As a writer who seems hopelessly stuck in the sixties, I can’t let Ted Kennedy’s death pass without a comment – and a flashback. My first strong political memory revolves around the bitter 1960 presidential campaign between the dashing Jack Kennedy and the tricky Dick Nixon. I celebrated my seventh birthday the month Kennedy was elected, and I still recall the arguments that my sixteen-year-old sister had with her boyfriend. My family members were lifelong Democrats, but my sister’s boyfriend was backing Nixon. I remember how shocked I was watching him tear a Kennedy button off her blouse and stomp it into the asphalt of our driveway in Littleton, Colorado. What was that all about it? That must be this thing called “politics.”
Today, we look back on the early sixties as a time of hope and optimism, but it was also a time of fear. During the next few years, my father built a fallout shelter in our basement, stockpiling it with food, cooking supplies and a couple of rifles. The Russians were coming. By the end of the decade, bullets would bring down Jack and Bobbie and Martin, but the sixties were such a powerful decade that the hope someone survived.
So here we are – nearly 50 years later – and I remain obsessed with the 1960s. Since the year 2000, I’ve written three books with sixties’ themes. It started with Following Our Bliss – How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today (HarperSanFrancisco 2003), then continued with a book about the dark side of the “Jesus people” of the late 1060s and 1970s, Jesus Freaks – A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge (HarperOne 2007). The saga will continue in January when Harper publishes The Harvard Psychedelic Club – How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America.
Of course, there was no such thing as “the sixties” back in the 1960s. No one knew what the Sixties would bring, but there was a sense of possibilities and a feeling of empowerment. There was a new decade and a young new president to lead the way. There was fear – the terror of instant nuclear annihilation – but there was a feeling that we had a choice. We had the power to do good. We believed America was good, or at least we did at the dawn of the decade.
President Kennedy set the tone in a short and powerful inaugural address delivered in Washington on January 20, 1961. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Toward the end of the speech, Kennedy again addressed his own generation and the next – the one coming of age and setting the stage for a social drama that still unfolds. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.
Those last seventeen words have become so familiar that we have to stop and remember what happened next. Millions of Americans didn’t just watch Kennedy’s speech on TV and change the channel. They joined the Peace Corps and took that light around the world. They marched for civil rights in Alabama and Mississippi and Washington. They worked for nuclear disarmament and against the escalating war in Vietnam. They struggled for economic justice. They did what their president asked of them: Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need--not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’-- a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.
On the day after Kennedy delivered his inaugural address, on January 21, 1961, a Trappist monk in Kentucky opened his diary and wrote: You can make your life what you want. There are various ways of being happy. Why do we drive ourselves on with illusory demands? Happy only when we conform to something that is said to be legitimate happiness? An approved happiness?
Like Kennedy, Father Thomas Merton would inspire thousands of Americans with his vision of another way. When the sixties began, Merton was already famous for The Seven Storey Mountain, a 1948 memoir about his journey to Our Lady of Gethsemane monastery in rural Kentucky. His was a call to contemplation, and Merton’s later exploration of Eastern mysticism – cut short by his accidental death in Thailand in 1968 -- helped bring to the national consciousness Buddhist ideas about non-attachment and the illusory nature of the material world.
Thousands of Americans answered Kennedy and Merton’s call, basing their social commitment on the traditions of their Judeo-Christian faith. Theirs was not just a struggle against poverty, but a repudiation of the twin towers of consumerism and conformity, two forces that took hold of the nation in the 1950s and refused to let go. There was a growing awareness that there was more to life than a two-car garage and a new Frigidaire.
For American Catholics, the early 1960s were an especially hopeful time. Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic president of the United States. It was a symbol of their faith’s growing influence in American life. Catholics were no longer marginalized immigrants from Ireland or Italy, and could no longer be written off as “papists” with divided loyalties. Their church had evolved from a religious minority to the largest Christian communion in the United States. And in the early sixties that communion underwent a thorough examination. In Rome, the Second Vatican Council, convened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII and adjourned by Paul VI in 1965, began an era of liberal reform unparalleled in modern church history. In the aftermath of the proceedings, the ancient Latin Mass was translated into the vernacular. Centuries of officially sanctioned distrust of Protestants, Jews and other non-Catholics gave way to new ecumenical openness. Thousands of priests and nuns – inspired by a new vision of Christian ministry embarked on a crusade for peace and social justice. Lay people assumed a greater role in a hierarchical church redefined as “the people of God.”
Unfortunately, the four decades following Vatican II have often seemed like an era of lost possibilities and unrealized hope for the American Catholic church. Thousands of activist clergy and nuns left the institutional church. Most lay Catholics simply ignored the church’s intransigent teachings on birth control, then began to question ecclesiastical authority in other areas. A seemingly endless scandal over clergy sexual abuse further eroded the faithful’s confidence in church leaders and exposed a hypocritical church hierarchy. While the bishops preached “traditional family values,” they had covered up the sex crimes of pedophile priests. Thousands of homosexual clergy stayed in the rectory closet while the church condemned gays and lesbians as “disordered.’’
Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II and his bishops refuse to acknowledge a growing consensus among the Catholic laity that priests should be allowed to marry, and that women have a right to ordination. The Second Vatican ushered in a new era of theological openness, albeit a brief one. It was said that the Vatican had “opened its windows to the world.” But the papacy of John Paul, and the reign of his chief doctrinal watchdog and successor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has sought to clamp down on many perceived excesses born of Sixties freedom. Yet new ideas are stubborn. Once you open the windows and let them in, ideas have a way of hanging around the house – even the house that Peter built. Like Dylan said, they will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.
Last year’s election of Barack Obama re-kindled that old sixties hope, even in the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown. Once again, a young, charismatic Harvard man found his way into the White House, breaking down the barriers of religion and race. This week, let’s not just remember the hopes and the dreams. Ted Kennedy’s dream was universal health insurance for all Americans. But the lessons of the sixties are not just about hope and dreams. Ted Kennedy was a fighter. It’s about taking the fight to the streets, shakin’ the windows and rattlin’ the walls. That’s what it takes to keep the times a changin’.