How Clergymen View Hippiedom
Helen M. Hacker Originally published 1970
In recent years the press has spotlighted two groups which are seeking to break out of traditional and spiritually outworn molds: modernizing clergymen and hippie youth. But there is a difference in their aspirations: the modernizing clergymen seek to become more worldly; the hippie youth, less worldly. The difference is well described by an American Methodist minister:
“Hippie religiosity takes some strange turns from the contemporary religious scene in terms of its ideas, values and practices. While avant-garde Catholics question a formalized liturgy employing a dead language, the hippies gather in public to recite Sanskrit prayers for hours. While earnest clerical reformers insist that nuns and priests must cast off their habits and wear ordinary clothing, the hippies parade in colorful symbolic clothing. While the young theologians and pastors talk about the necessity of bringing the church into the heart of secularized society, the hippies declare that society is corrupt and urge us to found little islands of holiness and peace. While Catholic radicals assert the virtues of clerical marriage, the hippies (though hardly celibate) accept implicitly the Roman church’s most telling argument for celibacy: that marriage domesticates and tames the dedicated man and narrows his vision. While the new theologians exhort Christians to turn their minds to the problems of an industrialized society, the hippies blithely pursue transcendent experiences.”
It is obvious that valuable insights can be gained by exploring the relationship between hippie groups and religious groups. Precedent for such exploration is not lacking. Thus Jay Haley, a family therapist and communications analyst, wrote in the Summer 1968 issue of Voices: “There are two comparisons of hippies with other groups which have been made. Psychiatrists, who were generally prejudiced against hippies, called them schizophrenics. Atheists, who were generally prejudiced against religion, called them Christians.” Haley cites examples of the consternation aroused in Christians by hippies and concludes: “Not only did hippies pose moral dilemmas to Christians but there was a crucial difference between their philosophy and either early or later Christians. The hippies did not judge others or set out to save other people by imposing their views upon them."
Churchmen also have taken official cognizance of the significance of the hippie movement for organized religion. At the symposium on “the culture of nonbelief,” sponsored in Rome in March 1969 by the Vatican’s Secretariat for Nonbelievers and the University of California’s department of sociology, Baptist Harvey Cox and Jean Daniélou, a French Roman Catholic theologian, agreed that hippie experimentation with oriental mysticism, drugs, and sex represents a search for belief outside the conventional forms, and that youthful protesters have lost faith in a dividend-gathering “true church” rather than in the Gospels.
Thus it is understandable that my graduate class in research methods at Adelphi University decided to pursue the connection between clergymen and hippies. They wanted to find out whether ministers saw hippies as primitive Christians, to what extent they agreed with hippie philosophy, either wittingly or unwittingly, and whether ferment in youth could be related to ferment in the church. We constructed a questionnaire and mailed it, accompanied by a persuasive letter soliciting anonymous cooperation, to every clergyman listed in a directory for Nassau and Suffolk counties in Long Island, New York. In response to the 300 letters sent out, 107 usable replies were received. Testimony to the ministers’ concern is provided by the respectable rate of return and by the considered, eloquent responses to a final unstructured question which asked them to comment on the relationship of hippie ideas, values and practices to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and to say whether they felt the hippie movement upheld or threatened basic religious tenets.
The first part of the questionnaire was devoted to relevant background data—religious affiliation, size of congregation, number of years in the ministry, secular education, number and ages of children, and a self-rating on a scale from a traditional to a nontraditional position within their church. The second part consisted of statements comprising three scales: (a) what might be called the “hippiecratic creed” culled from their own mouths, (b) a secular or “social gospel” scale, and (c) a scale of mysticism. The third part compared ministers’ stereotypes of hippies with their images of divinity students, young fascists, young communists, and juvenile delinquents. In the fourth part respondees were asked to identify 15 personalities of chiefly hippie, religious, or political interest. The fifth part was the essay question described above.
Perhaps our most interesting finding had to do with the cleavage between clergymen’s image of the hippies and their espousal of hippie values. Of the four comparison groups listed in the third part of the questionnaire, hippies were seen as most resembling juvenile delinquents in that they had mother-dominated childhoods and that they reject parental values, are not interested in politics, dress unconventionally, are sexually promiscuous, and are drug users. In all these respects they were seen as most unlike divinity students; the only trait they share with divinity students is, in the eyes of these clergymen, a middle-class background plus, to some extent, a college education. Hippies were seen as akin to young communists in preferring group to individual relationships. In short, they were viewed largely as middle-class delinquents.
Nevertheless, 90 percent of the Protestant ministers (and 87 percent of the total sample) endorsed such an item from the hippie-ethos scale as the contention that “young people should be encouraged to question contemporary social institutions.” In fact, 60 percent of the Protestants (and half of the total sample) agreed with ten of the 15 statements in this scale. These data suggest that negative ministerial perceptions of hippies refer more to what hippies practice than what they preach.
It has already been indicated that Protestants as a group are more favorable to hippie values than are either Catholics or Jews. It may be worthwhile to mention other characteristics associated with support of the hippie outlook. As might be expected, ministers who rate themselves as nontraditional were more likely to score high on the hippie-ethos scale. But this group proved to be more polarized than self-styled traditional ministers, with a higher percentage also low on the hippie-ethos scale; one may speculate, however, that the low-scoring non-traditional ministers reject the hippie philosophy as being too disengaged.
Ministers in the 40-60 age group were far more likely than their younger colleagues to score high on the hippie-values scale. Members of this group had more children between the ages of 15 and 24 (which we defined as the age of hippie vulnerability); the presence of hippie-age children was also discerned as predictive of placement in the high-scoring group. The question arises whether their scores may be attributed to generational or parental experiences; the data suggest that age is the more important consideration, since there was no difference in the proportion of clergymen with children and clergymen without children who scored high on the hippie scale. A greater percentage of high hippie-ethos scores was found among clergymen who have been in the ministry less than ten years and among those with 20 or more years of service; if this relationship should turn out to be stable, one might follow Durkheim’s speculations about the affinity between grandparents and grandchildren.
Larger size of congregation was positively associated with high hippie-ethos scores. One might argue that larger congregations pay higher salaries and can attract better-educated ministers—were it not for the finding of little relationship between education and hippie-ethos scores. A more plausible explanation (suggested also by a similar association of large congregation with a high secular scale score) is that congregations of fundamentalist and evangelical pastors tend to be small, frequently of the storefront variety. Ministers with high hippie-ethos scores were less likely to perceive hippies as being like juvenile delinquents, and more likely to see them as resembling divinity students.
So far we have been concerned with ministers’ agreement or disagreement with propositions we have identified as congruent with hippie values, but which were not labeled as such on the questionnaire. How do these ministers express themselves when asked directly to comment on hippies? Analysis of the fifth (essay) part of the questionnaire reveals that one-fifth of the total sample are negative toward hippies; almost one-third have mixed feelings, but incline toward the negative; about one-fifth have mixed feelings, but incline toward the positive; a little more than one-tenth are unqualifiedly positive, seeing hippies as upholding basic religious tenets.
Ministers who lean more strongly to the negative criticize hippies in terms of private morality, stressing use of drugs, sexual promiscuity, avoidance of washing, and other departures from middle-class mores. The more positive group is more concerned with public morality, couching its criticism in terms of excessive romanticism, idealism, ahistoricity, apathy toward social action, and other characteristics which detract from the efficacy of hippies as a social force.
Let us consider a sampling of statements by those ministers who reject hippies as having nothing in common with the religious way of life—indeed, as threatening basic religious tenets:
“Theirs is a total revolt against the precepts as taught by the Bible... Their attitude and philosophy is an emphatic demonstration of the words of Scripture: ‘There is no more righteous, no not one. There is none that understandeth; there is none that seeketh after God.’”
“The hippies are parasites and contribute nothing to society nor to religion.”
“The hippies represent self-indulgence run wild.”
“Love, which is the basic Christian thought, is their reason for nonviolence. But love too is the reason for the freedom that they have in their sexual relations, lack of principles regarding their responsibilities, and evident disregard for authority...”
One quotation is typical of several which scored hippie lack of discipline as basically unchristian:
“...the man who calls himself a Christian must realize that the Bible uses that term only for those who are also ‘disciples.’ The root meaning of the term disciple is ‘discipline,’ and this precisely defines what hippiedom will have none of. The Christian is one who has yielded control of his life to God; a hippie most emphatically claims the right to direct his own life, and to ‘do his own thing.¼’ Hippies are a threat in that they have adopted drugs as a kind of pseudo-religious experience. Throughout history there has continually been some kind of counterfeit Christianity, which offers the thrill without the discipline, the fun without the responsibility. Perhaps some young people are, and will be, enthralled by this prospect as over against the proclamation of the gospel, which inevitably involves some harsh realities like self-denial... Should we say, then, that there are two extremes: the hippies, and the way of love and laughter; and Christianity, with its sobering demands and grim prospects? The New Testament is far from being a gloomy tirade—but only the one who tastes and sees that the Lord is good will be able to experience the joyful reality about which it speaks.”
Another view, while condemning hippies, points an accusatory finger at the church:
“Free love, unconventional dress, vulgarity, perversion, rebellion against authority and law, Bohemian style of life, and drug addiction characterize the ‘hippies.’ Perhaps the church is to blame in part for the creation of such a distressing situation among our youth of today—the church has long since lost its essential mission—to lift up Christ as the Savior... If the present hippie movement continues to spread, God have mercy on the next generation!”
More common was the notion that the hippie movement represents only one of the many currents which have rushed against the true rock of the church and then subsided, that it is only a passing fad. Said a traditionalist:
“There have been other movements that have come and gone... Christian morals and standards are taught in the Word and will remain, though part of our society violates the laws of God.”
In sum, these and other negative characterizations of hippies pictured them as lazy, indifferent to the necessity of making something useful out of their lives, irresponsible, indifferent to others, unable to delay immediate gratification, undisciplined, looking for an excuse for sexual liberties, unstable, escapist, tiresome, hedonistic, rootless, naive, self-centered, unrealistic, excessively concerned with self-fulfillment, inadequate, too negative, against everything, nonbelievers in authority, drug users, rebels, amoral, extremists, and pathetic.
On the other hand, many ministers hailed the hippies as rejuvenators of Christian doctrine and as challengers to a materialistic, mechanistic, depersonalized, violence-prone society and to a hypocritical, provincial, irrelevant church:
“In our culture the hippie is a Judeo-Christian phenomenon out of the middle class... Hippies reflect the prophetic, the mystical. They seek authenticity and dig the phrase “the courage to be.” They are existential in mood, find ultimate being in the Now or responsiveness with love. They explore the margins of life, see the hypocrisy of the “over-age” generations. They would have been more open to Jesus and Jeremiah than would [today’s] average Christian, they would have been hostile in style to the Pharisaic and Priestly groups... They accept and seek to live basic implied ideals of the Judeo-Christian culture.”
“...the hippie movement is an attempt by some young people to find deeper values than those currently in vogue in American society. Their disdain of “material” goals, their seeking after “love, not war,” “peace,” “nature,” etc., all tend to uphold Judaic-Christian traditions rather than threaten them.”
Some ministers imputed a religiosity to hippies which they recognize as unintended by hippies themselves. The hippies, then, honor the Lord with their hearts, if not with their lips:
“They would choose to “threaten,” not “uphold,” religious tenets. But the reverse may be true. Their sensitivity, perceptivity, and method may actually revive the primitive spirit of the Judeo-Christian heritage.”
“The hippies “do” at times when some Christians merely content themselves with mouthing the ethic to love thy neighbor.”
“The great point which is made is not new, but it is important. It insists that the one absolute in guiding the choices one makes in his relationships with others is that our actions should be compatible with love—which is precisely what Jesus was saying 2,000 years ago.”
Frequently expressed was the view that hippies represent a return to primitive Christianity, that they may belong to God’s “invisible church” while appearing to threaten the established church and nominal Christians:
“In some cases the hippie embodies the oldest traditions of communal ideas and values…. The [movement] threatens the puritanic hangups of traditional pietism that was neither Christian nor pious to begin with. It is a call to reawakening, evaluating, perhaps restructuring worn-out clichés and structures.”
Who said it is wrong to challenge the status quo of organized religions? Perhaps the threat that the hippies present is good.
“The hippie movement is a particularly mid-20th century response to a set of circumstances that has been developing for centuries. It is not a threat to basic religious tenets, since it is most practically an outgrowth of them. It is, however, a threat to many ideas, values and practices that have grown out of the institutions [conventions] of the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
Some clergymen drew a parallel between the hippie movement and the monastic movement, but were critical of both as “copping out” on the social implementation of Christian values:
“Their withdrawal is like the monastic movement...their values [too] are departures from the Christian doctrine concern for one’s fellow man in love, shown through service to the needy and oppressed, partly through the structures of society and partly through reform of those structures. They just want to ‘cut out.’”
“The hippie movement is the modern monastic movement. Monks of the fourth century escaped the world, drank much beer, were not much concerned with others. But monasteries did provide the atmosphere for education, debate, art—and a flower bloomed.”
“Oddly enough, the conflict between the hippie and society would have been comprehensible to the medieval mind, which saw two distinct modes of the Christian life...the active and the contemplative... The hippie...speaks of dropping out of society in almost the same way that the monastics spoke of shunning the world; they are attracted to Eastern mysticism and they frankly assert that life reaches its highest moments in ineffable experiences which have virtually no relationship to ordinary human existence. The hippies preach the ancient message of Christian asceticism: withdrawal from the snares and corruptions of a hopelessly complex society and the embracing of a simple, frugal community life cemented by love. To be sure, hippie asceticism involves some notable omissions, especially sex and drugs.”
Hippies were also likened to the prophets, but in this comparison their disengagement was seen as a point of difference. For instance:
“While many of the basic concepts of the hippie movement seem to be based upon Judaic-Christian concepts, the basic difference [is] in its retreat from life. The leading men of the Bible, men like Moses, Joshua, David, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Jesus Christ, Paul, Peter, etc., were all very deeply involved with national life. Often they came into sharp disagreement with the Establishment, but their protest was not to “drop out.” Rather, they used all means at their disposal to bring about change in the thinking and attitudes of their day.”
It is difficult to resist quoting further from the articulate, often vivid appreciations of the hippie quest. As I have noted, the majority of the ministers were ambivalent in their evaluation of hippies. They tended to applaud the hippies’ idealism, simplicity, rejection of possessions, dedication to love and nonviolence, impatience with hypocrisy, skepticism in regard to any absolute truths or established dogmas, openness to new experiences and to non-Western religious outlooks, emphasis on the moral worth of individuals, and search for a more meaningful life. But at the same time they saw many flaws in hippie attitudes and practices. Perhaps their criticisms can best be summed up thus: hippies are too orphic and playful, are not sufficiently serious. If they were really serious, some of these ministers seemed to be saying, they would make their views meaningful by grounding them in some philosophical or theological system; lead self-disciplined lives in accordance with their avowed values; become actively engaged in reshaping the world closer to their heart’s desire, in organizing love; not turn their backs on all existing structures, such as the church, but make selective use of them while working for change; and see their lives as related to the past and having consequences for the future.
Whether they praised or sorrowed over the hippies, most of the ministers agreed that their challenge to church, family, and society is salutary and should stimulate hard thinking about the real meaning of religious tenets. On the whole, there was recognition of hippies as intrinsically Christian and sympathy for their spiritual search, though often accompanied by a feeling that they are misguided in the path they are following—or, as one minister put it: “Their lifestyle does not effectively produce the freedom, beauty, truth, and love which they are actually seeking.” Finally, there was hope that the hippie prick to conscience will be felt:
“Much of their protest against phony middle-class suburban values is quite valid, and we need to take it seriously as a call for love, justice and freedom.”
“Perhaps their revolt may have some benefit if it makes us take a good hard look at our lack of understanding of and involvement in our own faith.”
“As long as the hippies remain visible and vocal, they serve as a constant reminder that certain things are not dead; e.g., the meaning of life, the nature of personality, the attainment of the Absolute, the possibility of other modes of existence besides those followed in everyday life. The hippie visibility forces those in the Judaic-Christian tradition to wrestle with their preachments, and to maintain within their communions the metaphysical dialogue which points to something beyond social engineering or pietistic platitudes.”