What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
Welcome to Religion Retroblog -- where we always "did that story ten years ago." With U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi poised to become Speaker of the House, the Grand Old Party is tuning up its attack machine and going after "San Francisco values," whatever those are. Here's a piece published several years back, during an earlier outbreak of San Francisco bashing.
By Don Lattin
San Francisco Chronicle
Our nation's self-anointed arbiters of public morality love to point their fingers at San Francisco and "the '60s." And many of us have gotten all too comfortable in this role as the hedonists and heretics of an otherwise God- fearing nation. OK, we're not perfect, and neither were those wild times, but can't the pundits of piety find another decade to bash and a new city to trash?
According to some evangelical observers, the youth of America came here in the '60s with flowers in their hair and lust in their heart. Infected with the sins of the flesh and the wisdom of the East, they went forth across the land to spawn the first "post-Christian generation." But don't worry. True believers across the Bible Belt are praying for the poor lost souls of all those "unchurched'' twentysomethings and thirtysomethings born in the late '60s and '70s. You know, the kids of the hippies, the lefties and assorted crazies - all those "baby busters'' whose parents never got around to taking their sons and daughters to the church or synagogue of their choice.
Their parents' choice was to reject their Judeo-Christian tradition and dabble in Buddhism, mysticism, shamanism, anarchism, atheism, hedonism and Hinduism. But they didn't want to lay their spiritual trip on the kids. Their children had to find their own path. Some did. Others are still stumbling down the road of grow-your-own religion.
In a national survey conducted in January 2002, pollster George Gallup found that one-third of Americans now describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." These are not just spiritual seekers and Baby Boomers stuck in the '60s. Other recent surveys have found personalized spirituality even more common among the "Generation Xers." Jackson W. Carroll and Wade Clark Roof surveyed more than 1,000 Americans and found rising religious individualism in Generation X. Nearly 73 percent of the younger generation agreed with the statement "An individual should arrive at religious beliefs independent of church groups." That compared to 65 percent for the Baby Boomers (those born from 1945 to 1965) and 60 percent for older Americans.
For the past few years, I've talked to lots of "unchurched" Gen Xers and their Baby Boomer parents for a new book titled "Following Our Bliss - How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today." Among the questions we explore are how one lives an ethical life outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream. What are your guideposts if you don't want your rules etched in stone and placed in the Supreme Court building in Montgomery, Ala.? How do former fundamentalists decide what is right or wrong if they no longer fear God nor follow all 10 of the Ten Commandments? How do lapsed Catholics make moral decisions about sexuality without turning to the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church?
"The motivation for living an ethical life is not just intellectual or someone frightening you. It can be based emotionally on your sense of compassion and empathy. That's where soul and spirit come together," said Thomas Moore, a free-thinking Catholic and author of "Care of the Soul," one of the mega-selling spirituality books of the 1990s.
"That's very important in an ethical life. You realize that we're all in this together. We live in a diverse world and need to have empathy for people with diverse views and lifestyles. The church has tried to use fear, but it doesn't work."
Moore and I were talking about how people can be Catholic without obeying the edicts of the pope or their Catholic bishop. Back in the 1950s, when he was entering adolescence, Moore left home to begin the years of study required for ordination as a Roman Catholic priest in a religious order. Thirteen years later, just six months before he was to take his final vows, Moore opted out of the clerical life. It was 1967, and Moore was 26.
Today, Thomas Moore, writer, has influenced far more American Catholics than he would have as Thomas Moore, priest. "I'm still a monk at heart and the writing of these books is my spiritual practice,'' said Moore, who has two children. "It's not just a job. I realize how much of my Catholicism is involved in my life, but it's not the Catholicism that the church advocates. I don't care if I follow all the rules, but I have the spirit of it. In my own way, I do practice the faith. My Catholicism is part of my nature. It's part of me. It's a cultural thing and it makes no sense to me to disown it. So the alternative is to redefine it.''
Spiritual seekers of my generation - those of us who profess to be into "spirituality, but not religion" - are notorious for this personalized approach to finding faith and making moral decisions. If we are Catholic, we are "cafeteria Catholics,'' picking and choosing our spiritual and ethical nourishment from the Roman menu. We stand accused of moral relativism in our ethics and philosophy - believing that right and wrong and good and bad change with time and circumstance.
Not that long ago, sex between two men or two women was considered immoral, unnatural or at least unspeakable by the civic and spiritual establishment. Today, we have openly gay members of Congress, the Board of Supervisors and the Episcopal House of Bishops.
When it comes to sexual morality, many of us revel in relativism, also known as "tolerance." We no longer hide the fact that we live together and love together outside of marriage, or that we have a sexual relationship with a person of the same sex.
Since the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s, Jewish and Christian denominations have struggled with the culture's conflicting concepts of sexual morality. And the debate shows no signs of abating. Earlier this year, conservatives in the worldwide Anglican communion threatened schism when the Episcopal bishops of the United States ordained an openly gay bishop. That was just weeks after the Vatican declared that civil recognition of gay unions was a "legalization of evil." At their big summer church conventions, mainline Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church USA argue about gay rights and morality of homosexual unions on an annual basis.
Meanwhile, millions of younger Americans - the ones who are actually having most of the sex - could care less what Episcopal bishops, Vatican officials or Presbyterian delegates think about all this. But that does not mean their sexuality isn't connected to their spirituality or their sense of right and wrong.
Take the story of Diana Chornenkaya, the founder of Woman's Temple and one of the Gen Xers profiled in "Following Our Bliss." Chornenkaya offers workshops on sex, on how the "unchurched" minions of her generation - and the one before it - can set sexual boundaries without consulting the Ten Commandments. "We teach people how to communicate when you want to be touched, and when you don't want to be touched - how to say 'no' with compassion and how to receive 'no' with compassion, or how to say 'yes.' It's getting in tune with other people's body language and checking with them if you are in doubt.''
Most of her Bay Area workshops are for women only. There are women who downplayed their sexuality in the 1970s and 1980s to compete in the corporate world, and are now trying to reclaim it. Some have suffered from sexual abuse, others are struggling with shame instilled by their religious upbringing. But whatever the reason, most are trying to regain the power of feminine sexuality.
Chornenkaya, a nurturing woman with soft dark hair and soulful eyes, was born in Moscow in 1971 and immigrated to the United States with her parents in the early 1990s. Her father was a physicist in Russia and a "passionate atheist," so her only religious traditions are faint echoes of the Russian Orthodox Church. "My mother was a kind of guilty Christian in her heart,'' she says, speaking with a Russian accent. "You just bury everything."
Many of the students at the regular Women's Temple workshops are Baby Boomers old enough to be Chornenkaya's mother. The workshops have that kind of amorphous spirituality one finds in the New Age movement. There are visualization exercises, and techniques to allow women to get in touch with their bodies. "We teach women how to pay attention to what is going on in their bodies," she says, "connecting to places that are numb."
Chornenkaya is sitting amid the high-rises in downtown San Francisco, on her lunch break from the corporate job she hopes to leave so she can devote more time to her Women's Temple. It's a cold, windy day, and Diana is bundled up in a big coat like someone ready for winter in Moscow.
"Some people might call our workshops 'homosexual,' even though the majority of women who come identify themselves as heterosexual," she says. "If you touch a woman's vagina and massage her to give her sexual pleasure, some people would call that a 'homosexual experience.' But we do it with other women so we can learn about each other's bodies. It's not like we're going to run off and get married."
"My vision in this work is about empowering women through their bodies," she explains. "God is inside them. I don't actually use the word 'God.' It's really their body that will tell them. To me, that's the deeper connection."
Chornenkaya opens her legs a bit, holds her hands in front of her and lowers them down to her lap, bringing them together to form a "V" between her thighs. "This is where every woman is plugged into the whole process of creation. To me, this is the definition of God.
There was a pause while I looked into Chornenkaya's lap, then back into her eyes. What do you say to a beautiful woman when she puts her hands between her legs and proclaims "this is my definition of God"? What do you say to that? "Hallelujah!" or "Amen"?
So I cut to the chase. "What do you base a sexual ethic on," I ask, "if not on religious tradition? How do you decide what sexual activity is right and what is wrong?"
There's a long pause. "What we teach in workshops for men and women is that you have to connect with yourself, with your own emotions and feelings, before you can connect to another person's feelings. I guess that's the guide. Are you hurting the person, or not? Obviously, with molestation or child abuse, the person does not really want to connect with the child. They want to rob the child of what they have," Diana says.
Chornenkaya's answer reminded me of another person I interviewed - someone closer to my age. Rebecca Ann Parker is an ordained Methodist minister and president of Starr King School of Ministry, a Unitarian-Universalist seminary and member of the Graduate Theological Union consortium on Berkeley's "Holy Hill."
We're sitting in her office talking about sex. She is a short woman, with an easy smile and gray hair cut in a short and simple style. Parker and I were both born in 1953, smack dab in the middle of the Baby Boom years, and we both came of age in the middle of the sexual revolution.
"I was just coming of age in the early 1970s and remember the sexual freedom of the time. There was a sense that old boundaries were oppressive and destroying the life spirit. In a lot of ways that was true. The old boundaries were not healthy, but not having any values was also unhealthy. It wasn't that good for women, it wasn't that good for children, and maybe it wasn't that good for men either.
"In the last 30 years we've been reconstructing an understanding of right relationship, or ethical boundaries," she said. "You had the women's movement deeply divided over pornography, or S&M. OK. Let's say 'Sex is good' rather than 'Sex is bad.' I'm for that. But that kind of either/or is not an adequate way of parsing the problem. It's more complex than that. Even when you say sexuality is good, you have to ask 'When is it good?' Sex is this wonderful thing, but it's a little like fire. It can warm you, or it can burn you.''
Then I asked Parker about sexual ethics - about the widespread disagreement in America today about what kind of sex is "good" and what kind of sex is "bad. " What's the connection between our attitudes about monogamy, homosexuality and our religious tradition?
"There is a connection between monotheism and monogamy. Being faithful to the one true God. You have images of idolatry and apostasy being articulated as adultery or sexual licentiousness. Your right relationship to God is monogamous. You have one God like you have no other loves. Then you've got the notion of God creating male and female to be right with God. Those are the orders of creation. So to follow God's orders is to be heterosexual. Actually, the Bible itself has many more complicated human sexual behaviors than that. But for those of us born in the '50s, the ethics of that era were monogamous heterosexuality was right, and sex outside of marriage was wrong. If you were a Catholic, you also had the idea that sex for pleasure was wrong. What evolved from the 1950s was the idea that, 'Well, maybe sexuality is good.' Then the idea that sexual diversity was good."
OK. So far, so good. But on what do you base a sexual ethic if you don't base it on God, the Bible or religious tradition?
"I would base it on what's good for children," Parker replied. "I think it's good for children to have adults who are committed to them without question."
It's hard to argue against parents being totally committed to their children - but here goes:
Today, the family has been raised up as the most sacred and sovereign unit of society. Many of the families profiled in "Following Our Bliss" paid less attention to the kids than the children wanted, but the neglect was mostly benign, the byproduct of social idealism or a life a bit too centered on self- improvement. One of the themes running through my interviews with people born into the spiritual counterculture of the '60s was this feeling that their parents were not there for them. It didn't matter that they were worshiping strange gods, following some messianic prophet or living promiscuous lives. It wasn't that Mom and Dad were out saving the world, or spreading Krishna consciousness, but simply that they were not available to the family. Many of these parents were more concerned about changing the world than raising their families.
Looking back on it, many of these adult children of the '60s retain some resentment about not being the center of their parents' universe. But those who inherited Mom and Dad's social idealism also see that there was a lot in the world that needed to be changed, and there still is.
"As kids, we felt second fiddle,'' said Anjali Browning, whose parents were devotees of an Indian guru named Swami Chinmayananda. "Our parents wanted to be involved in something larger. And you know there was a lot to change about the world, and here was this man (the swami) trying to make a difference. But it's easy to resent the lifestyle. We weren't raised with the mentality that you have to go to college and start a career. My parents had this free- floating, go-with-the-flow attitude. It was selfish to have goals. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. That's good in a lot of ways, but I was kind of a dreamer - not realistic about how the world worked.''
Browning is right when she points out that the world needed changing in the '60s, and it still does today. Too many of us have reacted - consciously or unconsciously - against the idealism of the '60s. We've retreated into our own private little worlds, our own version of "traditional family values.'' One child of the '60s - a man who grew up in a series of radical, communal homes - put it this way:
"One of the illnesses of the American nuclear family is that children are raised thinking they are the center of the universe, and the only other planets are Mom and Dad. That is unhealthy for the child, but it's also unhealthy for the adults. What I most appreciate about the counterculture upbringing that I had is that it gave me a critical stance. We learned to think critically. We were taught to question about how society was run.''
Sixties-bashing is facile. In the 1990s, those titillating times were subject to endless sniping by the talking heads of television, apostles of the ordinary and other neo-conservative pundits. For many Christian commentators, the '60s became a metaphor for the Fall From Grace. It was more convenient to blame drug addiction, poverty, teen pregnancy and the breakdown of the family on a past period of permissiveness. It was also a good political strategy. Criticizing the excesses of the '60s shifts attention away from the recent undoing of the vital social gains of the decade. It was easier to preach a narrow and regressive sexual morality than to look at other forces threatening poor and middle-class families in the late 20th century - like the desperate shortage of affordable housing and the grinding necessity for both parents to hold jobs.
Our appraisal of the '60s flows from our ideas about the '50s - and many of those ideas are wrong. Sixties bashers claim America's moral, religious and familial life reached shining heights in the '50s, then collapsed into a cacophony of selfishness and sin. America's "Greatest Generation," we are told,
saved the world in the '40s, then moved to the suburbs and set us on the path of peace and prosperity. In this fantasy, all began to unravel in the '60s, when a rebellious generation tore society apart and couldn't put it back together again. Our most grievous loss was said to be "traditional family values," three words that became the political battle cry of reactionary, post- '60s politics and religion.
In reality, there wasn't much about the faith and families of the '50s that were "traditional." If anything, the '50s was the aberrant decade, not the '60s and '70s. The post-World War II era saw an abnormal emphasis on piety, patriotism and the nuclear family. In fact, the decade was just a blip on the long-term charts of public piety. Our religious "revival" had more to do with demographics and politics than the hand of God. The Baby Boomers reached their Sunday-school years. This is when many families traditionally - and often temporarily - reconnect with church or synagogue.
Enough about "the greatest generation." It had its greatness, to be sure, but it is also the generation that built Japanese internment camps, saluted McCarthyism and mostly turned its face away from racism and anti-Semitism. Many of the problems we blame on the '60s - child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse - were no less prevalent in the '50s. We just didn't talk about it then. It was much easier to hide all that behind the walls of our now- separate homes out in the suburbs.
Sociologist Stephanie Coontz points out in "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" that the rise of the nuclear family came at the expense of other old-fashioned values - like the extended family's inclusion of grandparents and aunts and uncles in children's lives, along with the social ties of truly interdependent communities.
Powerful spirits moved the religious revolution of the '60s: idealism, innovation, empowerment and the search for authentic experience. They remain the hallmarks of the era. There was a thirst for authenticity, for telling it like it is. There was a turning away from materialism, greed and old roles. Many of us replayed Dustin Hoffman's role in the 1967 film "The Graduate," searching for our own life and our own set of values. Benjamin was right. You don't have to go into plastics. You can follow your bliss. There was a feeling of hope in the '60s that's hard for young people to imagine today.
Yet conservative evangelicals look at the signs of the times in San Francisco and tell us all signs point straight to hell. We are the mecca of alternative lifestyles, and as the Bay Area goes, so goes the nation. Take, for example, the following paragraph from a recent book by sociologist Alan Wolfe called "Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice." Wolfe surveys the populations in places like Tipton, Iowa, and San Antonio, Texas, and comes to San Francisco only to find the counterpoint to all that is right and true in America.
"The most notorious events of the dreaded 1960s - the Free Speech Movement, violent resistance against the military draft, the rise of the Black Panthers, and the drug and music scene with its ground zero at Haight-Ashbury - happened either in San Francisco or across the bay in Berkeley and Oakland,'' Wolfe writes. "In the next decade Castro Street would become the main street of gay America, not only a direct confrontation with traditional American morality but also, by the end of the 1970s, a disease that seemed to vindicate the wrath of God. With a climate and scenic beauty too good to be true, San Francisco came to represent a repudiation of the self-discipline and delayed gratification that once constituted the core of both capitalist and Christian virtue. Political and theological conservatives therefore find in San Francisco everything that goes wrong when people believe that they can somehow live without obedience to firm rules of moral authority, handed down by tradition, tested by centuries of experience, and inscribed in the great moral and religious texts of the West."
And you thought we were just having a good time.
Don't get me wrong. Being a child of the '60s was not easy. Divorce is hard on families, and from 1960 to the mid-1980s, the divorce rate tripled and the number of children in one-parent homes doubled. Meanwhile, the percentage of teenage mothers who were unwed jumped from 15 percent to 61 percent. None of those are healthy trends, but it's too easy to blame the bogeymen of the counterculture and '60s permissiveness. Most people who divorce remarry and form new and extended kinship networks. Back in the '50s, pregnant girls got married, but they produced a lot of unhappy marriages and unloved children. Bad marriages are not necessarily better than good single-parent homes.
The leaders of today's Christian Right respond to the 1960s and women's liberation with fire-and-brimstone rhetoric. Pat Robertson, the televangelist and former GOP presidential candidate, proclaimed in a fund-raising letter in the 1990s that feminism was inspiring women to "leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."
It's hard to decide which part of Robertson's rant is most shocking, especially from a man who claims to be a follower of Jesus, but let's just consider the parts about leaving husbands and destroying capitalism. According to the Bible, Jesus said his true disciple must reject his earthly life to follow the Master - he must "hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters." As for capitalism, the Savior advises the rich man to "sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me." So much for capitalism and family values.
So what would Jesus do? What would he find good and bad about the spiritual legacy of the '60s? Search the Bible for clues about the Savior's worries about sex, wine and celebration, and you won't find much. And the Nazarene does not appear to have been a great advocate of traditional religion or traditional families. He inveighed against the accumulation of wealth and talked instead about voluntary simplicity, peace, justice, love and communal living. He was much more interested in saving the world than raising a family. Sound familiar?
Then, and now, we need to watch out for those who use sexual morality and "traditional family values'' as smoke screens for selfishness. Sexual ethics and family values are important, but no more important than social ethics. It's time for us to stop buying into the reaction against San Francisco and the '60s, and find our way back to what was best about that time and this place. .