In his book, Return to Order, author John Horvat described a spirit of unrestraint that dominated culture and economy, which he called frenetic intemperance. The following article is part of a series of articles written by history teacher Edwin Benson that explains some stages by which America adopted this spirit of frenetic intemperance and its consequence in society. In this article he focuses on what is sometimes called “the promise of the sixties,” particularly the ideas behind three catchphrases of the period, and the lingering effect of all those unmet expectations.
* * *
For better or for worse, your generation has been appointed, by history, to deal with those problems and to lead America toward a new age. You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age. You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation. … So let us from this moment begin our work so that in the future men will look back and say, “It was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life.”
Lyndon Johnson, “Great Society” Speech
May 22, 1964
He sought a Great Society. He ushered in bitterness and resentment. …The rhetoric of LBJ was in the disastrous tradition of JFK – encouraging the popular superstition that the state could change the quality, no less, of American life. This led necessarily to disappointment, and the more presumptuous the rhetoric, the more bitter the disappointment.
William F. Buckley, Jr.
“Lyndon Johnson, R.I.P.” January 27, 1973
It is easy to see the decade after the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963 as a crescendo of frenetic intemperance. The images are vivid to those who lived through the period and well known to those born later. The mud-soaked bacchanalia of Woodstock, the anti-Vietnam War protests, or hippies driving Volkswagen vans, are images that inspire nostalgia in some. To others they represent the nadir of American civilization. All agree that it was part and parcel of a revolution.
To chronicle the events of the period would require more space than this essay affords. Rather than discussing the fast-paced music, the outlandish fashions and the peculiar politics of the period, we will focus upon what is sometimes called “the promise of the sixties” and the lingering effect of all those unmet expectations.
There is, perhaps, no better place to find the goals of that revolution than the lyrics of the song Imagine by John Lennon. There the anti-religion, anti-private property, radically egalitarian ethos of the period was spelled out in twenty-six lines.
This revolution unleashed a spirit of frenetic intemperance, the desire to do everything instantly, effortless and without restraint. This essay will be confined to a brief discussion of the ideas behind three phrases one began to hear during this period—situation ethics, liberation theology, and the hedonism of “if it feels good, do it.”
The phrase, situation ethics, comes from the title of a 1966 book by Joseph Fletcher, a one-time clergyman in the Episcopal Church and later an avowed atheist. Fletcher argued that “love” was to be the basis of all ethical decisions. If a decision was made in a spirit of love for all involved, the subsequent actions, no matter what they may have been, were ethical.
Since Fletcher’s ideas bore a superficial resemblance to Christ’s teachings on the importance of love, many ill-informed Christians were deceived by them. Law, doctrine, dogma, justice, and tradition were all expected to fall before the altar of love.
Relatively few people actually read Fletcher—or even knew his name. However, his ideas sounded forth from all the media and took root in the minds of a society. Left unexplored was the fact that “love” is a very ambiguous concept. For those who lacked any sense of objective truth, it was incredibly easy to use the word to justify almost any form of conduct.
Likewise, “liberation” movements abounded throughout the period. To most, the word meant abandoning any sort of traditional restraint in favor of the frenetic intemperance of the new times. To adhere to old morals and values was to be, in the term of the time, “square.” The newly-enlightened set new standards of dress, dance, coupling, language, art and manners. Family, patriotism, and modesty were out. Self-expression, rebellion, and free love were in.
A key difference between this period and earlier times was the reaction of the (presumably) more mature. Earlier generations faced the follies of the young in the sure knowledge that, one day, the young would “grow up” when they were forced to embrace the responsibilities of job, marriage, and family. By 1970, a new phenomenon appeared in which older people wanted to prove that they could also be “with it.” The “cool mom” let her kids and their friends drink and smoke marijuana in the family home. Dad grew sideburns and abandoned his blue suits and white shirts for paisley prints and jackets with Nehru collars. Employers looked the other way—or even participated—when the office became the setting for casual sexual relationships among employees. Richard Nixon showed up on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In—one of the most popular television shows of the time—mouthing the show’s catch phrase, “Sock it to me.”
Against this background, many argued that the Church needed to “get with the times” as well. As liturgical experimentation abounded, the use of Latin, praying the rosary, and many statues were discarded. The pipe organ sat unused while guitars and drums occupied a platform in the corner of the church where Our Lady’s altar had once been. “The Spirit of Vatican II” was cited to assert that the traditional Church was gone and a new one—more relevant to the changing times—was being born. From Latin America came a new phrase, “liberation theology,” which attempted to synthesize the spirit of the times with a large dose of socialism and as small an amount of Catholicism as possible. Our Precious Lord was recast as “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”
Finally, the slogan of the age became, “If it feels good, do it!” The hedonism of the outside world infected many parishes. Solemn processions and gregorian chant just didn’t have the same emotional punch as joining hands and singing “Kumbaya” at the offertory. Priests and nuns joined the rebellion against celibacy. Surely, the refrain ran, “One day those old men in Rome will allow priests to marry—they just HAVE to.” When His Holiness Pope Paul VI didn’t respond quickly enough, they simply abandoned their vocations, often with the blessings of their bishops.
Of course, the euphoria of this frenetic intemperance couldn’t last—but its siren song to a life without restraints continues to draw many. Those who lived through the sixties are growing old today, but the society that they created still excites. Because they have run television and the movies for the last fifty years, their dreams are still dreamed, their songs are still played, their social standards still prevail. We never attained Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” but its unfulfilled dreams linger. It appears that the disappointment of the never-dawning “Age of Aquarius” does not make our society repent of its hubris. Rather, the themes of the period just seem to get louder. The frenetic intemperance of the sixties still plays on.