking at this question from the religious viewpoint, from that of saving souls,” the Chicago Tribune admitted, “but simply from the viewpoint of social behavior.” And from that perspective, “skepticism in religion,” as William Phelps observed, “is, in nine cases out of ten, followed by skepticism in morals.” The progressives were generally less interested in the churches than the traditionalists, partly because they were less concerned with the maintenance of old-fashioned authority, partly because it was precisely the progressive-liberal reform of the churches which had apparently undermined religion.”
If you want to understand the split between progressive liberals and fundamentalists within American Protestantism that occurred in the early 20th century during the Progressive Era and has widened down to our times, watch these two videos. By the 1920s, the Protestant establishment had embraced liberalism, modernism and cosmopolitanism and shed its 19th century attachment to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity. This is why the Protestant establishment opposed the Klan in the 1920s.
“Americans had spent the latter part of the nineteenth century wrestling with the consequences of Darwinian evolution and devising a makeshift alliance between religion and science. But, as S.K. Ratcliffe observed in Century Magazine, this “liberal” religion meant nothing to the young. “There is no more momentous social fact that the cool and decisive turning away of the young people from those forms of religious association which to the liberals of the last age seemed to be the natural and satisfying embodiment of an emancipated faith.” Predicated on the inevitability of progress and the evolving perfection of the human race, the religious compromise had been wrecked by the war which betrayed what a flimsy patchwork of naive idealism it really was. “We have seen hideous peculation, greed, anger, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness, unmasked, rampant and unashamed,” one of the “Wild Young People” informed the readers of the Atlantic.”
Everything fell into disrepute in the eyes of the young because of Woodrow Wilson’s foolish decision to plunge America into World War I: religion, culture, morality, patriotism, etc. Then in the 1920s, Modernism poured into the minds of alienated American youth, specifically, the children of urban and suburban, college educated, middle class professionals who went on to become America’s elite. Modern values have passed down from generation to generation to the point where it has saturated “mainstream” culture. No one remembers where the “mainstream” came from or how it originated.
“According to Katherine Gerould, a contributor to the Atlantic, Americans would have done well to heave to the orthodox line. Only firm dogmas and doctrines, not liberal idealism, could provide the young with the stable moral leadership which alone would make for socially responsible behavior.”
This insight applies in many areas.
Conservative liberals, for example, fight the Left by accepting its moral and cultural frame. The Left dominates conservatives by hitting them with -isms and -phobias and accusations of “white supremacy.” These milquetoast losers have conserved nothing, not even marriage or two genders.
“But her own generation had replaced authoritative control with humanitarianism and freely accepted ethical principles. They had done away with God and heaven and hell and thus deprived religion and the churches of the power of eternal sanction. They kept only the commandments, Gerould asserted, without the religious tenets upon which they were based. But these could not in turn be passed on to the young, who lacked the ingrained fear of transgression. Morals without religious absolutes could not keep youth in control. “This conduct is wrong,” had been replaced by “this conduct is unsocial.” But in the end, who was to say with authority that the standard morality was any more humane or beneficial than a deviant morality? “There is no reason why the young should not do anything they please, so long as it is not inexpedient. Society, escaped from its leash of authority, will soon see to it that anything it pleases to do shall be expedient.” The churches, “afraid of being too narrow, afraid of offending their hearers,” had erased the fundamental definitions and doctrines, which had been the basis of their authority, in the illusion of humanitarian ecumenicalism. And, in another, effort to please its communicants, Avis Carlson noted, churches now offered social service and entertainment instead of religious dogma, converting their buildings into “social centers with gymnasiums, club-rooms and billiard halls.”
This was known a century ago and Christians still don’t want to hear it.
Previously, God had been the center of life in the community as it remains to this day in Islamic countries, but progressive liberals felt the need to update Christianity to modern times. This meant putting the Self and its choices up on a modernist pedestal and dissolving religious and moral authority. Why does the Self which has become God need religion or culture or ethnicity or morality or anything external?
“By their liberals and misguided compromises, Americans had undermined the efficacy of the church as a moral guardian. The progressives had, of course, asked that religion be broad and humane, and writers in a liberal religious journal like the Outlook continued to believe that the young wanted “the windows of the Church … thrown wide open to reason,” that they were seeking “for truth and will accept no compromises.” A progressive like George Coe went further. Applying a Deweyite commitment to change and elasticity, Coe condemned the churches for remaining traditional, rigid, insufficiently given to questioning the ethical, social, and Christian foundations of the society which they served. Christianity, Coe insisted, must return to its humane and human roots of brotherhood and justice. For Coe, the churches were still narrow and bigoted, beholden to the interests of government and business whose practices they needed to examine and cleanse. Even when they could attract them, Coe asserted, the churches continued to tie the young to the leading strings of mindless authority, instead of liberating their creative Christian imaginations. But Coe’s philosophy was lodged in just that open humanism that traditionalists attacked. Coe was intent on changing the world by changing religious instruction and was eager to have the churches serve human needs in a new social environment.”
In hindsight, liberalism and modernism destroyed mainline Protestantism. The autopsy will show this was the cause of death. People like Russell Moore are now finishing off the Southern Baptists.
“The traditionalists looked to church authority to stop the world from changing, and to control, not express, human needs. Not event he religious aspirations of the young themselves could reassure the traditionalists. “I feel that the definition of religion has changed,” “Last Year’s Debutante” declared in the Atlantic. “The ‘wild young people’ don’t believe that faith can be confined to a dogma or reduced to a creed. We think of religious as the spiritual stream in which we are floating or swimming, or struggling or sinking, and how can we deny the existence of the very element in which we live?” In the end, however, it seemed highly unlikely that authority would ride the flux or that morality could be floated on a “spiritual stream.”
This is pluralist and relativist Jamesian stream of consciousness language. See William James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience.
“While the traditionalists may well have overestimated the modernity of the churches, their perception of the erosion of church discipline in the lives of the young were certainly correct. Even the progressives agreed that the churches were not attracting the young. By the twenties the young had transferred their allegiance from the churches, broad or narrow, to a different sort of God, as they invested a kind of religious devotion to their leisure pursuits, to sports, dating, and son. And they engaged in these in the communion of peers. This means not that there was no religion among the young, but that even the most religiously inspired college youth, those who joined YMCA’s and missionary societies, and even theology students, often found the churches ill-suited to their needs. These students often turned to social reform and politics just as their less spiritual brothers turned to football and jazz. Coe understood that the traditional religious institutions were not responding to the new social conditions. But even Coe was too much of a traditionalist to see how religious energies had been rechanneled. Some contemporaries, especially those connected with colleges and universities, sensed that religious energies had been redirected, and certainly Ben Lindsey and Floyd Dell understood how important peer conventions had become. But few realized how thoroughly the shift in allegiance and authority had been effected.”
The Victorian family, church and school lost their grip over the young.
In retrospect, we can attribute the demise of Victorian culture to World War I which undermined the authority of elder generations who failed to pass on their values largely because of that event. The war was certainly the primary cause and the best bookmark of the end of 19th century culture.
There were other key developments going on though. Something like 2 million American soldiers had been sent overseas and exposed to French culture. The automobile and car culture was making young people more mobile and liberating them from distance. More young people than ever before were attending high school and college which exposed them to ideas from outside of their communities. Hollywood movies, which were the carriers of coarser values, were now playing at the local theater. The radio and phonograph brought new music like jazz into the home. The “smart magazines” were making modernism fashionable. Finally, the “mainstream media” as we know it was beginning to take shape as modernists seized control of formerly Genteel institutions like the Nation or the Atlantic or created their own like The New Republic and mass circulation news magazines like Time and Life came into existence.
The Victorian Protestant church splintered over liberal theology as the divide opened up between mainline Protestants and Fundamentalists. The Protestants who joined the Second Klan tried to uphold Victorian values, beliefs and norms, but were opposed by business-minded mainline Protestant elites. The Protestants who joined the Klan overwhelmingly came from the ranks of the middle class and were not typically Fundamentalists. They supported Prohibition and immigration restriction and were not known for violence against blacks. Internally divided and without elite support, Victorian traditionalists lost the culture war and the young were set loose from traditional sources of authority.
Who were the new authority figures who replaced fathers, ministers and teachers? Young Americans began to look up to Hollywood celebrities and athletes in the 1920s. They began to look up to “journalists” like H.L. Mencken or Randolph Bourne who told them the “truth” about “puritanism.”