1950: Crossroads of American Religious Life
Robert Ellwood
WESTMINSTER JOHN KNOX, $18.95, 256 pages, paper

One year in the center of the twentieth century is for Ellwood (professor emeritus of religion at the University of Southern California) a window into the whole. He examines 1950 for endings, beginnings, trends, and developments that put into perspective 1950s American faith and, not coincidently, American faith at the end of the century. In the opening chapter, he notes:

The fact is that moral prophets—from those of the Hebrew Scriptures to medieval bishops to nineteenth-century revivalists—have ever idealized a supposedly virtuous and pious past against which to showcase the degeneracy of the present. This is what may be called the myth of the pious past, usually effective only as a sort of generalized assumption that will not withstand the close examination. …
Nineteen fifty was no exception. People did not consider themselves especially virtuous; indeed, there was considerable talk about returning veterans who had learned much about the seamy as well as the heroic sides of life—who had come back with newly uninhibited views on smoking, drinking, and sex, as well as determination to achieve "success" in the new postwar land of opportunity by whatever means it took. Newspapers carried lurid news of teenage sex clubs that had been discovered in certain elite communities.
And people were still talking … about Alfred E. Kinsey's notorious 1948 book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which advanced astonishing claims, supposedly based on the most dispassionate scientific research: that 85 percent of the male population had experimented with premarital sex, that at least 30 percent had indulged in extramarital sex, and that the typical unmarried male past puberty experienced coitus an average of once a week. Needless to say the companion volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, was eagerly anticipated; it appeared in 1952. At the same time, one can perhaps understand why a 1950 Reader's Digest article was entitled "I'm Sick of Sex."

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