Suburban Jesus

Where God is often consigned to rituals and grace is incidental.

Duo Dickinson / 11.14.22

It was the mid-20th century: after America had risen from the fugue state of The Great Depression to wrest control of the globe from evil. A new world was born, and in America, ancient religion was rediscovered in millions of families in formation after the existential crisis had been overcome.

Intimate idiosyncrasy is part of every life and therefore, in every family. But every person is part of something larger than themselves. Millions had died, and those warriors who survived were wounded. Some were hurt physically, but all were changed by a life-or-death struggle. My family was adrift in the wash of mid-century events, just like the other one hundred and forty million who lived through World War II.

1945 saw those sixteen million men come home to create a new place –- a sanatorium of peace created in a new juggernaut: the now industrial, militarized, and world-leader United States of America. The violence and terror of the time questioned each human and ripped open our cultural assumptions. Why did the survivors survive? What matters now that we are left alive, when so many died to save us? There are no atheists in fox holes. Those who won the war were at peak fecundity: they were primed to make babies –- and they did. The population exploded in that generation and that meant church attendance more than doubled in the decades after the war.

I was one of those babies.

Before they saved the world, under 40% of my parents’ generation went to church every week, about the same percentage as attends church today. In between those lulls in church attendance, the extreme, violent, and costly effort of that generation literally saved the world. In America, after the war, almost 50% of us went to church, and those going doubled in family size throughout those years. The previous two thousand years of Jesus in our lives had a crest when The American Dream was real.

The winners, my parents’ generation, were also primed to literally ride technology into the future. The Eisenhower National Highway System crisscrossed the American landscape in a decade and connected cities. But technology also made millions of affordable cars that could ride on those new concrete ribbons. The new roads and vehicles meant that farmland near cities was, well, more valuable as a place to make homes and babies than make food. The food could come from farther away, using those highways to drive newly refrigerated trucks and trains. Distant work became easy to get to, especially in cities that were close by, and the commute to work made for a unique change.

Suburbia was born.

Near-death experiences make for perspective and faith. So, when the new infrastructure extended the American home into a new ¼ acre lot format for living, all those babies and survivors who bore them also renewed their embrace of God. Along with the explosion of cul-de-sacs, it was also an era of the greatest percentage of weekly church attendance since records were taken. Church membership reached an all-time high, growing to almost one hundred and fifteen million worshippers in 1960, up from 90 million in 1950. Gallup polled that over 70% of Americans cited religion as “very important” in the 1950s. “Big Religion” created the National Council of Churches. “In God We Trust” was struck onto our coins. Millions now recited “under God” during the pledge of Allegiance added to address godless communism. First Hitler, then Stalin, offered the terrifying alternative to Christian belief for many, and since God was with us in victory we would be with him in our newly minted world: the suburbs.

Church construction activity grew as much as any building type in history. There was ten times the volume of church building in 1957 as there was in 1946. Like malls in the 1970s, condos in the 1980s, and universities since, sacred spaces flooded suburbia with religious relevance until the 21st century. In one of these suburbia’s, my family attempted to become the nuclear family.

Like all mass merchandising, that mid-century flow of human dedication was more about social expectation than salvation. Those expectations were more immediately imperative: get to church on time, look good, say and sing the right things, talk to your church friends, and go home to mow the lawn.

When church is built within any dominant cultural model, especially in the exploding launch of mid-century suburban life, God is often consigned to rituals, and grace is incidental. My church was beautiful, the other people were nice, there were cool things to eat at coffee hour, but it was just a place. Even when the buildings are historic or super-shiny new, church is just another place, like our Country Club, where my parents acted differently than they did at home. When Jesus is compartmentalized — like my father’s work, my day at school, or my mother’s interior designer life — church becomes another visitation, not coming home.

Against the backdrop of suburban sprawl, the Greatest Generation found control after a decade of existential crisis. The new places my parents’ generation made, often churches, sought safety and then expression in a world that had threatened both. Humanity in America went to church, the ravaged humanity in Europe abandoned it, and rebuilt everything.

Our cultures can wildly pivot, but our humanity is the same, because we are all made by God. Perhaps this moment’s overwhelming impact of the Internet has, once again, threatened and empowered every human. For many Americans, the 21st century has seen the place of church in their lives change, just as it did at the advent of the Great Depression, then again when Americans came home from war. We all want to find salvation in the things we can change, like the meaning of church in our lives. But in the end God determines the things we so desperately base our lives on.

Ultimately our only choice is whether we see God in church, on the bread line, the battlefield, or the glowing screen you are looking at right now.

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3 responses to “Suburban Jesus”

  1. PastorM says:

    I thought that weekly church attendance today was more like 20% a week, rather than 40%.

  2. Shamila Z says:

    Article says ‘….under 40%..’

  3. […] In Mockingbird: Suburban Jesus […]

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