Knocking on Heaven's Door

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Mark Oppenheimer. Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The American Religion in The Age of Counterculture. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003). 258 pp.


Dr. Oppenheimer has written a work that is about the famous counterculture and so-called hippie movement of the nineteen-sixties (although this is just a reference point, not a true era designation) by examining how that movement impacted mainstream American religion. Instead of focusing on the fringe elements that had no lasting impact, or impacted very few at the time, like transcendental meditation or ouija boards or drug addiction, as many historians of the time do, he focuses on conservative orthodox American life to see if it was changed in the long haul. He does this by focusing on mainstream religions, a window that reflects on the general society.

He first has to determine what a counterculture is, to see if the times fit that definition. Obviously, American society changed. It became a much more liberal culture. Dr. Oppenheimer’s goal is to see how much and why. A counterculture is in opposition to established culture. It differs from reform in the sense that it offers a replacement culture, an established way of doing things that will hold up over time. There are three possibilities when a counterculture movement emerges. The counterculture loses, and established institutions and ways of life go on. This could also mean the reformers of the time were not counterculture, never wishing to replace the existing culture. The second is that the counterculture wins and the established institutions are gone. The third is that the existing culture assimilates the counterculture, which brings change. Dr. Oppenheimer argues that this third possibility is what happened to American religion. He looks specifically at religion but it can be extrapolated to other parts of society.

He makes his argument by looking at five established churches. The Unitarian Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church, the Jewish Church, and the Episcopalian Church. All five churches survived the counterculture movement and are still with us and appear just as strong. Thus, either the counterculture lost or was assimilated. Dr. Oppenheimer states that the counter culture changed American religion in its insinuations into traditional denominations. The big changes in society came here, not in fringe hippie movements that died out. Most Americans did not turn on or drop out or become Hare Krishnas but instead went about their daily lives. He claims the counterculture movement was not nearly as political as it was cultural. It did not seek to overthrow doctrine, but it was a matter of form, not substance. In all areas of life, it was about looser etiquette, clothing, language, music and sexual mores. American religion, being private and not government supported, must sell itself and therefore is amenable to changes in culture. Dr. Oppenheimer argues that conservative mainstream values won out, but that the counterculture wrought great changes in style with haircuts and clothing and other outward appearances.

He examines this by sharing the stories of five big denominations during the tumultuous Nixon years. He looks at the Unitarian Church and its struggle with gay rights and ordaining homosexuals. The Roman Catholic Church suffered the end of the Latin Mass from Vatican II and the emergence of the folk Mass. Episcopalians dealt with the ordaining of female priests. Southern Baptists struggled with the anti-American, anti-establishment pacifism during the Vietnam War and the new small communal gaterhings of Jews that lay outside the synagogue.

Dr. Oppenheimer has one other main point regarding the counterculture’s influence. He claims it was not the Vietnam War that was the main catalyst for change in the sixties and seventies, as is so often thought. The civil rights movement was the catalyst for these changes. This movement fostered other groups’ self-identity and desire for equal rights and social change. Many groups saw a freedom in black culture and adopted it. The churches supported feminism and gay rights before the mainstream populace. “Hierarchicalism can facilitate, rather than inhibit, change” 223. Liberal change can be enforced from the top down also.


Chuck Crum Fall 2009

This is an excellent book. Although he is at times harsh on Southern Baptists, it is for the most part, a very even-handed book. Dr. Oppenheimer makes the claim that the great changes were mostly aesthetic, and he rightly says that style is very important, it can change the meaning of things for people. I wonder, though, if change wasn’t more significant. Catholics go to Mass in jeans, but they also go following their own ideas and conscious and not the Magisterium in greater numbers and ways than before. The outward appearance of style brought along a change in intensity and loyalty also. While it may not be so for Southern Baptists or other congregations, certainly liberal political and cultural ideas now dominate at least the American hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The counterculture was a very vocal minority, yet a minority. Dr. Oppenheimer mentions the theory that for the first time in American history the intelligentsia was listened to. They wielded some power in the colleges, and in the desire to hear from “experts”. They thus dragged society down (or up, depending on one’s point of view) with them. Their views won out over the majority view. This theory seems to have merit. This is a fine look at an era that seems difficult to really define. The counter-culture was so varied that it is impossible to define. Thus, changes could have come from other places and reasons. While it is hard to separate how much force Vietnam protests gave to this movement, I think Dr. Oppenheimer wisely points out how many of these changes were coming, such as the Beatles, with or without war.

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