Just saw Revolutionary Road, a tale about the boredom of suburban life in 1950s America. The director, Sam Mendes, has also made a film about the boredom of suburban life in 1990s America, but I want to stick with the 1950s for now.
Through that decade, and into the mid '60s, the highest selling albums of the year in the United States were soundtracks or cast recordings of musicals. My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Camelot and Hello Dolly all achieved the top spot, but the run ended after 1965's Mary Poppins. By the end of the 1960s, a very different sound had grabbed possession of the charts. The best-selling record of 1968 was Are you Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The following year, the psychedelic rock of Iron Butterfly won with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. The only musical to head the annual charts in the next thirty years was 1971's Jesus Christ Superstar, banned in more than one country for its supposed irreligiosity and unusual take on Judas and Mary Magdalene.
How could Mary Poppins give way in just three years to Jimi Hendrix, musically and politically a world apart? The move from one to the other reveals, as effectively as any other bit of data, the cultural fracture that attended the coming of age of the baby boom generation.
Demographic / cultural changes in the US since then have been less drastic, but the results of a survey published yesterday show a clear shift in the nature of Americans' religious belief in the course of one generation. Identification with a single religious denomination, such as Baptist or Catholic, has dropped substantially; the number of non-denominational Christians has risen; and the percentage of people identifying themselves as non-religious has doubled in 18 years, to 15. New England is looking more like old England: an incredible 34% of Vermont residents now classify themselves as non-religious, and Boston's Catholic numbers are haemorrhaging.
The success of novels like The DaVinci Code obviously owes a lot to the movement in religious attitudes. Dan Brown offered more than a criticism of the Catholic church in that book: he proposed a multicultural, gender-sensitive spiritualism, which was bound to find a receptive readership in a nation in which 2.8 million citizens now identify themselves as pagan, Wiccan or Spiritualist
We've already witnessed the political impact of the change in religious habits with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. In his inaugural speech, Obama acknowledged the demographic roots of his victory by mentioning a number of different faiths, as also agnostics / atheists. In a sense, the 2008 election represents a victory for the counterculture of the 1960s. The immediate political impact of that counterculture was to create a backlash among conservatives that gave right-wingers a virtual stranglehold on the Presidency. Ronald Reagan's vision of militarily assertiveness, socially conservatism and low taxation resonated strongly among working-class white Christians. Now the bedrock of the Reagan coalition has splintered, thanks to the incessant pressure of those 1960s cultural values, and not a moment too soon for the world.