Perhaps not a glorious decade to live in, the Seventies are a blast to teach. There is no widely held mythology about the seventies to debunk. When I have asked my students about it, they vaguely mention disco, and then someone remembers who John Travolta is (or was). They perhaps reference Jimmy Carter, but no one has brought up Watergate in years (Nixon would be so proud of these young, fine Americans). So there isn’t much unlearning that needs to happen. There may be many reasons for this, but one of them may be that U.S. history classes rarely get past Watergate. During my first semester as a TA (which was in 1999), that’s where we stopped. Now, I’m excited to say that it’s not even Thanksgiving and we’re zooming into the abyss that is the 1970s.
Hist and Major Problems provide some great approaches to the era. Both focus on the “limits” of liberalism and the “downfall” of presidents. Schultz emphasizes the “limits of liberalism” and takes us through Nixon’s presidency, and especially his triumphs in foreign affairs, and through Ford and Carter. Hist also has a nice section on the “politics of identity” (Alex Haley’s Roots) and struggles over women’s rights (ERA versus Phyllis Schlafly). Major Problems has a tremendous array of documents on the Vietnam War, from Ho Chi Minh pleading with Truman for support to County Joe and the Fish lampooning the war with lines like: “Well, come on all of you, big strong men, / Uncle Sam needs your help again. / He’s got himself in a terrible jam / Way down yonder in Vietnam.” And when Major Problems highlights the rise of the new right that resulted in Reagan’s presidential election in 1980, the documents are just terrific. There’s Archie Bunker singing “those were the days,” Phyllis Schlafly denouncing feminism, California’s hating their taxes (this is a history class, right?!?), and Jerry Falwell calling America back to its “Christian roots.”
|Black Jesus on Good Times|
One example of the limits of liberalism that won’t make it into a textbook, but that typifies the era to me, is what became of “liberation theologies” during the 1970s – those new waves of Christian theology that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s that put the church and Christ on the side of oppressed minority groups (remember Jeremiah Wright – as he was shouting “God damn America” also making the point that Jesus was black?). Liberation theology may seem like a parochial point that is better suited for a US religious history class, but what happened to it in the 1970s was emblematic. In the 1960s, minority groups from throughout North and South America created new brands of theology. It was an exciting time of religious invention. Some black theologians claimed Jesus was black (James Cone, for instance, and the second episode of Good Times featured a discussion about a black Christ). Some Catholic theologians in Latin America claimed that Jesus was with poor, rural, suffering Latin Americans (Gustavo , for instance). Feminists pushed against Christ’s masculinity (Rosemary Ruether). In the 1970s, these various theologies started to interact with one another. At international conventions, they were hopeful they could create a comprehensive theology that linked all minority groups.
And it all fell apart. As the liberal and radical groups met, they could not agree upon whose suffering was most severe or how best to battle oppression. The result was frustration and splinter. A new group of thinkers called themselves womanists (Jacquelyn Grant, for instance) and saw Christ against white power, patriarchy, and capitalism … some formidable opponents, indeed. Liberation theology, like liberalism, still went on – the Jeremiah Wright’s of the world are examples of that – but they seemed “stuck in the sixties”, as even Barack Obama recognized when he put distance between himself and Reverend Wright.
I like the tale of liberation theologies, in part because I write about race and religion, but also because it brings up some international and multicultural dimensions from the civil rights era, but also because it shows how when the various groups came together, they had such trouble creating a center that could hold.
For discussion later this week, we’re going to discuss that one word Jimmy Carter spoke that nobody wanted to hear: malaise. If any one word could typify the era, that would be it. We’ll see through the Major Problems documents and a few movie trailers (The Graduate and Saturday Night Fever). And then for the 1980s, we'll follow the mythic career of Rocky Balboa.