How Much Better Were Things in the "Good Old Days?"

This column is devoted to countering assertions made by the Religious Right. As with all articles in this newsletter, response is welcome. We will begin by examining what is perhaps the central assertion of all conservative religious/political movements.

Assertion of the Religious Right: Society today is worse off than it used to be. Things were better in the "good old days."

Counter: Exactly when were the "good old days?" In one episode of the TV series, Dave, his wife tells him, "I just want our kids to grow up in the same world we did." To which Dave replies, "You want our kids to grow up in a world with bomb shelters, polio, and separate drinking fountains?"

There may have been prayer in school back then, but there were also lynch mobs, communist "witch hunts," segregation, open anti-semitism and Catholic-bashing. There was child abuse and spousal abuse, but it went mostly unreported, unnoticed, unpunished. And it was OK then to bar women and people of color from various professions and to pay them far less than their due in any work situation. Were those the "good old days?"

Maybe the "good old days" existed at some unspecified time PRIOR TO THE FIRST TWO WORLD WARS, when...genocide was practiced on Indian tribes, Blacks were enslaved, the Civil War set "brother against brother," and the Wild West flaunted its lack of law and order.

Even up to the turn of the century New York and other big cities had annual increases in crime that exceeded today's, poor families could not afford an education for their children, children labored in factories, mines, and fields, the child mortality rate was exceedingly high, wife-beating was a commonly accepted practice, the average lifespan was between thirty to forty years shorter than today, heroin was sold over the counter as a sedative for coughs, and cocaine was sold as a toothache remedy for children.

"Women and children worked in sweatshops and mills 12 hours and more a day [with only one day off per week] for nickels and dimes, without health insurance, unemployment compensation, safety in the workplace, and with a status a notch above slavery. It happened in this century. The Hard Right fought tooth and nail and wallet against child-labor laws, safety in the workplace and minimum wage and hour laws. They lost. Not until the 1950s and a bitter battle in the state legislature did North Carolina manage to enact a 75-cent- an-hour minimum wage law."
-- Gary Kays, "Rush Limbaugh and the Dole," Flush Rush Quarterly, Vol. 2, no. 2 (Summer 1994)

Meanwhile, in the northeast, the late Cardinal O'Connell of Boston bitterly opposed the abolition of child labor in factories.

Perhaps, when all the numbers are tallied, there was less "street crime" or "neighborhood crime" during the "good old days," mentioned above. On the other hand, it's also true that far fewer people could even afford objects worth stealing back then. And most people were compelled to work from childhood to adulthood, dawn till dusk, just to earn enough money to continue living. Many people were treated as little more than "wage-slaves," being abused by factory owners during the industrial revolution, or by farmer land barons, in which case, the system itself was guilty of perpetrating countless "criminal" actions on vast numbers of people, "stealing" their lives and labor, returning "next to nothing" in exchange. From today's perspective, such a situation equals "crime" on a tremendous and pitiless scale.

Obviously, the "good old days" do not exist, except in the imaginations of those whose knowledge of history is shallow. Such people should broaden their minds by reading the following books:

Otto L. Bettmann, The Good Old Days -- They Were Terrible! (New York: Random House, 1974). Discusses the terrible shape of society during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were (New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 1993). Examines two centuries of American family life and banishes the misconception about an "ideal" past that clouds the current debate.

Maeve E. Doggett, Marriage, Wife- Beating and the Law in Victorian England (1993). Not until 1891 was it illegal for a British man to beat and imprison his wife.

Were those the "good old days?"

During the "good old days" of the COLONIAL ERA on the North American continent, Puritan preachers referred to Native Americans as "Amelkites and Canaanites" -- in other words, people, who, if they would not be converted, were worthy of annihilation. Even Maryland's famous "Act Concerning Religion," passed in 1649, which supposedly instituted "freedom of religion" for the first time in an American colony, stated in its first section that any person who blasphemed God, denied that Jesus was the Savior and Son of God, denied the Trinity, or uttered "reproachful" words concerning the Trinity "or any of the three persons therein," would be executed and forfeit their estates.

Citizenship rights were denied to American colonists who were not Christian church members. Dancing was rated by several Protestant denominations as an unforgivable sin. Any defamer of the Bible could be jailed for blasphemy. Baptist evangelists were persecuted by order of civil laws in the colony of Virginia, a state that only recognized the Anglican church as the one true church. In Salem, Massachusetts they hung people who were accused of being "witches." And four Quakers were hung in Massachusetts merely for being Quakers!

I also suggest reading Richard Shenkman, "The Good Old Days" (a chapter that covers the colonial era of American history) in "I Love Paul Revere Whether He Rode or Not" -- Warren Harding (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), pp. 158- 164.

Were those the "good old days?"

Let's journey further back to the MIDDLE AGES AND REFORMATION. Maybe those were the "good old days?" In only two years (1348-1350 A.D.) the Black Death (bubonic plague) killed as much as half the population of Europe. Also during the Middle Ages and Reformation, millions of people (mostly women) were burned at the stake for being "witches or heretics." Christian magistrates employed torture, and executed those who did not acknowledge whatever particular version of Christian faith was sanctioned by the state. In Saxony in 1536, Melanchthon prepared, and Luther signed, a document demanding the death penalty for denial of any article in the Apostle's Creed. In the years 1618-1648 A.D. the Catholic and Protestant nations of Europe engaged in Thirty Years of Warfare, which left a quarter of the population of Europe dead. Were those the "good old days?"

Let's journey further back, to the CHRISTIANIZED ROMAN EMPIRE, when Christians took their beliefs just as seriously as today's Religious Right, even moreso. After Christians obtained the reins of government of the Roman Empire they began to persecute (and even execute) pagans; they outlawed pagan religious practices and pagan schools of philosophy; they destroyed pagan works of art and pagan temples; they burnt the Serapaeum of the Library at Alexandria; they coerced pagans in the tens of thousands to undergo baptism; they made it illegal for pagans to leave a will; they separated pagan children from their parents in order to have the children raised in Christian homes; and they rioted in the streets, Christians declaiming Christians, over their theological differences of opinion (since "correct theology" was what "really" mattered). But even with all the prayers, activism, and governmental sanctions of the "Religious Right" during the days of the Christianized Roman Empire, that Empire fell. So why should anyone believe that letting the Religious Right dictate the future of America is the correct "solution" to today's complex problems? Only people ignorant of history can believe such a thing.

"There were systematic massacres [of pagans]. One ordered by [Christian emperor] Theodosius in 380 in Thessalonica was unique. The pagans were invited to `games' at the Circus. The entrances were blocked and the soldiers of Theodosius killed 15,000 women and children for the true glory of Christ...[In another memorable incident, the female Greek philosopher and mathematician, Hypatia, was dragged from her school by a band of monks who stripped her naked in the street, killed her in a church, cut her corpse up and scraped her flesh off it with shells. --ed.]

"Persecutions [of non-Christians] were so intense that within a very short span of time 70,000 persons were forcibly baptized in Asia Minor alone...

"The [Christian] zealots for conversion took to the streets or criss- crossed the countryside, destroying no doubt more of the [pagan] architectural and artistic treasure of their world than any passing barbarians thereafter."

-- Ramsay MacMullen, chapters 10 and 11, "Conversion by Coercion," and, "Summary," in Christianizing the Roman Empire (Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 86-120.

"Like all creeds which claim the total allegiance of the individual like communism, for example, in our own day - - early Christianity was a powerful divisive force. Every town and every house, says Eusebius, is divided by a civil war waged between Christians and idolaters. Justin tells of a Christian wife who was denounced by her pagan husband; Tertullian speaks of cases where wives have been repudiated or sons disinherited for turning Christian; in Perpetua's account of her relations with her father we see how a family could be torn asunder by religious differences. For such situations the blame was naturally laid on the Christian missionaries. Celsus has an illuminating passage, too long to quote, about Christians who get hold of pagan children, encourage them to disobey their fathers and schoolmasters, and lure them into Christian coventicles; often they work on the womenfolk as well. Origen does not deny that this happens; and Jerome later paints an equally unfavorable picture of fanatical monks who worm themselves into the homes of the aristocracy and exploit the guilt-feelings of women. Christianity, like communism, was a domestic trouble- maker."
--E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian In An Age of Anxiety (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1970), pp. 115-116.

"To the contention by [the pagan philosopher] Celsus that Christians took children away from their parents,...Origin [the Christian apologist] could only respond that Christians did not lure children away from better things or incite them to worse things. This was a lame argument, one that could hardly have appeased a pagan who cherished family life and worked hard to give his children a good education and a place in society. In this case, Origen's near admission of guilt may only have confirmed many suspicions held by pagans that Christianity was by and large a disruptive force."

-- Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 157.

"The first time that `Christians were put to death by other Christians' (S.L. Greenslade, Schism in the Early Church [London: S.C.M., 1953], p. 189) was right after the imperial peace, under [the first Christian emperor,] Constantine...

"Even during the persecutions [of the Romans against the Christians], churches were cleft by rivalry and schism."

-- Samuel Laeuchli, The Serpent and the Dove: Five Essays on Early Christianity (New York: Abingdon Press, 1966), p. 48.

"[Murderous riots broke out between Christians over the appointment of Arian bishops who believed that Christ was the exact `image' of God, but not of the same `substance.'] Probably more Christians were slaughtered by Christians in two years (A.D. 342-3) than by all the persecutions of Christians by pagans in the history of Rome."

-- Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 4, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950) [Durant cites Socrates, Ecclesiastical History (London: 1892), ii, 7-11.]

Were those the "good old days?"

Bertrand Russell once pointed out that the early Church Fathers busied themselves discussing "how to preserve virginity" while the Christianized Roman Empire continued to decline around them (the overall process took several centuries). The wide variety of concrete "worldy" problems that contributed to the decline of the Christianized Roman Empire were not recognized and dealt with as they should have been. Instead, they were either blamed on Satan, praised as "signs of Jesus' soon return," or ignored. Today's Religious Right appear to be reacting in a similar fashion to many of today's problems.

Of course today's problems are not blamed on "Satan" so much as on "the lack of prayer in school," "secular humanism," "New Age thinking," "homosexuals," etc. It's obviously simpler to blame today's problems on such scapegoats, and then persecute the scapegoats, rather than intellectually struggle with genuine problems which are all so complex -- problems like cleaning up the environment, putting more people to work, maintaining a fair salary for a day's work, raising the educational level of the country, etc. For those interested in delving deeper into the history of the Christianized Roman Empire, I suggest reading:

Edward Gibbon, On Christianity (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1991 -- a reprint of chapters 15 and 16 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).

Joseph McCabe, "How Christianity `Triumphed,'" in The Myth of the Resurrection and Other Essays (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1993 --a reprint of an essay first published in 1926), pp. 119-168.

Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher, Theophrastus, wrote: "The idle chatterer is the sort who says that people nowadays are much more wicked than they used to be." (Ethical Characters, circa 300 B.C.) Such idle chatter did not originate with the Religious Right. It has been with us for thousands of years. But, having the history from the past few thousand years at our disposal, people of our generation should know better than to idly chatter that we were much better off in the "good old days."

See also, the Chicago Tribune Magazine, November 20, 1994 (which is "Section 10" of The Chicago Tribune newspaper) which contains a three page article (pp. 19-21) advertised on the cover of the magazine, "Behind the Scary Headlines is a World Filled With GOOD NEWS."


  1. And i pretty much stopped reading around the 3rd paragraph.
    Another idiot who only sees the bad stuff...
    At least back then, despite the bad stuff, things were worth it, nowadays not so much...

  2. Statistics don't lie: life expectancy, disease, segregation, racism, technology, media(would you imagine posting a comment in some strango-lookin keiboarded TV some 30 years ago?). There are also things that got worse, it's true, but in a general way today's life is better than yesterday, independantly of we had been happier yesterday, and also, today's times are the good old days of tomorrow.