Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.2 (2002) 322-325
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The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism
The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. By Robert William Fogel (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000) 383 pp. $25.00
Although Butler has questioned the appropriateness of the term Great Awakening to refer to the revivals in the eighteenth century, most historians of American religion acknowledge the existence, and the importance, of the First and Second Great Awakenings.1 Occasionally, scholars have tried to identify a third, the most likely candidate being the Urban Revival of 1857/1858—sometimes known as the Businessman's Awakening or the Prayer Meeting Revival—which refitted evangelical theology and practice to the emerging cities. In 1978, William G. McLoughlin published Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977 (Chicago, 1978), which set forth another scheme. The third great awakening, McLoughlin posited, was the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the twentieth century, and he went on to speculate that the counterculture spirituality of the late 1960s and the early 1970s might be the fourth great awakening in American history.
McLoughlin's thesis was certainly provocative, but historians of religion in America found it unpersuasive. On such a slender thread, however, hangs Fogel's The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, which is provocative in its own right. Fogel breezes right past historians' objections to McLoughlin's scheme (though he acknowledges them in a footnote); yet, Fogel is not much interested in revivals [End Page 322] for their own sake. Instead, the religious awakenings in American history provide him with a kind of organizing principle for understanding other cultural shifts—social, political, and economic. "These Great Awakenings are reform movements with an ethical/programmatic phase followed by a legislative/political phase," Fogel writes, "both of which arise out of the lag between technological change and institutional adjustment" (9).
The First Awakening evolved into the American Revolution, he says, and the Second Awakening into the war against slavery. His third awakening "led to the rise of the welfare state and policies to promote diversity" (10). Fogel's fourth great awakening began about 1960, and its political phase was concerned with spiritual reform and "issues of spiritual (immaterial) equity" (12): "Believers in the new religious revival are against sexual debauchery, against indulgence in alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and drugs, against gluttony, and against all other forms of self-indulgence that titillate the senses and destroy the soul." "The leaders of the revival advocate piety and an ethic that extols individual responsibility, hard work, a simple life, and dedication to the family" (18). Evangelicalism, which Fogel mistakenly generalizes as an "enthusiastic religion," is the religious impetus behind his fourth awakening, bringing with it a recovery of the notion of sin and personal responsibility, as well as a revolt against taxes and entitlements.
Not surprisingly, Fogel identifies the Religious Right with the political phase of his fourth great awakening, adopting a highly romanticized view of the movement and its supposed commitment to egalitarianism: "The religious excitement generated by the current revival has energized a number of movements, such as the assault on smoking and the campaigns against violence in the media and against sexual harassment in the workplace" (18). The last, at least, must come as a surprise to feminists, whom leaders of the Religious Right often regard as the minions of Satan (18). Fogel also posits that "the evangelical churches have been the central institution in the elaboration of the egalitarian creed in America, imposing that creed on federal, state, and local governments, and shaping reform programs needed to alter the creed to take account of changes in technology and cultural crisis" (43). That was certainly true of evangelicalism in antebellum America, and even throughout most of the nineteenth century, but the commitment of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and others to any abstract notion of egalitarianism is tenuous at best and certainly debatable. Indeed, one of the tragedies of the Religious Right is...