“The counterculture” generally refers to the youth movement of the 1960s-70s: rock and roll, anti-war protests, psychedelics, the New Left, hippies, and the sexual revolution. While puzzling out how these elements cohered—to understand the counterculture functionally and structurally—I had a peculiar realization.
A second movement shared “the” counterculture’s abstract features—its structure and function. Based in Christian Fundamentalism, it might be called “the Moral Majority,” after one of its main organizations. It too offered “a new, alternative, universalist, eternalist, anti-rational system.” This was the same mode of relating to meaningness, even though its content was deliberately opposed to most of what the hippie counterculture stood for.
This page explains how these two countercultures adopted the stances of monism and dualism, respectively. This is key to understanding their workings, as detailed in later pages.
Both countercultures had broken up by 1990, but the current American culture war is fought from floating fragments of their wreckage. I believe that a better understanding of how the two countercultures related to each other, and how both relate to subsequent modes of meaningness, may help resolve unnecessary contemporary conflicts.
Monism, dualism, and the countercultures
“Left” and “right” would be the obvious names for the two countercultures, but that could be misleading. These terms are not well-defined, and had different meanings during the countercultural era than they did before or after.
Our current left and right like to be called “progressive” and “traditional”; and the countercultures might have liked that too. However, I will suggest that this characterization is a deliberately misleading fiction, promoted by both.
It would be more accurate to cast the countercultures in religious terms, as “holism” versus “holiness.” Or, in ethical terms, as “permissive” versus “restrictive”; or in social terms as “egalitarian” versus “respecting hierarchical differences.”
These contrasts concern boundaries and distinctions, one of the main dimensions of meaningness. So I call the two countercultures “monist” and “dualist”:
- Monism seeks to deny, dissolve, or weaken boundaries and distinctions. (Holism is nearly the same thing as monism.) It seeks to discover and strengthen connections.
- Dualism seeks to fixate, establish, or strengthen boundaries and distinctions. (Holiness is all about sharpening the difference between the sacred or Godly and the profane or sinful.) It seeks to sever connections that cross apparent boundaries.
Monism and dualism are both wrong, and both harmful. Every boundary is always both patterned and nebulous. Boundaries are not, cannot be, and should not be, either non-existent nor perfectly sharp. Severe problems, including our current culture war, follow from trying to eliminate or absolutize them. An understanding of participation, the stance that the resolves the monism/dualism confusion, may help resolve these conflicts.
This page explains what made the “hippie” counterculture monist, first; and then what made the “Moral Majority” counterculture dualist. We’ll see also that the monist counterculture had some dualist elements; and that the dualist counterculture tacitly accepted some “hippie” monist boundary-blurrings.
Much of this material is controversial. Reading it, you may have strong emotional reactions, categorizing particular countercultural moves as good or bad. I would suggest trying to suspend such judgements. Each had, I think, both good and bad effects.
I hope you will recognize that I do not support either counterculture against the other. I find some aspects of each attractive, and some repellent. Overall, it is most important to understand why both were wrong, and both failed. But it is also valuable to understand what was right in each, and what might be worth saving from their wreckage.
On this page, I go into the history of the dualist counterculture in somewhat more detail, because it’s probably less well-known to most readers, and because I’ve written about the monist-countercultural religious left extensively elsewhere. If I seem critical of the 1980s Religious Right here, I assure you that I was just as hostile to the monist left there.
How the monist counterculture was monist
The specific contents of the monist counterculture—from recycling to Vietnam war protests—are familiar. Less obvious is the general pattern: that the specifics reflect the monist stance. It attempted to dissolve many particular boundaries, on the theory that they were illegitimate, alienating, and needlessly limiting. I’ll discuss these boundary erasures here only briefly. Some I’ve explained earlier in the book; many, I’ll return to in greater detail later.
Psychedelic drugs were a cornerstone of the counterculture; boundary-blurring is one of their major effects. They can give a sense of ultimate, cosmic unity—the supposed accomplishment of the monist stance. Short of that, they often melt distinctions of all sorts. It’s common, for instance, to have experiences of the commonality of all people, of humans with other creatures, and of the animate and inanimate.
Ecology—a new science—revealed that all life is connected in an intricate web of mutual dependencies. A cultural and political movement based on it began with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Taking the unification of concerns a step further, countercultural theorist Theodore Roszak promoted “ecopsychology,” collapsing the distinctions among the natural, political, psychological, and spiritual worlds.
When you have experienced your intimate sameness with a tree, it is hard to take seriously human categories such as religions, nations, and races. The political universalism of the counterculture—the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, feminism—was based in this monist conception of human commonality.
The feminist slogan “the personal is political” expressed the essence of monist politics. The private/public boundary, a foundational principle for Victorian systematicity, disintegrated. The distinction between ethics (“ought” in the personal realm) and politics (“ought” in the public realm) collapsed. This collapse caused the culture war we’ve been cursed with since, so I devote a full page to it later.
Blurring the self/other distinction also contributed to the collapse of the boundary between psychology and religion (or “spirituality”). Monist religion holds that one’s True Self is the same as God, and the entire universe. Thus, exploration of one’s personal psychology gives direct insight into the most profound metaphysical questions. Monism erased the boundary between sacred and profane matters; nothing was any longer outside the purview of spiritual concern.
Since the personal was now both political and spiritual, the distinction between religion and politics also collapsed. Demands for political change were considered not merely a matter of one social group promoting its material interests against others, but to reflect Ultimate Truth as given by the monist eternal ordering principle.
The “sexual revolution” dissolved the sexual boundary of marriage, and eliminated most distinctions between “morally” acceptable and unacceptable sexual acts. The sexual revolution also reflected a collapse of the division between private and public morality. Privately, sexual mores had been loosening for half a century. A considerable gap had opened between what people did in their bedrooms and what they said in public. This was one of the most obvious forms of the 1950s moral hypocrisy that motivated the counterculture. To a significant extent, the sexual revolution merely allowed everyone to acknowledge what many had already been doing.
Feminism broke down boundaries between male and female social, sexual, and family roles.
The nuclear family home—a mainly Victorian middle-class invention—had long been found restrictive and isolating by many. The monist counterculture advocated replacing it with communes, collectives, and intentional communities: social structures that emphasize connections across biological families, and that break down the private/public boundary.
How the monist counterculture was dualist
Monism and dualism contain each other, and each turns into the other near boundaries. Monism—the denial of all boundaries—nevertheless draws an absolute boundary between itself and dualism. It rejects dualism as an absolutely unacceptable evil. It seeks to destroy dualism; or, failing that, to purify itself of any dualistic tendencies.
The monist counterculture went out of its way to shock, aggravate, and alienate “squares,” i.e. dualists. The point was to harden the distinction between monists and dualists. As Ken Kesey put it, “Either you are on the bus, or you are off the bus.” “On the bus” came to mean “monist”—and either you rode monism all the way, or you were off the bus and left behind.
Hippies were a tiny subculture in 1964, the year of the Further bus trip. Requiring intense commitment, and some hostility to outsiders, are necessary for maintaining the integrity of a subculture—as we’ll see later. Kesey’s attitude was sensible then.
Subcultural hippiedom formed the core of the monist counterculture (together with Berkeley student radicalism). As a local subculture of dozens scaled up into a global counterculture of tens of millions, “either you are on or you are off” became the recipe for the culture war that still plagues us.
How the dualist counterculture was dualist
The dualist counterculture was a mirror image of the monist one: the same shape, with many aspects flipped left-to-right, and others left intact.1
The creators of the dualist counterculture presented it largely as a reaction to the monist one. In their view, the monist counterculture had wrongly blurred numerous boundaries. Those therefore needed sharpening—the essence of dualism.
As a point-by-point opposition to the monist program, the dualist “counter-counterculture” necessarily took on its opponent’s structure. We could go through all the boundaries I listed above as denied by the monist counterculture, and we’d find that most were fixated by the dualist one. For example, dualists promoted:
- man’s dominion over nature
- submission to the Creator
- and to legitimate secular authority
- racial segregation
- distinct gender roles
- the sanctity of marriage versus the sinfulness of non-marital sex
- human rights starting from the instant of conception, not gradually over months
All this is familiar territory. I want only to point out that the unifying feature of these positions is that they draw hard boundaries.
The dualist counterculture also claimed to want to restore “traditional values.” It was never clear which era it proposed to return to; in fact, it wanted to “restore” a romanticized, mythical past in which the systematic mode actually worked. But to the extent that the systematic mode did work—in the 1850s or 1950s—it was partly on the basis of dualism. Taking those eras as ideals naturally also led to dualism.
So, for reasons of both reaction and nostalgia, insistence on boundaries is the common feature throughout the explicit “values agenda” of the dualist counterculture.
How the dualist counterculture was monist
Although the Religious Right presented itself as a point-by-point repudiation, it adopted much of the structure, strategy, tactics, and conceptual framework of the monist counterculture.2 Several factors forced this similarity:
- It implicitly adopted some monist principles
- It deliberately imitated the monist counterculture
- Surprisingly many leftist hippies later became Evangelical rightists
- Both were responses to the same failures of the systematic mode
- Both retained the systematic mode’s commitment to universalism
- Both borrowed from 1800s Romanticism
- Monism and dualism both necessarily turn into the other when pressed
As a consequence, the dualist counterculture tacitly accepted and promoted several of the monist counterculture’s erasures of boundaries:
- between the personal/private and the political/public
- between ethics, religion, politics, and psychology
- between religions and sects
The two countercultures were in violent, albeit unstated, agreement on these points. They were also, I believe, disastrously wrong: these boundaries are nebulous but necessary. This shared error explains many of the social, cultural, and psychological problems we face today. I will explain that, bit by bit, throughout “How meaning fell apart.”
Particularly, “Renegotiating self and society” addresses the collapse of the private/public distinction; “The personal is political” the collapse of that boundary; and “Rejecting rationality, reinventing religion, reconfiguring the self” covers the collapse of the distinction between psychology and religion.
The two remaining sections of this page cover the collapse of the boundary between politics and religion, and between ethics and religion, in the dualist counterculture.
Unifying politics and religion
The unity of the political right with Evangelical Christianity—and with particular views on sexual morality—now seems obvious, necessary, and eternal. But it was new, sudden, shocking, and deliberately engineered in the mid-1970s. For outsiders, this was (and remains) the main manifestation of the dualist counterculture.
For decades before the 1970s, Evangelicals were socially marginal, apolitical, and divided into innumerable small hostile sects. They had come together in the 1920s in support of Prohibition and against teaching evolution. The 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” made Fundamentalism look ridiculous, and Evangelicals retreated from public life in humiliation. After the Second World War, some re-entered politics—mainly on the left. Difficult as it may be to imagine now, as late as the 1960s, the majority of Evangelicals opposed capitalism, nationalism, and militarism, and supported women’s suffrage and abortion rights. The social activism of leftist Evangelicals in the 1950s-60s began to blur the boundary between ethics, politics, and religion, and was a prototype for the 1970s-80s Religious Right.3
Evangelicalism’s merger with the political right was primarily authored by Francis and Frank Schaeffer, whose extraordinary story I recount on the next page. Francis was a socially liberal Fundamentalist theologian who led a hippie commune. His teenage son Frank somehow conceived a passionate concern for the rights of the unborn. Abortion had been an exclusively Catholic and mainly left issue; Protestants and Republicans mostly considered it acceptable even up to the time of natural birth.4
Frank convinced his reluctant5 father to campaign against abortion. Their roadshow was unexpectedly, hugely popular, and started to convert Evangelicals to the cause.
Republican Party operatives took note. Although the Party had long supported abortion rights, in 1972 they tried to appeal to Catholics (mainly Democrats) by reversing their position. That failed—but the Schaeffers’ popularity made them realize the same strategy might work on Evangelicals (also majority left). They reached out to the Schaeffers,6 and soon cemented a deal of mutual cooptation. The Schaeffers would deliver Evangelical votes to the Party; the Party would make opposition to abortion an ideological centerpiece for the political Right. (Frank Schaeffer later said that their alliance with the Right was essentially an accident, which he came to regret.7 They could just as easily allied with the Democratic Party, and in fact the Schaeffers’ socially liberal views would have been a better fit there.)
The Moral Majority, the most famous dualist-counterculture institution, was founded on Francis Schaeffer’s advice. Jerry Falwell, its public face, had firmly believed that politics and religion didn’t mix.8 Schaeffer changed Falwell’s mind—and convinced him to make abortion the Moral Majority’s central issue. Paul Weyrich co-founded the Moral Majority; he provided the political, organizational, and financial backing. His expertise was creating think tanks and lobbying groups that connected money from big business donors with economically conservative political ideology.
The Schaeffer/Weyrich strategy worked astonishingly well. On the religious side, within a few years, fervent commitment to the anti-abortion cause became the single-issue “badge” of membership in the entire political-religious dualist counterculture.9 It is not credible that tens of millions of Americans who had zero interest in abortion in 1975 discovered deep concern for the well-being of fetuses by 1980. Instead, public opposition to abortion became the main symbol, or shibboleth, for good standing in a counterculture whose actual appeal lay elsewhere.10
On the political side, the Moral Majority was widely considered responsible for the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980.11 Reagan ran against the incumbent Democratic President, Jimmy Carter. Carter was the first “born again” President, and had taken the Evangelical vote in 1976. However, despite his personal opposition to abortion, Carter refused to make it a political issue, which Evangelicals saw as a betrayal. Reagan was not personally particularly religious, had been pro-choice only a few years earlier, and did not stress social issues in his campaign. He was primarily an economic conservative and nationalist, and in office delivered almost nothing the Moral Majority wanted. However, by 1980, the Republican Party had become the Evangelical Party, so none of that mattered.
Unifying religion by replacing piety with “moral values”
Evangelical Christians had long been split among numerous separatist, schismatic sects. Most were intensely hostile to Catholics and Jews, and fought each other over arcane metaphysical distinctions that were largely forgotten by the end of the decade.12
Francis Schaeffer not only united Evangelicals across sectarian lines, he also created durable alliances between them and conservative Catholics, Mormons, and Jews.13 Under Schaeffer’s influence, Falwell—a Southern Baptist—made the Moral Majority ecumenical: Weyrich was Catholic, and its third founder was Howard Phillips, a Jewish Republican politician.14 Falwell increasingly downplayed his extremist moral positions, including his formerly overt racism.15
Forging a mass movement required dropping most of the traditional religious content of Evangelicalism—because that was extreme, incomprehensible, and unacceptable to nearly everyone. And anyway, no two Evangelical theologians could agree on it!
The new dualist counterculture replaced traditional doctrine and piety with “values” and “experiences.” It was easy to get broad agreement on those. I’ll discuss the new Christian “experiences” in “Rejecting rationality, reinventing religion, reconfiguring the self”; and “values” here.
Substituting “values” for traditional Christianity was the culmination of a process that had been underway for most of a century. By the late 1800s, it was obvious that much of what the Bible said was wrong. Mainline Protestants adopted a liberal, modernist theology according to which the important thing about Christianity was its humanistic ethical teachings, not its metaphysical beliefs. Fundamentalism, in reaction, insisted that everything in the Bible was literally true. In the 1920s, internal conflict between modernists and fundamentalists split most American Protestant sects.
The religious leaders of the dualist counterculture were Fundamentalists. A few decades earlier, they had taught not only Biblical inerrancy, but also an ascetic moral code that forbade smoking, drinking, dancing, watching movies or plays, listening to secular music, and all “worldly pursuits” (including politics). These sins all lead straight to damnation and eternal hellfire! This was a non-starter for a 1970s mass movement.
In the counterculture, it was adequate to say you believed everything in the Bible, even if you had little idea what was in there, and in practice disagreed with much of it. The main thing was “believing” in Jesus as your personal savior.
It was also adequate to “have values,” rather than conforming to a moral code.16 “Values” were opinions about things other people did. The most important values were condemning abortion and “the homosexual lifestyle.” (Both were non-traditional: homosexuality was not a significant issue before the 1970s; and, as I mentioned, Evangelicals had mostly considered abortion acceptable.)
The “values” innovation effectively replicated the Christian Modernist move of replacing religious piety with ethics, but went a step further: opinions replaced both belief and morality. “Having” an opinion means stating it forcefully, or assenting to it, when ritually required. It does not necessarily involve belief, in the ordinary sense that you believe your car needs a wash. You must “believe” in Creation Science rather than evolution—but since it has no consequence for your everyday life, this is often no more than performing a public tribal loyalty oath.17
I’m not taking sides here; this was equally true of the monist counterculture, in which you were also required to “believe” endless absurdities—that is, to agree to them in public.
I started this page by recounting my “peculiar realization” that the Moral Majority was structurally and functionally similar to the hippie counterculture it opposed. It took a year to convince myself that this was accurate and significant. At first it seemed probably mistaken; then likely an accidental and superficial resemblance. But eventually, I decided it was an exciting and remarkably clever discovery.
Turns out, it’s old hat. In subsequent reading, I found that many historians, and even some members of the movement, have pointed out the countercultural nature of the 1980s Religious Right. They have traced many structural parallels and historical connections between the two countercultures.
Describing the two countercultures in terms of monism and dualism does seem to be new. These categories are important in metaphysics, but have mostly not been applied to culture, ethics, or politics before.
The two best overview articles I’ve found on the web analyze the similarity between the two countercultures from a libertarian, subcultural point of view:
- Brink Lindsey’s “The Aquarians and the Evangelicals: How Left-wing Hippies and Right-wing Fundamentalists Created a Libertarian America.”
- Jesse Walker’s “The Traditionalist Counterculture,” which is a review of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots.
Libertarians, and most Gen X subculturalists, stand outside the usual framing of the culture war. They are perhaps better able to regard both sides dispassionately, and to see their commonalities, rather than identifying with one against the other.
In writing this page, I made heavy use of Axel R. Schäfer’s Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right, an academic history.18
Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics is an excellent history of the transformation of American Christianity during the countercultural era.
The next page, on the Schaeffer family, references various sources I also found useful while writing this one.
- 1.I have researched the history of only the American dualist counterculture. I am not sure whether other Western countries developed anything similar (whereas the American monist counterculture was certainly influential elsewhere). Islamic fundamentalism is also a dualist counterculture, and structurally similar to the American one.
- 2.I find this borrowing extremely interesting, because it reveals intellectual and emotional commonalities that were deliberately obscured by both countercultures. Although I’m tempted to detail the history here, not everyone is as geeky about such things as I am. If you’d like to learn more, try Countercultural Conservatives, pp. 93-101, 123, 132-6, et passim. Also, Hippies of the Religious Right is apparently entirely about this, but I haven’t read it.
- 3.See Countercultural Conservatives: American Evangelicalism from the Postwar Revival to the New Christian Right for a detailed history.
- 4.For a brief popular discussion, see “When evangelicals were pro-choice.” For an academic treatment, Linda Greenhouse and Reva B. Siegel, “Before (and After) Roe v. Wade,” Yale Law Journal 2028:2011. For context, Countercultural Conservatives and Sex, Mom, and God. From the last, pp. 128-9: “Dr. W. A. Criswell (a two-term president of the Southern Baptist Convention)… was on record saying he didn’t think life began until a baby took his or her first breath.”
- 5.“I don’t want to be identified with some Catholic issue. I’m not putting my reputation on the line for them!” Dad shouted back. “So you won’t speak out because it’s a ‘Catholic issue?’” “What does abortion have to do with art and culture? I’m known as an intellectual, not for this sort of political thing!” shouted Dad. Crazy For God, pp. 285-6.
- 6.Billy Zeoli, Gerald Ford’s Whitehouse chaplain, was the first main go-between. Congressman Jack Kemp was an early close ally. Eventually the Schaeffers worked with most of the most powerful Republicans, including Presidents Ford, Reagan, and Bush.
- 7.In his fascinating Crazy For God.
- 8.Quoted from “People & Ideas: Jerry Falwell”; God in America. Also there: “In his famous 1964 sermon, ‘Ministers and Marches,’ Falwell declared, ‘Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners….’ His remarks were widely interpreted as a rebuke to the political activism of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.” Similarly Billy Graham, who became another major spokesperson for the Religious Right. “Most evangelical leaders, following Billy Graham’s lead, weren’t interested in ‘going political.’ When [Francis Schaeffer] asked Billy why he wasn’t taking a stand on abortion, Billy answered that he had been burned by getting too close to Nixon and was never going to poke his head over the ramparts of the ‘I-only-preach-the-gospel’ trench again. He said he didn’t want to be ‘political.’” Crazy For God, p. 290.
- 9.I explained moral badges in “Ethics is advertising.” My discussion there was based on Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.
- 10.Exactly why the abortion strategy worked so well, and the precise appeal of dualist counterculture, remains somewhat mysterious. I have read many plausible partial explanations, but no convincing synthesis. Most authors agree that the desire to make sex more dangerous for people of other socioeconomic classes is central to American “social conservatism.” Research by Jason Weeden and his collaborators suggests American religiosity is based on practical benefits for a many-child reproductive strategy. A key paper is “Religious attendance as reproductive support,” Evolution and Human Behavior 29 (2008) 327–334. His The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It, written for a non-academic audience, lays out implications for electoral politics. I think Weeden’s work is on the right track, but there’s much it still doesn’t explain. For an interesting—albeit inconclusive and unconvincing—meta-discussion, see Bethany Moreton, “Why Is There So Much Sex in Christian Conservatism and Why Do So Few Historians Care Anything about It?,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 75, No. 3 (August 2009), pp. 717-738. Winning line: “Sodomites are a traditionally underrepresented market for abortion services.”
- 11.Historians have later questioned whether the Moral Majority’s support actually was critical, or if Reagan would have been elected anyway. For much interesting discussion, see Doug Banwart’s “Jerry Falwell, the Rise of the Moral Majority, and the 1980 Election,” Western Illinois Historical Review Vol. V, Spring 2013. Also Religion and the Culture Wars: Dispatches from the Front, pp. 20ff.
- 12.Among the most important were diverging dispensationalist millennialisms. I’ve spent many hours trying to figure out what, if anything, this dispute was about, and completely failed. However, it’s charmingly reminiscent of the filioque schism. It’s also entertaining and instructive to compare the Wikipedia article on sectarian millennialisms with its article on heavy metal genres, which display similar fissiparous tendencies. More about that when we get to the evolutionary dynamics of subcultures.
- 13.This despite his earlier decades in the trenches as a member of a Presbyterian sub-sub-sub-sect fighting holy wars against other Presbyterian sub-sub-sub-sects with infinitesimally different theological views.
- 14.Separatist Fundamentalists denounced the Moral Majority for this inclusiveness.
- 15.For decades, his main moral cause had been support for racial segregation, but by the late ’70s that was no longer respectable. The Moral Majority did make opposition to the Supreme Court’s Bob Jones University anti-segregation decision its second-most-important cause, notionally on religious freedom grounds. Ironically, the ungrateful University declared the Moral Majority “Satanic,” “holding that it was a step toward the apostate one-world church and government body as it would cross the line from a political alliance to a religious one between true Christians and the non-born-again, as forbidden by their interpretation of the Bible.” (Quote from the Wikipedia article on Jerry Falwell.)
- 16.I suspect this was because by the 1970s, everyone from secular humanists to Fundamentalists was in nearly complete agreement on what acts are moral or immoral. An earlier chapter discusses this in terms of “ethical ease” and “ethical agreement”; morality was a solved problem.
- 17.I’m not suggesting Fundamentalists secretly disbelieve what they assert in public, only that belief in the ordinary sense does not enter into it.
- 18.Schäfer is not related to Francis Schaeffer, as far as I know.