Following the First World War, the United States went in search of a, “return to normalcy,” which many agreed was exactly what it needed. However, to the dismay of many, all the United States could find was a significant amount of tension that had developed between, “Old America,” and, “New America. ” All in all, this tension that arose between old and new traditions and ideas did so in the form of religion, conflicts within society, and cultural values. Religion was perhaps the biggest source of this tension in America.
The most prominent of this conflict was that between fundamentalists, who interpreted the Bible literally, and modernists who were more readily willing to interpret the Bible more flexibly. The most notable of these conflicts was undoubtedly the Scopes Trial, in which high school biology teacher, John Scopes, was arrested for teaching the theory of evolution, rather than the bible. Document C shows Scope’s attorney, Clarence Darrow, skillfully cross-examining prosecutor and Bible expert, William Jennings Bryan. Darrow’s cross-examination forced Bryan to explicitly state the incredible inflexibility and rigidity of fundamentalist beliefs.
As a result of the trial, which was broadcast across the nation via radio and newspaper, many Americans were more readily willing to consider modernist religious interpretations. Another example of this fundamentalist idea was the WCTU’s arguments against smoking, which is shown in Document G. Although the content of their message is unsurprising, the fact that the religious organization relied upon scientific evidence for its appeal represents the growing respect for science, even in religious circles. Other conflicts, however, also arose within religion.
Aimee Semple Macpherson was simultaneously revered and criticized for her superficial, glamorous religious services, as detailed in part by Document I. Predictably, conservative religious groups condemned her non-traditional preaching style, while more contemporary-minded groups appreciated her efforts to keep Christianity modern. Few can argue that the forerunner of the conflicts within society was the infamous Ku Klux Klan. The KKK, founded during Reconstruction, switched their hatred from African-Americans to all those who differed from them in any way shape or form.
This hatred against others is described in Document D. The KKK took such a strong stance against foreigners because it interpreted that group, even more so than African-Americans, as the most urgent threat to their American way of life. Similarly, the Federal government passed both the Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act to sharply restrict immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, when they weren’t being threatened by the KKK, African-Americans were having an artistic rebirth in the Harlem Renaissance.
Although these artistic contributions are noteworthy, the shift in cultural perceptions is even more telling. In Document E, Langston Hughes articulates the belief that African-Americans should not be ashamed of their heritage, and that, essentially, they are just as American and righteous as any other American. In addition to everything mentioned thus far, were hard-to-define shifts in cultural values. One simple, yet unreal statistic for the time was the increasing divorce rate, which is shown in Document H.
Additionally, Americans had, prior to the 1920s, considered themselves blessed because of their history, thrift, and hard-working nature. With the advent of large-scale mass production in the 1920s, however, Americans began to instead focus on their futures, free-spending, and limitless consumption. Document B perhaps shows an example of this change in idea, with a bridge, supposed to signify the path taken to change motives from past ideals, to new and more important ideals. Older generations often considered younger generations spoiled brats who wasted the technological marvels bestowed upon them.
This tension between careful and free consumption gave rise to the “Lost Generation” of authors. Document A portrays one of these writers in particular, Lewis Sinclair. Sinclair criticized this excessive materialism as “at first the signs, then the substitutes, for joy and passion and wisdom. ” Such criticisms indicate the belief that such mindless consumption blinded Americans to intangible glories of the past. And yet, the conflict between old and new was not insurmountable. Document F describes one of the few people that could connect to both the old and young generations in Charles Lindberg.
The Document goes on to say that his likeability, present in both New and Old America was perhaps the biggest thing that he had done. In the end, no one can dispute that the 1920’s presented seemingly insurmountable tension between, “Old America,” and, “New America,” in terms of religion, social conflicts, and cultural values. This tension was masked in some places by the prosperity, brought on by the roaring twenties, but still remained at large. One good side effect of these tensions was brought about though, in the sense that many precedents, which are still followed today, were established at this time.