Did Mad Men Get Religion?

Religion never registered in this season's installment of Mad Men, but it didn't need to. The implications of faith, morality and Protestant privilege echoed through the episodes.
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Religion never registered in this season's installment of Mad Men. It didn't need to. The implications of faith, morality and Protestant privilege echoed through the episodes, delineating expectations about work and family, gender roles and even child-rearing. Off-screen in 1965, the Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut upheld women's right to contraception, the Rolling Stones spread "Satisfaction" and the Roman Catholic Church absolved present-day Jews for the crucifixion. LBJ declared the Great Society, Vietnam escalated and Watts burned. In each instance religious tropes and taboos that had seemed immutable were summarily overturned.

Key among these sacred cows was the assumption -- or, more pointedly, the implicit article of faith -- that everyone and everything had a preordained place in the divine scheme of things. The Bible didn't exactly say so but it was there, if you read between the lines, in Paul's admonitions to women to be silent in public, in justifications for slavery, in the curse of Ham, in the commandment to honor parents (children who disobeyed were stoned), in David's taking of Bathsheba and in the many stories of male headship and female submission. For generations of American Protestant men who had understood themselves to be God's Chosen Ones, the implications were clear: White men rule.

But by the mid-60s, that comfortable consensus was cracking. Barriers dramatically fell in seemingly insignificant contexts: a seat on the bus, an oral contraceptive, a "raggedy-ass" country in Southeast Asia. Suddenly, even the smallest acts had consequences -- a theme that Mad Men creator Matt Weiner says is central to the show.

In 1960, Don Draper never seemed fully comfortable with Rachel Menken, the Jewish department store heiress with whom he had an affair. Seeing her as another "Other," his uncomfortable kinship climaxed with a surprising proposal that they run away together. But five years later, Faye Miller's Jewish identity barely rates a mention. When she compliments Don's handsome punim (Yiddish for "face"), Don barely arches an eyebrow. Could it be that the Herbergian trinity -- Protestant, Catholic, Jew -- has, 10 years after the publication Herberg's seminal book, finally taken hold?

But even though Faye's religious heritage has not prevented her from working with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (remember the discomfort when Miss Mencken sought to hire Don's old firm instead of a Jewish one?), her gender remains an issue. To differentiate herself from the "girls" in the secretarial pool, she insists on being called "Doctor," dresses professionally (jackets, no cleavage) and discourages, at least for most of the season, flirtations or sexual banter.

Faye, like the other women in the series, follows a script with stage direction taken from the Bible. It's not just the Madonna/Magdalene divide. Despite the physical expectations set up by the characters, the bodacious Joan is far from a whore and the virginal Peggy is anything but chaste. Their images belie their capabilities: both women see -- and usually play -- office politics better than their male co-workers. But an ingrained religious worldview makes it hard for them to be anything but handmaids and helpmeets. Both break barriers by surpassing the expectations of the mad men. Nonetheless, they're still shackled to gender roles.

But Peggy and Joan have it easy compared to the wives. Betty, Jane and Trudy are stuck playing Mary and Martha. Expected to keep house and content themselves caring for children, redecorating the living room and servicing their husbands, they have little to do but shop or quietly go crazy. When the Aquarian Age finally dawns, how many of these anesthetized women will turn on, tune in and drop out? Will others read Mary Daly, enroll in an Episcopal seminary or learn to worship the Goddess?

Today, as it was in the 1960s, the upper echelons of Madison Avenue don't take religion seriously. It's useful for networking, stereotyping and marketing, but its impact is limited to what's useful in boardrooms or traded in bedrooms. Looking back on Don Draper's world, we can see how misguided that assumption was. The civil rights movement, the pro-life campaign, the rise of the religious right, the growth of Islamic nationalism and the crusade for GLBT equality touched more lives than any campaign for Honda or Lucky Strikes could ever hope to do. How many reporters, like the mad men in Sterling Cooper Draper Price, likewise miss what's right in front of them?

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