How and why did religious institutions change in the U.S. during the 1970s?

Expert Answers
Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The 1970s saw a massive change in the religious practices and participation of people in the United States.   There were a variety of reasons for these changes including the Vietnam War, the rise of Second Wave Feminism and the advent of the birth control pill which shifted attitudes about sex.  Other reasons for changes in religion were due to the enormous growth the Evangelical movement and the beginnings of televangelism. Catholics were affected by the release of Vatican II and Jews by the Yom Kippur War. There were very few people of faith for whom the 70s were not a radical time of change.

While churches began to see declines in membership and attendance in the 1970s, the attrition actually began happening in the 1950s, not long after the end of World War II.  When the Vietnam conflict began in 1956, later escalating to a full-fledged war, many church leaders and members became outspoken detractors of American intervention and involvement.   Many Republican church-goers also became vocal opponent of President Richard M. Nixon following the Watergate scandal. 

Changes were also coming to the nation’s churches in the wake of the Second Wave Feminist movement.  Largely because of the advocacy of these women for equal rights in places of worship (and from the men who supported them) churches appointed women to the clergy, many for the first time in their histories.

The birth control pill, introduced in 1960 and widely in use by 1970, also changed concepts of morality in America.  Women found a new sexual freedom.  Moreover, the case that made abortion legal, Roe v. Wade, was decided in 1973. Homosexuality was gaining new acceptance in the wider populace as well, especially following the Stonewall Riots in 1969.  Churches began to debate whether homosexuals could be legitimately ordained. All of these issues concerning sexuality were affecting church doctrine and membership.

While “traditional” church attendance and membership suffered decline, non-traditional movements, especially Evangelicals and Pentecostal sects grew tremendously.  The year 1976 was proclaimed the “Year of the Evangelical” by Newsweek magazine largely due to the influence of President Jimmy Carter, who had popularized the phrase “born-again Christian.”  These Evangelical groups began to push back against what they saw as a decline in morality and cultural values. 

One reason the Evangelical movement grew so rapidly was the long reach of television ministries; whereas traditional brick-and-mortar churches could only reach a few hundred people, televangelists could reach thousands.  Pat Robertson was one of the first of these television preachers. In 1960, he founded the Christian Broadcasting Network. In 1977, the CBN went to cable, reaching thousands more people.

Catholics were experiencing monumental changes as well due to the release of the Second Vatican Council of 1963-65.  As a result, priests and nuns left their orders in record numbers. More and more lay Catholics used birth control, despite the admonitions of the popular pope, John Paul II.

The Jewish community experienced changes as well in the 1970s. More and more American Jews identified with the Jewish state of Israel that came into being following the Arab-Israel war of 1967.  Their allegiances to Jews in Israel became even stronger following an attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, in 1973.  Jews embraced the Evangelicals as this Protestant group thought the establishment of a Jewish state fulfilled biblical prophecy and heralded the return of Jesus.

Source: American Decades: 1970-1979, ©1995 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.