Historians often have problems dealing with popular culture. On the one hand, they know that novels, music albums, and even comics influence a vast audience, but there is always some embarrassment about treating them seriously in sober political accounts. In consequence, we tend to miss critical parts of major stories.

Here’s a case in point. When we write the history of the United States in the twentieth century, it’s hard to overstate the significance of the 1970s religious revival, which some call a Fourth Great Awakening. The movement gave a whole new social and political space to born-again Christianity, and we now have magnificent studies of the era like Darren Dochuk’s recent case-study of Southern California in From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.

This is a great time to be studying modern American religion. But we still don’t pay enough attention to some of the popular culture aspects of this era, above all in rock music.

Historians do a fine job of showing how Christian movements and leaders developed during these years, highly influential groups like Campus Crusade for Christ. But those groups faced a daunting challenge in reaching out to a non-believing audience that was at first deeply unsympathetic to the moral and cultural messages they preached. To say the least, the years around 1970 were not a promising time to be preaching chastity, heterosexuality, and a drug-free lifestyle, all the more so if the media stereotype of evangelical ministers was drawn from Inherit the Wind, Elmer Gantry, and even the homicidal pastor in Night of the Hunter.

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