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The Church We Came From

August 11, 2022

from a solicited submission to a publisher

It was mid-century: after America had risen from the fugue state of The Great Depression to wrest control of the globe from Evil. A new world was born, and in America ancient religion was rediscovered in millions of families in formation after the existential crisis was overcome.

Intimate idiosyncrasy is part of every life – and so every family. But every person is part of something larger than themselves. Millions had died and those warriors who survived were wounded: some physically, but all were changed by a life-or-death struggle. My family was adrift in the wash of mid-century events, just like the other one hundred and forty million who lived through World War 2.

1945 saw those sixteen million men come home to create a new place – a sanitorium of peace created in a new juggernaut: the now industrial, militarized and world-leader United States of America. The violence and terror of the time questioned each human and ripped open our cultural assumptions. Why did the survivors survive? What matters now that we are left alive, when so many died to save us? There are no atheists in fox holes. Those who won the war were at peak fecundity: they were primed to make babies – and they did. The population exploded in that generation and that meant church attendance more than doubled in the decades after the war.

I was one of those babies.

Before they saved the world, under 40% of my parents’ generation went to church every week, about the same percentage as attends church today.  In between those lulls in church attendance, the extreme, violent, and costly effort of that generation literally saved the world – but especially America, where after the war almost 50% of us went to church, and those going doubled in family size in those years. The previous two thousand years of Jesus in our lives had a crest when The American Dream was real.

The winners, my parents’ generation, were also primed to literally ride technology into the future. The Eisenhower National Highway System crisscrossed the American landscape in but a decade, connecting cities. But technology also made millions of affordable cars that could ride on those new concrete ribbons. The new roads and vehicles meant that farmland near cities was, well, more valuable as a place to make homes and babies than make food. The food could come from farther away, using those highways in newly refrigerated trucks and trains. Once distant work was then easy to get to – often in cities that were close by, and the commute to work made for a unique change.

Suburbia was born.

Near-death experiences make for perspective and faith: so when the new infrastructure extended the home into a new ¼ acre lot format for living, all those babies and survivors who bore them were in a renewed embrace of God in their New World. Along with the explosion of cul-de-sacs, it was also an era of the greatest percentage of weekly church attendance since records were taken – in church membership reached an all-time high growing to almost 115 million worshippers in 1960, up from 90 million in 1950. Gallup polled that over 70% of Americans cited religion as “very important” in the 1950s. “Big Religion” created the National Council of Churches. “In God We Trust” was struck onto our coins. Millions now recited “under God” during the pledge of Allegiance added to address Godless Communism. First Hitler, then Stalin offered the terrifying alternative to Christian belief for many, and since God was with us in victory, we would be with Him in our newly minted world, the suburbs.

Church was a growth industry when I was born. Church construction activity grew as much as any building type in history. There was ten times the volume of church building in 1957 as there was in 1946.  Like malls in the 1970s, condos in the 1980s, and universities since, sacred spaces flooded suburbia with religious relevance until the 21st century. In one of these suburbia’s, my family efforted being nuclear. 

We live in this world, now. Our days are spent in transaction, efforting every devotion in rationalized mechanisms — often grim, sometimes ecstatic. We soldier on, accepting limits and working hard to overcome them. We feel entitled to “fairness”, “justice”, objectively reasonable outcomes. We define the guilty, we declare the victimhood that has abused the innocent. But life, even the abused life, is not a transaction, it is a gift. 

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