We are all aware of how fast and sweeping the moral, cultural, political, economic, and technological changes have been in Western societies, especially since the end of World War II. The “New Morality”—which is really not so “new” anymore—has a long history that pre-dates the war. In this article, I would like to briefly trace the various phases of how we got from the Old Morality to the New Morality in the post-war period in the United States. Essentially, I will sketch the five phases or stages of what we often call the Sexual and Cultural Revolution.
Five Phases or Stages
Phase 1: In the first phase, traditional morality is largely dominant—even if it’s often honored in the breech, thus the common charge of hypocrisy—and various forms of sexual libertinism such as pornography are heavily restricted to certain areas of town, alternative bars, brown paper bags, and the like. Vice is seen as sinful, or at least morally wrong. During this first phase, society does not condone but merely “tolerates” perversion, deviancy, and immorality—at least when censorship and criminal prosecution failed. But of course this stance presumes that there is a moral good to protect and promote and a moral bad to prohibit. One can only pervert something —make it abnormal—when that something is seen prior as normal.
One thinks, for example, of the Beat Generation of writers and poets in the 1950s—Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac, among them. Many of their works were considered outré—even pornographic, with their celebration of gay sex and other kinds of radically non-conformist behavior that challenged the conservative cultural status-quo. Yes, these authors were frequently subject to obscenity charges, but then mostly tolerated by a society still confident in its ability to keep such “literature” and images away from younger and more innocent eyes—to keep this material from creeping into mainstream America.
Phase 2: In phase 2, activists groups like the ACLU, that had been sympathetic all along to the world-view and value-system promoted by the purveyors of the New Morality, began to push harder for social and moral change, especially through the courts. From outlawing prayer in the public schools (1962) to court-mandated busing (1971), the courts were used like hammers to force social change—often against public opinion that was largely opposed to what was then called “smut,” making excuses for criminals, or whatever the liberal issue du jour was. Still, there was the recognition that to be a radical “reformer,” there needs to be an Establishment or Authority to reform and even, if need be, to rebel against. So, many of the changes were first often cautiously advocated by appeals to friendly sounding “dialogue” and the toleration of “diverse lifestyles.” The New Left, the Hippies, the Free Speech Movement, and other radicals and activists of the 1960s, who formed part of the new Counter-Culture of that era, protested not only the Vietnam War, but also what they perceived to be injustices of various sorts: for example, restrictive divorce, drug, and obscenity laws.
Contraception is a case in point. By the late 1950s, early 1960s, Planned Parenthood and other pro-birth control groups were challenging various state bans on birth control, with even many Catholic churchmen choosing to surrender rather than to fight to uphold the bans. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut would overturn the ban against married couples using prophylactics. But the Court’s supposed affirmation of a “right to marital privacy” would soon become, a mere seven years later, in Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), one that extended to unmarried couples as well. One year later, in Roe v. Wade, the Court’s “privacy” doctrine would inexorably give mothers the right to kill their unborn child.
Phase 3: With phase 3, we leave behind the pretense that what society is tolerating is actually something morally evil. Now, it’s all about “recognition” of activity that may surely be “different” or “unusual,” but is also regarded as a positive good. “Who’s to say what’s morally right or wrong? You have your values and I have mine. So don’t impose yours on me.” During this stage, television, radio, books, and the mass media in general began to play ever-greater roles in the drama to make what many understood to be unnatural, natural. Talk show host Phil Donahue was a master at making the freakish look like something you should give a try yourself. Nude dancing, anyone? Open marriage? Polygamy? Incest? Why not have a go at it? “You only live once!” the “Me” Decade would shout.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, not only television and books, but movies, music, magazines, and the news media were serving as pipelines for Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Academia to peddle their latest fashion, fad, ad, or theory, into the homes of the average family. Ah the slogans: “Zero Population Growth!” “Make Love, Not War!” “My Body, My Choice!” “Save the Planet!” “Do Not Trust Anyone Over Thirty!” Fatalism anyone?
Phase 4: For about twenty-five years, these ideas of the Cultural Elite percolated in the country, gradually gaining wide acceptance among a large number of people. The numbers of those going along with the New Ways of thinking and acting were probably not as big as they actually seemed at the time, given the media’s amplifying and cheerleading effect. In other words, not everyone was following Timothy Leary’s advice to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Nonetheless, it was obvious that change of the liberal variety was not only “blowing in the wind,” but had arrived on the front doorstep – at least in the big cities. The forces at work during this period laid the philosophical and legal groundwork for what we have observed over the last 10 to 15 years or so: The notion that “If you don’t recognize our behavior as a ‘positive good,’ we’ll fine you, fire you, and/or put you in prison.” Many, including secularized Christians, have simply been “going along to get along,” with the exception of orthodox Catholics, conservative Evangelical Protestants, and right-leaning Jews.
We got a taste of what was in store for traditionalists back in 2003, when the Supreme Court affirmed a right to homosexual conduct in Lawrence vs. Texas. By striking down the state’s sodomy law, it rendered null thirteen other states’ anti-sodomy laws. The Court saw the law prohibiting same-sex conduct as discriminatory, demeaning, and stigmatizing of homosexuals. Sound familiar?
Phase 5: The final phase has followed quite quickly from the previous stage, in large part, I think, because of the pressure of social media—for example, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. —but also because of developments in technology (e.g., cable TV, the Internet, and cell phones) and the liberalizing tendencies we have observed for decades in politics, business, and the culture in general. But now the gloves are off and there seems to be little room or desire for dialogue or compromise on the part of the sexual revolutionaries and social justice warriors: “You and your traditionalist views are immoral and perverse, and thus need to be bullied, banned, and forever branded as bigoted.”
The people now “call evil good, and good evil,” as the prophet Isaiah observed (see 5:20). But he could well have been describing our own day and age. There have been far too many examples of the militantly secular attitude in action in the last few years to list all of them here, but surely the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges—in many ways the culmination of what was put in motion with Griswold and in subsequent court cases—was a watershed moment that exemplifies the “logic” of secular moral and legal reasoning: at root, a rejection of the natural order as normative, and even a denial of reality itself. It is deconstructionism on stilts.
From the founding of Playboy in 1953, to the invention of the Pill in 1960, to the decriminalization of abortion in 1973, to the decades-old and on-going crusade for euthanasia/assisted suicide, to the Supreme Court’s upholding of abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 (with its notorious “mystery passage”), to the legalization of gay marriage in 2015, to the battle over bathrooms and so-called “transgender rights” in 2016, traditionalist American culture has absorbed many body blows. The question is, how many more can it take before any recovery is impossible, before it cannot come out to fight another round?
In the aftermath of the traumas of the first half of the 20th century—the Great Depression and the two World Wars stand out among them—Americans experienced an unprecedented period of affluence and optimism symbolized by its “baby boom” (1946-1964). But this faith-in-the-future child-friendly and homogenous culture was short-lived. Other materialist and relativist ideologies, more often rooted in hedonism than the holy, were vying for our allegiance. Still, not all was bad. Evidence of that could be found in the Civil Rights Movement which was then, unlike the past four decades, still largely inspired by Christian faith and faith in America’s founding principles. As well, the Cold War drew clear lines between the tyranny of communism and the forces of freedom, with Christian faith again playing a crucial part in winning this long war.
Today, however, it’s hard to think of a movement, with the possible exception of the pro-life movement, where religion has been such a driving force for positive social change. Nonetheless, if our culture is to have a fighting chance, the Christian religion will have to play a major role in its restoration and renewal, as it has throughout our nation’s history. Catholics in particular will need to step up and say “enough is enough,” and then start living as if they believed their faith is really true because its Founder is the Truth, and the Way and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6).Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
- The Five Phases of the Sexual and Cultural Revolution
- Is It Ever Immoral Not to Practice NFP?
- Fundamental Distinctions for the Upcoming Synod
- Speaking the Truth in Love
- Whose Agenda? Reflections on the Upcoming Synod