We haven’t simply changed our attitudes. We’ve voted with our feet, walking away from the institutions we supported for generations.
For instance, historian Martin Marty describes a “seismic shift” in religion. “From the birth of the republic until around 1965, as is well known, the churches now called mainline Protestant tended to grow with every census or survey,” Marty wrote. And then, the pews started to empty. The six largest Protestant denominations together lost 5.6 million members — a fifth to a third of their membership — between 1965 and 1990.
And civic engagement has declined. Harvard’s Robert Putnam has counted the drop in members of the Lions, the League of Women Voters and, famously, bowling leagues beginning in the mid-’60s . The decline of these associations brought about a decrease in consistent social connections. Society began to fray.
The changes that seemed to erupt suddenly in the early 1960s actually began long before and moved slowly at first, as the globe shrank and societies modernized. As far back as the 1600s, travelers confronted by new cultures and novel deities began to question their own societies’ rules and institutions. “Not a tradition which escapes challenge, not an idea, however familiar, which is not assailed; not an authority that is allowed to stand,” historian Paul Hazard wrote. “Institutions of every kind are demolished, and negation is the order of the day.” This was the Enlightenment, a turning away from tradition and an anointing of reason, scientific inquiry and individualism.