Paul Kinsey returned to “Mad Men” after a three-year absence in last night’s episode, “Christmas Waltz.” After leaving the advertising world, he has joined the Hare Krishnas, one of several “New Age” religions that emerged as part of the era’s counterculture. Though relatively few people actually converted to the Hare Krishnas or other Eastern faiths, those that did reflected some Americans’ search for a deeper spiritual life as well as the evolving religious landscape of the 1960s.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the prosperity of the postwar era opened up many new opportunities for young Americans (see http://popculturemeetshistory.blogspot.com/2012/05/0-0-1-588-3352-university-of.html.)Those raised in this era of affluence did not have to worry about indoor plumbing, as Don Draper did growing up during the Great Depression. While the Old Left of the 1930s focused on strengthening labor unions as well as economic issues such as the minimum wage and safe working conditions, the New Left of the 1960s was less focused on financial concerns. “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit,” noted the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in their 1962 manifesto, “The Port Huron Statement.” The students sought structural changes in American society, saying, “The questions we might want raised -- what is really important? Can we live in a different and better way? If we wanted to change society, how would we do it? -- Are not thought to be questions of a "fruitful, empirical nature," and thus are brushed aside.”
Being raised in “modest comfort” created the necessary conditions for people to experiment with the counterculture. “Mad Men” has shown this dynamic in a limited way. Remember Don hanging out with his beatnik mistress and her friends in Greenwich Village in season one? Kinsey was always the recurring character most at home in the counterculture as he grew a beard in the early 60s, a relatively radical statement at the time.
Though most Americans remained Protestants, Catholics, or Jews, others followed Kinsey’s path of joining a newer religion, at least in terms of its American presence. Such faiths included the Tibetan Buddhists, Zen Buddhists, and Muslim Sufis. Though a minority, they drew significant media attention, in part because many of their converts were highly educated. In 1968, the Beatles brought scrutiny to these groups when the Fab Four traveled to India to commune with Mahrashi Mahesh Yogi, though they eventually left, in part because the Mahrashi wanted a share of their sales.
Similarly, Kinsey’s girlfriend, a fellow Krishna, wants to prevent Harry from shopping Paul’s television script, fearing he might leave the temple. Kinsey has an idea for an episode of “Star Trek,” which premiered on NBC in the fall of 1966. Though Paul describes the show as a “hit,” Harry corrects him, saying it will be fortunate to be renewed for a second season given its competitive time slot (the original “Trek” struggled for three years on NBC before it was canceled). In the episode, the Hare Krishnas look just like an advertising firm, as Kinsey’s girlfriend wants to keep him in the spiritual flock because he is their best recruiter.
Nevertheless, the emergence of the Hare Krishnas was part of a broader religious upheaval in the U.S. during this period. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, 1/3 of Americans left the faith of their youth. (America Divided, 229) The mainline Protestant denominations began their gradual decline while the Catholic Church lost members after the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II. Though reporters highlighted the Eastern faiths, more and more Americans quietly embraced evangelical Christianity in the 1960s, the beginning of the growth of religious conservatism that would be central to American life in the last quarter of the 20th century.
“People buy things because it makes them feel better,” says Don to Megan after they see a play critical of the consumer culture. “We reject the material world in favor of the recognition of one’s true identity,” says Kinsey to a confused visitor/recruit to his temple. Such were the competing visions of American life in the 1960s. After last week’s Facebook IPO, I don’t need to tell you which vision triumphed.
Sources: America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin (New York, 2012), p. 229-246.