HYMNS of the 1980s

For many people in the United States, the late 1970s were a troubled and troubling time.  The radical and countercultural movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, uncertainty in the Middle East and economic crisis at home had undermined Americans’ confidence in their fellow citizens and in their government.  By the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the idealistic dreams of the 1960s were worn down by inflation, foreign policy turmoil and rising crime.  In response, many Americans embraced a new conservatism in social, economic and political life during the 1980s, characterized by the policies of President Ronald Reagan. Often remembered for its materialism and consumerism, the decade also saw the rise of the “yuppie,” an explosion of blockbuster movies, and the emergence of cable networks like MTV, which introduced the music video and launched the careers of many iconic artists.


The populist conservative movement known as the New Right enjoyed unprecedented growth in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It appealed to a diverse assortment of Americans, including evangelical Christians; anti-tax crusaders; advocates of deregulation and smaller markets; advocates of a more powerful American presence abroad; and defenders of an unrestricted free market.

At the beginning of the decade, as the Cold War showed no signs of warming, arms control advocates argued for a “nuclear freeze” agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union.  In 1982, almost a million people rallied in support of the freeze in New York City’s Central Park.  Many historians believe this was the largest mass demonstration in American history.

Historians link the rise of this New Right in part to the growth of the so-called Sunbelt, a mostly suburban and rural region of the Southeast, Southwest and California, where the population began to expand after 2 and exploded during the 1970s.  This demographic shift had important consequences.  Many of the new Sunbelters had migrated from the older industrial cities of the North and Midwest (the “Rust Belt”).  They did so because they had grown tired of the seemingly insurmountable problems facing aging cities, such as overcrowding, pollution and crime.  Maybe, most of all, they were tired of paying high taxes for social programs they did not consider effective and were worried about the stagnating economy.  Many were also frustrated by what they saw as the federal government’s constant, costly and inappropriate interference.  The movement resonated with many citizens who had once supported more liberal policies but who no longer believed the Democratic Party represented their interests.


During and after the 1980 presidential election, these disaffected liberals came to be known as “Reagan Democrats.”  They provided millions of crucial votes for the Republican candidate, the personable and engaging former governor of California,

Ronald Reagan, in his victory over the incumbent Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. Reagan won 51% of the vote and carried all but 5 states and the District of Columbia. Once a Hollywood actor, his outwardly reassuring disposition and optimistic style appealed to many Americans.  Reagan was affectionately nicknamed “the Gipper” for his 1940 film role as a Notre Dame football player named George Gipp.

Reagan’s campaign cast a wide net, appealing to conservatives of all stripes with promises of big tax cuts and smaller government.  Once he took office, he set about making good on his promises to get the federal government out of Americans’ lives and pocketbooks.  He advocated for industrial deregulation, reductions in government spending and tax cuts for both individuals and corporations, as part of an economic plan he and his advisors referred to as “supply-side economics.”  Rewarding success and allowing people with money to keep more of it, the thinking went, would encourage them to buy more goods and invest in businesses.  The resulting economic growth would “trickle down” to everyone.


Like many other American leaders during the Cold War, President Reagan believed the spread of communism anywhere threatened freedom everywhere.  As a result, his administration was eager to provide financial and military aid to anticommunist governments and insurgencies around the world.  This policy, applied in nations including Grenada, El Salvador and Nicaragua, was known as the Reagan Doctrine.

In November 1986, it emerged that the White House had secretly sold arms to Iran in an effort to win the freedom of U.S. hostages in Lebanon, and then diverted money from the sales to Nicaraguan rebels known as the Contras.  The Iran-Contra affair, as it became known, resulted in the convictions – later reversed – of Reagan’s national security adviser, John Poindexter, and Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council.


By early 1982, the United States was experiencing its worst recession since the Great Depression.  9 million people were unemployed in November of that year. Businesses closed, families lost their homes and farmers lost their land.  The economy slowly righted itself, however, and “Reaganomics” grew popular again.  Even the stock market crash of October 1987 did little to undermine the confidence of middle-class and wealthy Americans in the president’s economic agenda.

A majority of Americans still believed in the conservative agenda by the late 1980s.  When Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, he had the highest approval rating of any president since Franklin Roosevelt.  In 1988, Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, soundly defeated Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the presidential election.


In some respects, the popular culture of the 1980s reflected the era’s political conservatism.  For many people, the symbol of the decade was the “yuppie”: a baby boomer with a college education, a well-paying job and expensive taste.  Many people derided yuppies for being self-centered and materialistic, and surveys of young urban professionals across the country showed that they were, indeed, more concerned with making money and buying consumer goods than their parents and grandparents had been.  But, in some ways yuppiedom was less shallow and superficial than it appeared.

Popular television shows like “thirtysomething” and movies like “The Big Chill” and “Bright Lights, Big City” depicted a generation of young men and women who were plagued with anxiety and self-doubt.  They were successful, but they weren’t sure they were happy.

At the movie theater, the 1980s was the age of the blockbuster; movies like “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Return of the Jedi,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Beverly Hills Cop” appealed to moviegoers of all ages and made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.  The 1980s was also the heyday of the teen movie; films like “The Breakfast Club,” “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Pretty in Pink” are still popular today.

At home, people watched family sitcoms like “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties,” “Roseanne” and “Married…with Children.”  They also rented movies to watch on their new VCRs.  By the end of the 1980s, 60% of American television owners got cable service–and the most revolutionary cable network of all was MTV, which made its debut on August 1, 1981.  The music videos the network played made stars out of bands like Duran Duran and Culture Club and made megastars out of artists like Michael Jackson, whose elaborate “Thriller” video helped sell 600,000 albums in the 5 days after its first broadcast.  MTV also influenced fashion: people across the country (and around the world) did their best to copy the hairstyles and fashions they saw in music videos.  In this way, artists like Madonna became fashion icons.

As the decade wore on, MTV also became a forum for those who went against the grain or were left out of the yuppie ideal.  Rap artists such as Public Enemy channeled the frustration of urban African Americans.  Heavy metal acts such as Metallica and Guns N’ Roses also captured the sense of malaise among young people, particularly young men.  Even as Reagan maintained his popularity, popular culture continued to be an arena for dissatisfaction and debate throughout the 1980s.

What about Church Music?

Many churches began to transition from traditional hymns to the praise and worship choruses from the 70′s and 80′s.  The theology of some of these songs may not have been as deep as the theology from the traditional hymns, but the worship became more personal.  And the unchurched were able to relate to the music of the 1970s & 80s more than they could the traditional hymns; music became an open door to the communities around many churches.

Church historians have tried to determine exactly how this shift took place… and why the 1980s & 90s were the time that was ripe for this shift.  Did it have something to do with the evangelical young people during the Reagan Era?  Christian rock and roll music began with the Jesus People in the late 1960s and early 70s, but by the 1980s, so-called Christian contemporary music really took off.

Was it the rise of Christian radio stations?  Was it a regional phenomenon (the CCM world of the 1980s was based in Nashville)?  Was it an attempt to bring the music of the Jesus People into mainstream evangelicalism at a time when evangelicals were taking center stage in the political culture?  Did it have something to do with the Jesus people growing up, or a general turn within American evangelicalism to a sort of middle-class conservatism (the music of the 1980s certainly lost a lot of the counter-cultural edge of the Jesus music of the 1970s)?  Were these musicians in the 1980s just reflecting – or copying – changes taking place in the larger music world?

1980…           Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow; He Is Exalted

1981…            All Hail King Jesus; Glorify Thy Name; Majesty; You Are My Hiding Place;                                    I Will Call Upon the Lord

1982…           Change My Heart, O God; More Precious Than Silver; Great Is the Lord;                                          There Is a Redeemer

1983…           Holy Ground; People Need the Lord; I Exalt Thee

1984…           We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise; As the Deer Panteth for the Water

1987…           I Stand in Awe of You; Shine, Jesus, Shine

1988…           Awesome God

1989…           Lord, I Lift Your Name on High


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