Who were the defenders of the social order circa 1960? Let’s look at one particular art form: movies and television. Since the 1960s, these have become agents of moral anarchy, but it wasn’t always so. Writers and directors have always pushed the boundary Left, but before the sixties, their aggression was severely constrained. Everyone knows the sob story: once upon a time, there were these awful people called “censors” who wouldn’t give writers their freedom. Back then, they had to make crap like Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life, whereas now that the censors are gone, artists are free to produce masterpieces like Showgirls and Kill Bill. Yes, people actually believe this. Who were these censors, though? They didn’t work for the government; they worked for the studios. Who, then, pressured the studios to censor their own writers and directors? For pressure it was; an organized social movement had promised to make it financially (and perhaps eventually legally) ruinous for them to promote immorality or to produce nudity, blasphemy, or the like.
The strongest and most visible pro-censorship lobby was the Legion of Decency. Nowadays, most people don’t know much about the Legion—just that it was an awful assault on our freedom and something Catholics should be deeply ashamed of. In fact, it was one of the most libertarian and democratic activities in American history. In essence, a large group of people took a solemn and public oath not to watch filth:
I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land. … Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.
This group, together with those of similar opinion, was big enough to convince the studios that it was not in their interests to dump sewage into the culture. The consumer had spoken, and for once he spoke the moral truth. Everyone should be proud of this moment in cultural history.
Who was the organizing force behind the Legion? Academia, artists, and the media naturally hated it. Since America was at this time a Protestant country, a good guess would be the mainline Protestant churches. At one time this would have been a good guess, since historically the Protestants have done a good job of holding the moral line. The 1950s American mainline, though, was not manned by the likes of John Calvin, Archbishop Laud, or Jonathan Edwards. They were too interested in “social justice” (i.e. cowtowing to the communists) and debunking the Gospels to worry about philistine things like the state of the culture. They left that dirty work to the Catholics.
In fact, the Legion of Decency was founded in 1933 as the Catholic Legion of Decency by Archbishop John McNicholas of Cincinnati. It was renamed a year later to attract a smattering of Protestants and Jews. In response to largely Catholic pressure, the studios adopted in 1934 the Production (“Hayes”) Code, which had actually been drafted back in 1930 by Father Daniel Lord, S.J. The Production Code was, by modern standards, quite strict, and the Legion’s standards were even more so. For three decades, every movie had to follow the Hayes Code, and there was strong pressure to appease the Legion. Even when a movie failed to meet the Legion’s standards of decency, the attempts to accommodate it led to the movie being far more “decent” than it otherwise would have been.
When we turn from movies to the more general culture, what do we find? (See next time.)
Filed under: How we got to this point