How The 1960s Transformed American Civilization

Jun 30th, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

For much of American history, the fault lines of conflict were religious—Catholic, Protestant and Jewish.  The theological differences between these three religious groups defined how each focused on the major cultural issues of the day (e.g. Prohibition of the 1920s, public education and its curricula in the 19th century).  Protestantism dominated the culture and rather routinely set the culture’s agenda.  America was a Protestant nation and that fact defined almost every cultural issue of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  But in the 20th century, that consensus began to shatter.  Immigration, especially from Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the increasing immigration from Asia in the 1960s partially explain this shattering.  However, it was the 1960s that reshaped the direction and meaning of the American experiment in building a democratic-republic that was capitalist, open and free.


Historian James T. Patterson published an important book in 2012 (The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America), which solidifies my conviction that the 1960s is probably the most important cultural decade in American history.  Central to Patterson’s argument is the thesis that the rules-oriented culture of the post-World War II era was rapidly giving way to the rights-based culture we have lived in since.  In addition, the 1960s marked increased racial tension and the escalating Viet Nam War that tore America apart.


What occurred during this calamitous decade that so profoundly changed the direction and purpose of American civilization?  Patterson gives focus to numerous cultural bombshells.  What follows is a summary of his salient observations:


  1. During this decade, Dr. Benjamin Spock published his watershed book on parenting—Baby and Child Care. His book re-defined America’s understanding of child discipline, emphasizing “lighter touch” when it came to discipline and stressing the importance of self-awareness and the rights of the child.  Spock was clearly challenging the Protestant consensus about child-rearing.
  2. The typical public school reflected the rules-based approach to child discipline and management of the schools. Most schools enforced a detailed dress and behavior code at every level of education.  The North Hills High School (just outside of Pittsburgh) had a code that extended to 103 pages.  It explained in detail acceptable hair styles, length of dresses, boy’s shirts, etc.  Such an approach to dress and behavior extended to the broader culture as well—businesses, churches and even how you dressed and behaved on a plane, at athletic events, and in restaurants.  The decade of the 1960s challenged this rules-based approach to dress and comportment—all in the name of rights.
  3. The invasion of the British rock group, The Beatles, provided a new vitality to rock music. American scholar Morris Dickstein observed that “Rock music became the organized religion of the sixties—the nexus not only of music and language but also of dance, sex, and dope, which all came together into a single ritual of self-expression and spiritual tripping.”
  4. Television in the early 1960s emphasized family-oriented entertainment aimed at middle-class, white viewers (e.g., the Dick Van Dyke Show, Bonanza, The Andy Griffith Show, Gilligan’s Island, ). Only with All in the Family (1971) did this approach to family entertainment begin to change.
  5. Hollywood reinforced the cultural narrative of power and authority through much of the decade. But two movies in 1967 changed the moral standards of mass entertainment—Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate.  The Motion Picture Association of America had followed a code since 1934, which included these guidelines for motion pictures:  No profanity, blasphemy, nudity, miscegenation, childbirth or reference to venereal disease.  As the 1960s came to an end, these “rules” for entertainment were being challenged in every major way.
  6. The 1960s changed the national discussion about sexuality and thereby altered sexual behavior. Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (1962) encouraged young women to have sex as a way to get ahead in the world of work, offering pointers on how to do it.  At the same time, the birth control revolution began.  The “Pill” for the first time in history permitted the practice of sex to be disassociated from pregnancy.  The sexual revolution had begun.  The revolution reached the college campus when Dr. Roswell Johnson at Brown University prescribed the “Pill” for two senior girls who were over 21 and had consulted with their ministers, for they planed to marry their boyfriends.  Sex outside of marriage, without the fear of pregnancy, had reached the college campus.
  7. Political protest among young Americans was virtually unheard of in the early 1960s. The Viet Nam War changed everything.  As President Johnson escalated the War, with relentless bombing of North Viet Nam and with over 500,000 American troops in that country, passionate, vehement protests engulfed college and university campuses across America.  The War radicalized America’s youth, as evidenced in the music of protest and what became known as the “Woodstock” generation.
  8. Rachel Carson published her seminal work, Silent Spring, in 1962, which alerted Americans to environmental issues, especially the use pesticides. The environmental movement was enhanced by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which embraced a tough-minded environmentalism.  The First Earth Day occurred in 1970 and the Environmental Protection Agency was birthed in 1972.
  9. In 1963 Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, which redefined the role of women in American culture. Over the decade, the feminist movement would be formed.  This moment would alter assumptions in the business world, education and the family.  Feminism would emerge as one of the most powerful cultural revolutions coming out of the 1960s.
  10. Numerous Supreme Court decisions radically challenged the Protestant consensus that so dominated American civilization. For example, the Court abolished Bible Reading and prayer in the public schools; the Miranda decision (1966) clarified the due process rights of criminals; and Roe v. Wade (1973) set off the abortion-as-a woman’s-constitutional-right movement.
  11. The 1960s witnessed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which challenged the entire system of segregation built into American civilization after the Civil War. A level of African-American freedom in society, in voting and in education transformed American society.  But the 1960s also witnessed an explosion of violence across America’s cities.  In 1965, Watts, a poor black neighborhood in Los Angeles, exploded in riots.  The black underclass was radicalized and began to challenge the rules-based, segregated culture of American civilization.  Similar riots spread across America in the ensuing years of the decade.
  12. Finally, columnist Daniel Henninger offers a brief snapshot of one year in the 1960s. The year 1968 embodied the unsettledness and uncertainty of this remarkable decade.  Consider what occurred in this one year:
  • In January, the USS Pueblo was captured and its crew held hostage by North Korea.
  • In January, North Viet Nam launched its notorious Tet Offensive, which although not successful, undermined confidence in what American leaders had been saying about this calamitous war.
  • In March Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
  • In June Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.
  • In August the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.
  • In December, Apollo 8 lifted off and on Christmas Day as it orbited the moon, its commander, Col. Frank Borman, read from the Book of Genesis and declared: “From the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck and merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on good Earth.”

The decade of the 1960s radically altered American civilization.  Nearly every aspect of the culture had been challenged—its democratic, capitalist and social dimensions.  As the decade came to an end (actually it ended in 1972 with the election of Richard Nixon), Americans re-embraced their democratic-republican system of government and its regulated capitalist economy. But the Protestant consensus that had shaped so much of American civilization since 1607 was shattered.  America was now a profoundly rights-based civilization characterized by a radical pursuit of personal autonomy with no solid foundation.  In 2018, we are living with the consequences of this momentous decade.


See James T. Patterson, The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America and Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal (31 May 2018).

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2 Comments to “How The 1960s Transformed American Civilization”

  1. Richard Pendell says:

    The Lord’s plan for my life was to never be naïve and protected. To this day, I have vivid memories of my life going back to two years old. Born into a Native American/English Protestant home, moving to the Jim Crow South and being of prime draft age during the Vietnam War, my first twenty years I was often caught in the hot middle of things coming rapidly apart at every level of order. I look at many of those chaotic years and wonder at God’s grace that I lived to tell about it. My life was in much more danger than I realized on many occasions. I can see now how the Lord sent ‘angels from Heaven’ many times to preserve me, though I was unaware. The 60’s/70’s were a dangerous time to be young in America.
    I have thought and read a great deal about why the world came apart in those decades. As always, we all have 20-20 hindsight. Though we are harvesting the whirlwind that began then, I can wholeheartedly testify to God’s ability to protect his children through it all and keep their hearts and minds for his glory. He knows His own, and will never let them suffer beyond their limits or their hearts to be captured by the enemy. His promise is true. I’m a living testimony to that.

  2. Charles K Harder says:

    Dr. Eckman, The 1960’s were my teen years. As I look back now, the widespread acceptance of divorce by the culture and even the church accelerated then also. California Governor Reagan signed the first ‘no fault’ divorce law in 1969 and that spread like wildfire! Anyway, I always appreciate your keen insights into the Bible and our culture! Thank You!!