Where We Are and How We Got Here
This magazine began in October 1956 amid a time, like today, of significant global transition. The same week the first issue of Christianity Today came off the press, Hungarians took to the streets in an effort to reformor even throw offRussian domination. Before CT's third issue was out, Soviet tanks had rolled into Budapest. Thousands of Hungarians died.
Despite heightened alarm about Soviet aggression, however, Western allies decided not to intervene because of their ongoing preoccupation with another crisis. In late July, Egypt, under the charismatic Gamal Abdul Nasser, moved to seize the Suez Canal from Britain. When the crisis finally ended, the shift in world power was complete, with the United States emerging as the most powerful nation on earth. European empires were history, the Israeli-Arab conflict had intensified, and more and more oil money was flowing to strongly Muslim Middle Eastern states.
In September, Elvis Presley appeared for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show, to the consternation of many evangelicals. In October, the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, was in its 11th month. Planning was under way throughout the nation to launch the interstate highway system that President Eisenhower, soon to be re-elected, had signed into law a few months earlier, and with it a new suburban America was born. Also in 1956, Searle, a giant drug company, submitted to the Food and Drug Administration its formula for the first birth-control pills.
Whether American evangelicals were up to the challenges of this rapidly changing world was an open question. The nation seemed to have moved beyond evangelical influence, and evangelical Christianity itself was in a parlous state.
Greatly Weakened Protestantism
In retrospect, it is clear that the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early 20th century had greatly weakened American Protestantism, leading to an intellectual collapse. By the 1950s, specific Christian influence of any sort was rare in the nation's leading universities or in first-level discussions of public policy. Fundamentalists had lost the battles against evolution and the higher criticism of Scripture. So they had angrily opted out of mainstream academic life. Modernists had made their peace with the dominant paradigms of the secular university, but were left with little to offer that was explicitly Christian.
Popular culture was similarly devoid of Protestant influence. With apologies to radio stalwarts like Aimee Semple McPherson, Charles Fuller, and the Moody network, the popular media (especially cinema) were controlled by forces hostile or indifferent to evangelical concerns. Television was growing fast, but it was even more untouched by Christianity.
To be sure, World War II, by galvanizing the nation morally as well as militarily, had prompted an upsurge of religion. But this religion was mostly a patriotic theism rather than a sharply focused particular faith. As Will Herberg argued in his 1955 book Protestant, Catholic, Jew, a generic religion of "Judeo-Christian values" could become as much a substitute for individual faiths as an extension of them.
The number of evangelical adherents was actually quite large nationwide. Catholics, Jews, and Protestants of all sorts were expanding in step with the postwar economic boom. Evangelicals were in the vanguard of these advances, but the churches that were expanding most rapidly (Southern Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Churches of God in Christ, Nazarenes, Assemblies of God, and independents) were also the least visible in the national consciousness.