Subversive Suburban Subcultures
Mass-produced, sprawling, generic: These descriptors have come to be associated with what was once a utopian vision realized in planned communities such as Levittown, New York; Reston, Virginia; and Seaside, Florida. Although suburban towns are popularly depicted as straitlaced cookie-cutter colonies of conformity, in reality unconventional subcultures have flourished outside our cities for generations. This map uncovers little-known truths and prevailing myths associated with suburban subversives and reveals their organized and diverse discipleship.
The modern roots of megachurches—generally nondenominational evangelical congregations of at least 2,000 members—can be traced to the 1970s and the growth of suburban sprawl. Fast-expanding, spread-out residential communities often lack a civic, social and recreational center, and these large church campuses have aimed to fill that gap by offering the sacred equivalent of one-stop shopping. Mall-like houses of worship—part Cineplex, part big-box retailer—provide a range of programs, particularly for young people, from multimedia Bible study to tae kwon do classes to Little League baseball to live pop-music shows. These enticements encourage would-be disaffected mall rats to be compliant megachurch mice instead.
Combining business savvy and evangelical ambition, megachurches have won a large share of the American religious market by using cutting-edge technology and offering personal-development programs and missionary theatrics for the 21st century.
For many suburban teenagers, the shopping mall is the new village commons, with a food court and studded fingerless gloves. The mall has been a hangout for unsupervised packs of adolescents since the mid-1970s, spurred by the development of American youth culture and the growth of consumerism and conspicuous consumption. As a place to test boundaries of adult authority by running up the down escalator or smoking cigarettes in the parking lot, the mall is often more a site of mischief making than major spending. For those alienated teens who do want to drop some hard-earned babysitting cash, however, there’s mall mainstay chain Hot Topic, which sells alternawares such as body jewelry, fishnets, music T-shirts and carefully torn jeans, among many other clothes and accessories. The irony that Hot Topic sells mass-produced goods to kids who identify with subcultures like Goth, emo and punk is not lost on purists of nonconformity, who criticize the retailer for merchandising a rebellious lifestyle to the consumer mainstream.
Gay Talese’s 1980 book Thy Neighbor’s Wife explores changes in suburban American sexual mores through detailed reporting on 1970s free-love nonconformity, depicting ordinary couples whose pleasure-seeking experimentation leads them to massage parlors and secluded nudist communes like Sandstone, outside Los Angeles. Ang Lee’s 1997 film The Ice Storm revisits this era, showing disaffected suburbanites participating in a neighborhood key party: The men place their car keys in a common bowl and the women randomly choose a set and, by extension, their sexual partner for the night.
Once known as wife swapping but now commonly referred to as swinging, this alternative lifestyle of consensual nonmonogamous sex comprises mainly middle-class, middle-aged otherwise mainstream couples. According to the North American Swing Club Association, 15 percent of all U.S. couples have incorporated some swinging into their marriage. Swingers have consequently become big business, with dedicated vacation sites and cruises, yearly conferences and seminars, and home-based “pleasure parties” selling DVDs, costumes and other products. These business ventures resist the stereotype of the seedy sex shop with blacked-out windows and legitimize a lifestyle that proponents say improves the overall happiness of a marriage.
To watch the tearful confessions and appeals for forgiveness of former megachurch pastors Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard and others who preached forcefully against myriad “sins of the flesh” only to be themselves disgraced in extramarital scandals is to witness a depiction of sexuality, guilt and sinful desire in a vividly conventional American Protestant context. But there are less straitlaced citizens on the swingers-to-megachurches continuum.
The cultish, polyamoristic movement Children of God, now known as the Family, offered a timely blend of apocalyptic, antiestablishment Christianity and free love when it was founded in Huntington Beach, California, in 1968. Members lived and loved communally while performing acts of evangelism including “flirty fishing” and “hooking for Jesus”: Female church members were encouraged to show God’s love by having sex with outsiders as a form of missionary work and fund-raising for the group.
Today many self-identified Christian swingers see their lifestyle as a liberated, guilt-free choice eschewing the moralizing restrictions of traditional religious belief and embracing sexual freedom and fellowship. The Liberated Christians support group, based in Phoenix, Arizona, argues that no biblical basis exists for “traditions of sexual repression” like monogamy and that churches promote distorted views of sexuality and intimacy.
Burly, bearded, leather-clad: The outlaw biker symbolizes modern alienation, middle-class nonconformity and opposition to authority. The history of outlaw motorcycle clubs began with sensationalized accounts of a 1947 biker “riot” in Hollister, California, where reports of drunk, rowdy bikers caused a media frenzy and birthed a myth. The first Hells Angels chapter was formed the following year, and as more outlaw clubs, such as the Pagans and the Bandidos, came into being, negative portrayals of this subculture proliferated. Government and law-enforcement reports, newsmagazine features and Hollywood films—The Wild One (1953), The Wild Angels (1966), Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) and Werewolves on Wheels (1971) offer a range of interpretive examples—depicted the outlaw biker as bad to the bone and evil to the core.
Since the 1980s, however, this demonic image has been reformed, and we now view such groups more as campy caricatures than real menaces. Yesterday’s outlaws are today’s weekend warriors: white-collar suburbanites getting their ya-yas out on the open road when they’re off the clock. Cable television may be the outlaw biker’s new home—to both the unreconstructed (in the FX crime series Sons of Anarchy) and the rehabilitated (in the Discovery Channel reality show American Chopper).
Two seemingly discordant and extremist realms—bikers and born-agains—come together to promote the word of God from the back of a hog. One of the first and best-organized groups, the Christian Motorcyclists Association, is a well-oiled evangelical machine founded in 1975 and operating throughout the U.S. and more than 25 other countries. According to its website, the CMA has more than a thousand chapters in the U.S. and more than 150,000 members. It promotes ministry to the motorcycling community, including many weekend suburban bikers looking to infuse their conventional lives with some adventure.
Another group, the Unchained Gang, is composed of recovering addicts and ex-cons who have exchanged violence and addiction for fervent and theatrical public-witnessing spectacles. Documentary photographer Rich Remsberg explores this subculture in his book Riders for God (2000), advertised as beautifully capturing “the ironic juxtaposition of tattoos, leather vests and the iconography of the biker world with the Christian practices of Bible study, speaking in tongues and praying at an altar.”
Despite studies that claim Wicca is the country's fastest-growing religion, many practitioners—from stay-at-home moms to teen honor students—live conventional lives and keep their beliefs in the proverbial “broom closet.” Wiccans are pained to point out that they are not satanists and do not believe in Satan. Popular culture (not to mention evangelical and nondenominational Protestant Christianity) is barely paying attention.
Even when not expressly equating Wiccans with witches and satanists, as in the 1973 made-for-TV movie Satan’s School for Girls (in which a girl enrolls at an exclusive boarding school to investigate her sister’s suspicious death and uncovers a satanic coven led by a popular teacher), Hollywood still manages to confuse Wicca and satanism. There are some notable exceptions, in particular the television show Charmed (1998–2006), which, though entirely fictional, presents a sympathetic depiction of Wicca (if not of the warlocks, demons and other “evil ones” the comely protagonists Prue, Piper and Phoebe frequently battle). Evil ones aside, Wiccans do not believe in or worship an evil supernatural being called the Devil or Satan. Rather, Wiccans are generally neo-pagan pantheists who practice ritual magic.
Bewitched is a television comedy series (1964–1972) about a witch trying her darnedest to be the perfect suburban housewife. Bewitched? is a cartoonishly illustrated evangelical tract by Jack Chick warning against pop-culture witches: “Haw Haw,” says Satan, shown in the pamphlet as sitting on a flaming throne, watching Bewitched, “So disarming…yet so effective!” Since 1960 Chick has created hundreds of “Chick Tracts” preoccupied with salvation, hell, sin and the occult. In keeping with widely held evangelical beliefs, Chick doesn’t distinguish between Wicca and satanism; he has depicted Satan using Wicca, rock music and the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons to trick people into hell.
Not all Protestants share his bias. A 2006 editorial, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Wicca,” in Christianity Today (the magazine founded by megachurch pioneer Billy Graham) reports sympathetically on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ denial of a widow’s request for a Wiccan pentacle on her soldier husband’s headstone: “Whatever one’s opinion might be about the Wiccan faith, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution provides for religious freedom for all individuals of all faiths—whether they are Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Wiccans and others.”
In 2007 household products giant Procter & Gamble was awarded more than $19 million by its competitor Amway, the world’s largest direct sales and multilevel-marketing organization. In the case that came to be known as the satanic rumor suit, a Utah jury found four Amway distributors had spread false information when they claimed P&G’s president had appeared on the TV talk shows of Phil Donahue, Jenny Jones and Sally Jesse Raphael and announced his company’s affiliation with the Church of Satan (founded in 1966 by Anton LaVey). In fact, the P&G urban legend went through several incarnations before Amway added grist to the rumor mill. Believers point to the company’s man-in-the-moon logo, claiming that the 13 stars connect to form 666 and that the man’s curled beard also shapes sixes. Although the origin of the P&G myth is unknown, rumors about other devilish CEOs have circulated among consumers over the years. Clothing designer Liz Claiborne and McDonald’s tycoon Ray Kroc were both said to have tithed the Church of Satan.
Derek Ford, perhaps the best-known director of low-budget British sexploitation films, achieved notoriety with The Wife Swappers (1970), Keep It Up, Jack! (1973) and Sex Express (1975). Ford’s 1971 mockumentary Secret Rites delivers a fascinating blend of sex and witchcraft, documentary and fiction (or at least fiction). Secret Rites and the 1972 supernatural sexploitation film Virgin Witch, directed by Ray Austin, may have been the first expressions of a shadowy aspect to the 1970s post–sexual revolution, suburban alternate-lifestyle zeitgeist—an era that concluded with the satanic ritual abuse scare of the 1980s and a general backlash in favor of yuppies, traditional values and a more conservative society. Before that backlash, however, and before the sexual revolution, there was 1960s Las Vegas and Hollywood, and the protoswinger group known as the Rat Pack, which included, among other stars, Frank Sinatra and the multitalented performer Sammy Davis Jr. Davis enjoyed active membership in the Church of Satan, explaining in his 1989 memoir, Why Me?, “However bizarre the subject, I don’t pass judgment until I have found out everything I can about it. People who can put up an interesting case will often find that I’m a willing convert.”