Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture. By Eileen Luhr.
Berkeley: University of California Press, February 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-520-25594-4, $50.00; paper: ISBN 978-0-520-25596-8, $19.95. 280 pages.
Reviewed by Donna J. Drucker, Colorado College
Eileen Luhr’s Witnessing Suburbia narrates the transitions from the old Christian Right’s rejection of youth culture in the early 1960s, through the Jesus movement in the late 1960s, through the creation of Christian metal music and young fan culture in the 1980s, and concludes with the politicizing of conservative Christian activism by claiming public suburban spaces for “family values” or as “family friendly” in the 2000s. Luhr understands the impact of the shift from fundamentalism to evangelism over a forty-five-year period as a shift from believers creating and maintaining a separate pure Christian culture for themselves, as the Old Christian Right had, to their engaging directly in popular culture and creating their own brand of consumerism in order to draw new converts and support their own beliefs.
White evangelical Christians, Luhr argues, were “engaged in a values-based suburban activism expressed in a consumer vernacular” (6). The value system they supported is familiar to even the most casual observer of American culture and politics: the nuclear family headed by a patriarch in a detached suburban home, middle-class social status and income, whiteness, heteronormativity, obedience to authority, personal responsibility, privacy, and belief in a form of Christianity based less on theology than on personal witness and prayer. Rather than investigating local and national conservative political activism, as other historians and scholars have done, Luhr focuses on how youth-oriented evangelical cultural activism developed, changed over time, and then affected politics. She aims to show that such cultural activism “aided the conservative political surge by facilitating their entrance into national discussions about public morality and values” (7). Activism targeting Christian youths reshaped the practices of secular culture for purposes of witnessing, conversion, and group identity formation and maintenance.
Each of the four chapters focuses on a different aspect of the creation of Christian consumer youth culture. The book begins with a discussion of conservative criticism of leftist youth movements and music of the 1960s. While critics of leftist popular culture first argued that rock ‘n’ roll was an agent of the devil and for Christian separation from popular music, Christian parents of the 1970s and 1980s produced and consumed literature that assisted them in using their understandings of popular music to reassert their authority over their children. Young evangelicals of the 1970s and 1980s created their own fan magazines for Christian punk, rock, and pop music in order to create a distinct Christian identity that advocated strict morality and personal responsibility (86). They often used the magazines to witness to their classmates in lieu of being able to pray in their public schools. Christian punk and metal musicians likewise used their music and lyrics to reach unchurched young listeners in an attempt to instill them with doctrinally uncomplicated, conservative moral beliefs and respect for traditional authority. The book’s last chapter shifts to an analysis of the political implications of the conservative focus on youth culture in Orange County, California. Orange County residents deliberately framed the culture of their communities against leftist movements such as gay rights and women’s rights in order to create and to police “family friendly” values in public space. The most prominent among these efforts were Harvest Crusades. These evangelical concerts that took place in sports stadiums were designed to establish public commitment to Christianity, to claim consumer-oriented space for “family friendly” purposes, and to spark interest in activism for conservative political causes.
Luhr demonstrates her understanding of and facility with the arguments of religious and American studies scholars and those of fellow historians, particularly Lizabeth Cohen on postwar American consumerism generally, Colleen McDannell on American Christian material culture, and Lisa McGirr on the rise of suburban political and cultural conservatism. Luhr could more clearly articulate her own conceptions of consumerism, commercialization, and consumer culture as a way to link the products and experiences that critics, parents, music fans, Orange County suburbanites, and Harvest Festival attendees consumed in the process of witnessing their faith.
Further, the voices of the consumers themselves are curiously missing from this narrative. Luhr largely depends on print culture in the forms of newspapers, independently produced ‘zines, and other fan publications for their views. However, as the book’s primary argument centers on the production of a suburban-based conservative Christian culture for and by young people, hearing only from those cultural participants who were motivated enough to create publications or to produce music or events like the Harvest Festival raises the question of what less-fervent consumers of that cultural fare actually thought of it. Luhr saves an accounting of Christian music sales for the epilogue ($920 million in 2001), so clearly Christian music and related products are being widely consumed (193). A deeper understanding (perhaps through oral, phone, or e-mail interviews) of who those consumers actually are, what influences the products they purchase and the events they attend; how much money they spend; and how the products affect their faith and beliefs would add depth to Luhr’s depiction of the centrality of consumerism to modern Christian popular culture.
Lack of consumer voices aside, this book is important reading for those interested in the intertwined histories of music, popular culture, fundamentalist and evangelical Christianities, suburbia, and conservatism in the late twentieth-century United States. It would be a worthwhile addition to graduate or upper-level undergraduate courses in American studies, religious studies, or modern American history.