Pining for 1950s religiosity and missing the bigger picture (COMMENTARY)

Paper cut of family symbol on old grass book photo via Shutterstock (
Paper cut of family symbol on old grass book photo via Shutterstock (

Paper cut of family symbol on old grass book photo via Shutterstock (

(RNS) State Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Ariz., wins the top prize for this year’s silliest religious idea so far.

While debating a proposed law that would permit people to carry concealed weapons in public buildings, Allen said: “Probably we should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday to see if we can get back to having a moral rebirth.”

Although the senator said it was a “flippant” suggestion, she remained unapologetic for her comments on “the moral erosion of the soul of America.”

If such a law were actually enacted, Arizona would need to create a Religion Security Administration similar to the Transportation Security Administration. Instead of inspecting airline passengers and their baggage, “church cops” and “synagogue sleuths” would check the records of every person in Arizona to guarantee compulsory weekly attendance at a house of worship.

But if a person sleeps through a sermon, does that mean the state gives only half attendance credit to the bored or fatigued congregant? And what about folks who sit in the pew but choose not to pray or join in congregational singing? Will these crimes and misdemeanors appear on a person’s religion rap sheet?

Allen told the Arizona Capitol Times she wanted a return to the America she remembered from the 1950s: “People prayed, people went to church. I remember on Sundays the stores were closed. The biggest thing is religion was kicked out of our public places, out of our schools.”

Her wacky proposal set me thinking about how I remember the America of the 1950s.

First, there was the bloody war in Korea that lasted three years. Some 33,686 U.S. military personnel were killed and an additional 100,000 were wounded or missing in action.

Then there were the ”Jim Crow” laws aimed at African-Americans that included harsh restrictions on public accommodations, voting rights, education, transportation, employment and housing.

In 1955, a Montgomery, Ala., activist named Rosa Parks refused to give her seat on a local bus to a white person. Her arrest triggered a 13-month bus boycott and the start of the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He didn’t require state-enforced attendance at his Montgomery church to permanently change America.

A year later, more than 100 Southern congressmen signed a “Southern Manifesto” declaring that they would do all they could to defend racial segregation. Presumably, many of the signatories attended weekly religious services.

The 1950s was a terrible time for folks called “fruits,” “queers” and “faggots.” There was no organized LGBT community back then, and few if any legal advocacy or support groups. It was a lonely, bitter time. One of my gay high school classmates committed suicide because of the venom and hatred he experienced.

During the same period, women were encouraged to reclaim their roles as wives and mothers. But the 1950s of “togetherness” that Allen idealizes was an era of intense dissatisfaction for many women. That malaise erupted in 1963 when Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” asserting that suburban life was “burying women alive.”

The 1950s were the years of the Red Scare, led by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., whose congressional hearings and “investigations” destroyed many personal lives. Many innocent Americans lost their jobs, as well as their families and friends, as a result of McCarthy’s hyped-up scare tactics.

The real communists in the Soviet Union were engaged in a frightening Cold War with the United States. In the America of the 1950s, underground home bomb shelters were constructed and equipped with water, medical supplies and food in case of an atomic attack.

It’s clear Allen needs not only a refresher course on the Constitution and religious liberty, but also a history lesson.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. His latest book, “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” will be published by Texas Tech University Press this fall.)



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A. James Rudin


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  • Arizona Republicans are a special breed of batsh1t crazy state legislators.

    These are the same people who wanted to enact Stalinesque measures to ensure people on the streets carried identification papers (if their skin was brown).

    These are the same people who railed against the Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday (so of course they have no problem harkening back to a time when racism was law!)

    The same people who require no registration whatsoever for any firearms of any type.

    Their plan to revive Jim Crow to apply to gay people was so off kilter insane that even Governor Brewer vetoed it. This is the same woman who wanted to create a Mexicanrein state.

    It would be nice if people like State Sen Allen were anomalies, but she the norm.

  • The article started out pretty good, then quickly went down hill, with allusions to the Jim Crow laws, etc. The idea here is to discredit Senator Sylvia Allen as a kook, rather than see any truth in what she is saying. But hey, I for one believe this country is running at warp speed towards total immorality. And I personally think it would be nice to have stores closed on Sundays. We’ve turned into a 24/7 country, leaving no time to worship God, or for that matter, get a day’s rest.

  • Greg,

    ” …I for one believe this country is running at warp speed towards total immorality. ”

    ‘…banish anxiety from your heart…’…..Ecclesiastes 11:10

  • As a College student in the Southern US, these are some of my memories of the 50’s: no black students in my College until 1954 Supreme Court decision; all white (and all black) churches; no black nuns in white orders, separate orders of black nuns; no black users at public library; no black servicemen at white USO; no black people at white YMCA; black maids worked for white residents for $5.00 per day; no black people allowed on the streets in white neighborhoods after dark. People who “miss” the ambience of the 50’s weren’t living in the same US I inhabited!!

  • About thirty years ago, AZ wanted, and probably did, pass a law against a man having an erection in public. none of this surprises me in the slightest.

  • Why Sunday? Oh yes, that’s YOUR special day.

    you can believe all you wish that we’re running at warp speed towards immorality. The problem is, what you define as immorality, the rest of us muight define as liberty, freedom of religion, and mind your own business.

    Personally, I’m far more concerned about buying elections, voter suppression, grand theft Wall Street, corporate welfare, our interminable wars of choice, the murders of hundreds of thousands of muslims, the murders of not so many Christians and jews, political corruption as a way of life, the quiescence of the catholic hierarchy in the face of centuries of child molestation, growing hunger in our streets, disenfranchisement of black people and other minorities, and our obsessions with guns– for starters–

    than I am about what people do with their dangly bits.

  • Well, if she wants to go back to the 1950s and the most traditional and conservative church observances, she can. Of course, she’d have to resign from political office, restrain herself from ever addressing a man about a political or religious topic, cover her head, wear only modest dresses, eschew makeup or coloring her hair, make sure her granddaughters didn’t play in team sports, never shop on Sunday, cook every meal, clean every corner of the house, do all the laundry….

    Maybe she has a worthwhile idea here. At least we’d never hear any more from her!

  • Re: “The idea here is to discredit Senator Sylvia Allen as a kook, rather than see any truth in what she is saying. But hey, I for one believe this country is running at warp speed towards total immorality.”

    Is this 20-teen world really “speeding towards immorality” compared with the supposed “golden years” of the 1950s? You know, the times when blacks had to sit at the back of the bus and were often denied the vote, when country clubs discriminated against Jews, when people questioned whether electing Kennedy president would put the Pope in the White House, and all of that other wonderfully moral thinking?

    Sorry but I have a hard time believing we’re in as steep a “moral decline” as you say.

  • 1 Corinthians 6:18
    “Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body.”

  • Fair enough. We could talk about some of the good things in the 1950’s, and the fact that they were less materialistic is one of them. If your house was built in the 50’s, chances are your closets are half the size they are now. So you’re right, shopping as a “leisure activity” was less the case.

    We could also talk about Eisenhower tax rates, but I bet the Senator wouldn’t be interested in those.

  • So much lost, if you were a white protestant male of means. Back then only their voice was heard in culture and politics. If you were anyone else, that era blew chunks for you. You were subject to some of the most visible and virulent prejudices out there.

    There is a reason we have come a long way from the 1950’s.