Lyndon Johnson

Family and Faith in Formation

By Jeff Gill

[For the next three Thursdays, Jeff Gill will offer a reading of the mainline church’s decline over the past 50 years, specifically its roots in the social, historical, and political factors unfolding in a changing culture.  This article originally appeared in the Newark Advocate.] 

This month has seen a significant national anniversary which got some, but (in my opinion) oddly little attention even in forums where you’d expect it to be a dominant topic, pro or con.

January 8th was the fiftieth anniversary of Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson giving his first “State of the Union” address, where he declared an “unconditional war on poverty” with policy plans to put behind that metaphor.

That metaphor, by the way, comes down to us by way of that great figure in the history of sociology and religious studies (and psychology, and a hatful of other fields), William James. In his work “Varieties of Religious Experience,” (1902), the Harvard professor gave academic legitimacy to the phenomenological study of religion; four years later, he published “The Moral Equivalent of War” where he analyzed the drive towards world peace – the seeds of a hope for a “war to end all war” that were planted before World War I began – and pointed out the values and satisfactions people get from warfare. He makes the case that we can’t abolish human nature, but we do need and can benefit from “the moral equivalent of war” in shared values, common struggle, and the achievement of wider goals through general participation in that struggle.

In that sense, LBJ was an heir of William James; he had seen warfare from both the security of Washington, and out in the field in the Pacific. He knew the positives and the negatives of warfare between nations, and he came back all the more committed to building up the spirit of national effort in ending the kind of desperate poverty he had known growing up and teaching school, in the Texas hill country outside of Austin, and down along the Rio Grande.

Much of LBJ’s legacy has been overshadowed by his anguished continuation of the Vietnam War. You can find volumes of debate over what Kennedy would have done had he lived past 1963, and what Johnson could have done and didn’t after he came into office following the assassination. It’s hard to say for sure.

What can be said with some certainty is that Johnson already had more of a record of putting himself publicly on the side of civil rights before 1960, let alone 1964, and his “accidental” accession to the presidency meant he could use both the martyred predecessor’s memory and his own considerable political skills to get a Civil Rights & Voting Rights Act through, but also to put alongside a suite of social legislation which he gave the caption “War on Poverty.”

That legacy, itself, is still debated, but in ways that left the usual suspects on cable news and talk radio largely mute. It’s an article of faith on the left that it was too little and not fully deployed, accomplishing less than it might have; equally so the right sees the so-called War programs as having done more harm than good. The impacts on family in particular are decried, in politics and not infrequently in churches.

I think you can see where some factors of family decline were reinforced unintentionally, but with no less harm, by AFDC (as one example), but the problem was building before then -- the curve really doesn't begin to bend in 1964, it bends through it. And we're still trying to figure out what was loosening those ties to start with, that AFDC gave some unfortunate momentum to. That's part of my morbid fascination with "Mad Men": I think that show is trying to get at some of the same questions in a way. The War on Poverty becomes an early goalpost for the Sixties, but the game had already begun.

Somewhere in the post-war era, we started down a road of no-fault divorce, delayed marriage, and general acceptance of birth control as an unspoken expectation. Oddly enough, poor people having more children than "they can afford" goes back to rural culture and a certain cold logic of farm life, and again, the first generation up from the South and into cities -- Appalachian & African-American -- was digging that hole for themselves years before "the Pill" and "the Check" started contorting social norms.

This is where reading Daniel Patrick Moynihan is so startling: we could have known this in 1963, but it was not politically palatable to talk about, so we didn't. And part of the resistance was due to what I would call an overemphasis on the problems of the “black family” as Moynihan put it, without realizing the social shift was much broader than any one ethnic group. “There are some mistakes only a Ph.D. can make,” he said, and mistakes we can make listening to groups of Ph.D.’s in sum.

And at the same time, we see the role & centrality of churches change dramatically. Cause, correlation, or coincidence? There may be a further column here…


Jeff Gill is a storyteller, writer, and pastor in Licking County; he’s ordained in the same tradition from which came LBJ, Ronald Reagan, & James Garfield. Tell him about your views on the sacred & the secular at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.