After Americans endured two decades of continuous depression, war and crisis through the 1930's and 40's, they sought a return to normalcy and longed to focus on the more private details of existence. Instead of national objectives, the public concentrated on family, home, and career, while becoming increasingly absorbed in religion.
As the 1950's saw America in a state of national exhaustion, religion-in-general experienced a surge in popularity. Many critical views were silenced or ignored as people became more accepting of a wide variety of beliefs. While the revival was unexpected and unstructured, several events fueled the movement.
World War II left the country weary and drained. During the four seemingly-endless years of conflict, almost all churches had rallied behind the war effort. Post-war America a burst in prosperity, and with this support, churches expanded. Church attendance soared while their purpose and goals shifted. As all denominations gained a more powerful voice, they used it to increase their role in society. In 1950, several of the oldest Protestant denominations formed the National Council of Churches in order to improve relations with the government, encourage interchurch connections, and promote projects such as Bible translation.1 This organization also helped to do away with the harsh attitudes and antagonism aimed at Catholicism after the war. Toleration and acceptance seemed to be the key to deepened communication between both church and state as well and Protestants and Catholics.
Following World War II, an era known as the Cold War shook American faith in the possibility of a peaceful nation. A war with the Soviet Union looming overhead, the threat of a communist takeover, and the potential for nuclear disaster sent Americans rushing to churches in part to find a sense of stability and security. Survey data shows that Church attendance reached an all-time high 49% of the American population in the mid-1950's2 while nearly 96% claimed ties to some religious affiliation or another.3 Religion helped them cope with the uncertainty of having to live one of two opposing ways of life; a poverty-stricken, war torn country, or a thriving, peaceful nation with an economy to support their growing families.
Beneath the surface of mainstream optimism due to the booming economy, America's crises with other countries instilled a sense of urgency concerning salvation. Moral values became somewhat self-indulgent, and self-absorption became characteristic of the religious movement, explaining in part the lack of conflict due to varying beliefs.
While foreign affairs helped to shape religion in the 1950's, it was perhaps the more informal networks that anchored public interest and in turn became more influential.
A small organization called the National Association of Evangelicals, founded in 1942, united several theological groups in an effort to spread the message of the gospels. They promoted such campaigns as that of Billy Graham, perhaps the most popular evangelist in American history. Graham both warned the nation of the peril they faced due to communism and failing American foreign policy, while also providing them an escape through salvation in Jesus Christ. His combination of religion and public concern set Protestants to action in the effort to "save" America. His rallies attracted crowds upwards of a half million in the mid-1950's.4
Another man offered a much more relaxed message concerning one's role in society in relationship to religion. Norman Vincent Peale, a minister from the Reformed Church of America who pastored a church in New York City, preached to large crowds using "psychological, therapeutic, and scriptural elements."5 Peale encouraged people to practice their faith and visualize how they wanted to live their lives in order to achieve their goals. This approach to religion caused many to call him "the rich man's Billy Graham."6 He wrote the book The Power of...
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