Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture

Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Knocking on Heaven’s Door
    Book Description:

    What happened to American religion during the cultural revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s? The era has long been associated with the ascendancy of Eastern religions and fringe cults. But in this provocative book, Mark Oppenheimer demonstrates that contrary to conventional wisdom, most Americans did not turn on, tune in, and drop out of mainstream religious groups during the Age of Aquarius. Instead, many Americans brought the counterculture with them to their churches and temples, changing the face of American religion.

    Introducing us to America's first gay ministers and first female priests, to hippie Jews and folk-singing Catholics, Oppenheimer demonstrates that this was an era of extraordinary religious vitality. Drawing on a rich range of archival material as well as interviews with many of the protagonists,Knocking on Heaven's Dooroffers a wry and iconoclastic reappraisal of the ways in which the upheavals of the sixties changed America's relationship with God.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14347-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. 1-28)

    American society in the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, the Nixon years, looked wild and unwieldy. Photographs, movies, music, and newspaper headlines show the United States in the birthing pains of a new cultural model, more liberal than any that had gone before. The new liberalism was keyed less to liberal politics than to more liberal assumptions about etiquette, clothes, language, music, and sexual mores. This book is about how countercultural movements, arising from this new liberalism, affected American religion.

    Because writers and historians are attracted to extremes, the story typically told about Nixon-era religion focuses on cults, sects, Eastern...

  6. ONE Unitarians and Gay Rights
    (pp. 29-60)

    The thirty-three-year-old Unitarian minister James Stoll did not “come out,” if by that we mean a singular, dramatic event. He went on a coming-out tour. He first announced his homosexuality on September 5, 1969, to Student Religious Liberals, the association of college Unitarians, at their convention in Laforet, Colorado. The next spring, on May 10, 1970—Mother’s Day—he gave a speech called “On Being a Homosexual” at Honolulu’s First Unitarian Church, where Stoll knew the pastor, the Rev. Gene Bridges, from the antiwar movement. At about the same time, Stoll discussed his homosexuality at churches in Sepulveda and Burbank,...

  7. TWO Roman Catholics and the Folk Mass
    (pp. 61-94)

    “There is a singing group in this Catholic church today,” writes Annie Dillard,

    a singing group which calls itself “Wildflowers.” The lead is a tall, square-jawed teen-aged boy, buoyant and glad to be here. He carries a guitar; he plucks out a little bluesy riff and hits some chords. With him are the rest of the Wildflowers. There is an old woman, wonderfully determined; she has long orange hair and is dressed country-and-western style. A long embroidered strap around her neck slings a big western guitar low over her pelvis. Beside her stands a frail, withdrawn fourteen-year-old boy, and a...

  8. THREE Jews and Communal Worship
    (pp. 95-129)

    American Jews have long had a special affinity, or at least toleration, for countercultures. Twentieth-century America’s most notorious counterculture was the Communist Party, which, though moribund by the 1960s, had offered a self-sustaining, alternative world to disaffected anticapitalists, many of them Jews, during the Great Depression. “The Party” provided them with friends, summer camps, a network of professional services—communists wanted a politically sympathetic doctor, dentist, or insurance salesman—and a whole culture, marked by books to read, language to use, and ideas to adopt. Jews had participated in the criminal underworld, another counterculture. Consider Arnold Rothstein, the gambler who...

  9. FOUR Episcopalians and Feminism
    (pp. 130-171)

    In 1529 King Henry VIII of England, famously eager for a divorce, severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church, and he severed his subjects’ ties, too. The Church of England became the state church. A reformation had existed in England for two hundred years, and many of Henry’s subjects embraced his repudiation of the popes; others bitterly resisted, and despite the sacking of monasteries and the burning of Roman relics, England was never free of Catholics. But the Church of England became the norm throughout the empire. Today it goes by different names in different countries—in Kenya, for example,...

  10. FIVE Southern Baptists and Vietnam War Protest
    (pp. 172-211)

    With few exceptions, no American religion welcomed the counterculture. But most religious people—like the Jews, Episcopalians, and Catholics—made room for countercultural types, whether long-haired troubadours with guitars, radical nuns, or mystical New Age rabbis. The stories we have heard suggest that in almost any group, sympathetic elders, clergy, and laity will encourage new forms of liturgy, new settings for worship, new music, and new members. No matter how conservative their theology, denominations are flexible, and what cannot be achieved in church law can be achieved by cultural insinuation. As a result, the tropes of American counterculture—the music,...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 212-228)

    ‘It is probable,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his 1821Defence of Poetry, “that the poetry of Moses, Job, David, Solomon, and Isaiah had produced a great effect upon the mind of Jesus and his disciples. The scattered fragments preserved to us by the biographers of this extraordinary person are all instinct with the most vivid poetry.” Shelley was saying that religions are built of art. That is not to say that a given religion is untrue. Christianity, for example, could be entirely true—Jesus Christ could be the crucified, resurrected son of God—but still depend on the creative...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 229-274)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 275-284)