The framework for this book by economic historian Robert William Fogel, 1993 Nobel Prize–winner in economics, is borrowed, as the author fully acknowledges, from a work published in 1978: Revivals, Awakenings, and Reforms, written by the late William G. McLoughlin, a history professor at Brown University. To understand Fogel’s book, it turns out, a quick survey of McLoughlin’s is first needed.
McLoughlin identified five “awakenings” (or religious revitalization movements) in American history. The first was the Puritan awakening, which began in England in 1610 and lasted till 1640. The settlements of New England and, at least in part, Virginia were aspects of that movement. The second was the famous “Great Awakening” (1730–1760) associated with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Third, in McLoughlin’s telling, was what is more commonly known as the “Second Great Awakening” (1800–1830). (The numbering becomes a little confusing at this point, since most historians have not, with McLoughlin, counted the early Puritan movement as an “awakening.” They start counting with Edwards and Whitefield, while McLoughlin starts counting with Plymouth Rock.)
If the First Great Awakening was Calvinistic, the Second Great Awakening was Arminian. The former stressed human “inability,” while the latter stressed man’s freedom, his capacity to cooperate with God in the work of the soul’s salvation. Small wonder such a development took place in a nation that had just won its independence from a great power and was now self–confidently engaged in settling a continent. If Americans could achieve this much, couldn’t they at least lend a hand when God tries to save their souls?
The fourth revival was called by McLoughlin “the Third Great Awakening” (1890–1920). This was the age of the Social Gospel. If the Great Awakening was Calvinist and the Second Great Awakening Arminian, this Third Awakening was downright liberal and modernist. It was modernist in the theological sense, accommodating to evolutionary theory and German higher criticism. But it was modernist in a social–political sense as well. Earlier awakenings had emphasized the spiritual transformation that must take place within the individual soul. The Third Awakening focused on material conditions. How can we expect men and women to lead Christian lives in circumstances of poverty, slum housing, excessive working hours, dangerous working conditions, periodic unemployment, poor schooling for their children, and so forth? If the Second Awakening called on sinners to give up drink, the Third called on society to eliminate conditions that drive men to drink.
Each of the great awakenings, McLoughlin argues, had important political consequences. The first paved the way for the American Revolution, the second gave rise to the abolition movement, and the third supplied the moral and intellectual basis for Progressivism and the New Deal.
The Fourth Great Awakening, McLoughlin says, began about 1960 and—since all previous awakenings had a life span of thirty years—could be expected to run until 1990. (Re member, McLoughlin was writing in 1978, in the middle of the journey.) If the Third Awakening, being modernist, veered some distance from traditional Christian orthodoxy, the Fourth made no pretense of being Christian at all. McLoughlin identifies this awakening with the great American cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, its beginning in the San Francisco Beat movement, followed by the explosion of interest in Zen and other Eastern religious alternatives. Then came “experimental life–styles associated with drugs, the hippies, the practice of occultism, and rock concerts.” The famous Woodstock concert of 1969 was a kind of sacramental event for the Fourth Awakening, analogous to the revivalistic camp meeting of earlier awakenings.
In his own book, Fogel makes a number of changes to McLoughlin’s thesis, though keeping the basic framework. For one, he omits the first revival, the Puritan Awakening; instead he starts counting with the Great Awakening. More importantly, he argues that the time period for each of the awakenings is much longer, so that the tail end of one overlaps with the beginning of the next. He then divides each of the these more protracted movements into three phases: what McLoughlin would call the awakening itself, Fogel thinks is only the first phase, that of religious revival. Once the people are stirred in their souls they push the moral implications of the revival onto the nation’s political agenda. At the end of each episode, the dominance of that political program is effectively challenged. In other words: Phase I, the religious revival proper; Phase II, the political revolution; Phase III, the decline and fall of both.
Thus the First Great Awakening runs from 1730 to 1820. This is divided into Phase I, the religious revival (1730–60); Phase II, the American Revolution (1760–90); and Phase III, the breakup of the revolutionary coalition (1790–1820). The Second Great Awakening lasts from 1800 to 1920: Phase I, the religious revival (1800–40); Phase II, abolitionism, Civil War, etc. (1840–70); Phase III, Darwinian crisis, urban crisis (1870–1920). The Third Great Awakening began in 1890 and has not yet ended: Phase I, religious revival (1890–1930); Phase II, New Deal, civil rights movement, feminism (1890–1970); Phase III, conservatives gains, liberal losses (1970–not yet ended).
The most significant departure Fogel makes from McLoughlin’s scheme is in his characterization of the religious nature of the Fourth Awakening (1960 to present). For McLoughlin, this was “leftist” and non–Christian (even anti–Christian); its typical heroes were Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and Janis Joplin. For Fogel it is “rightist” and predominantly Evangelical Protestant. It began in 1960 with the rise of conservative Protestantism and still hasn’t ended. The political stage really began in 1990 with the rise of the pro–life, pro–family, and media re form movements on a truly massive scale; its political decline has not yet begun. Its agenda is not sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Rather it is to end abortion and to prevent gay marriage. Its typical heroes are Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed.
Now it is not clear that Fogel’s revision of McLoughlin gets the story right. A great cultural–spiritual up heaval did take place in America beginning in the 1960s, dominated by antinomians who proclaimed personal liberty as the supreme moral value (hence the drug revolution, the sexual revolution, the abortion revolution, etc.). Then a conservative Protestant counterrevolution began (the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, the Promise Keepers, and so on). The culture war between these two parties is still going on; it remains far from clear which will prevail, if either. Fogel breaks from McLoughlin’s view without explaining why, and shows us no good reason to take it for granted that the conservative religious party will prevail.
American politics, as well as the culture from which this politics springs, has always, says Fogel, held equality to be a paramount value. In the earlier part of the nation’s history, when the United States was still a predominantly agricultural country, this value took the form of “equality of opportunity.” But a change took place as the nation industrialized and urbanized; equality of opportunity was no longer sufficient. Hence the political agenda of the Third Awakening (i.e., twentieth century liberalism) was informed by what Fogel calls “modern egalitarianism”—the belief in “equality of condition.”
In recent decades, however, the redistributionist ethic of liberalism has declined in public acceptance. Why? Largely, Fogel argues, because of its success, i.e., because equality of condition has to a great degree been achieved. It may not look that way if we measure equality in money terms, since in America we still have vast disparities of income and wealth. However, Fogel points out, nowadays ordinary Americans have a purchasing power that only the wealthy possessed a century ago; we still have relative deprivation, true, but almost no absolute poverty. Just as important, and perhaps even more so, thanks to improved diet and medicine, we live longer, we live more healthily, and we have more energy to devote to work and play. A small percentage of the populace still lags behind, of course, and that needs to be worked on. But most of us have just about everything we really need in terms of material and biological goods.
Virtual material satiety now leaves us free to work on our “spiritual” needs. A combination of great prosperity plus longer and healthier life (both of which will continue to improve in the years ahead) means that a smaller fraction of one’s lifetime will be devoted to the necessity of earning a living (Fogel calls this “earnwork”), while a greater fraction will be available for activity that is voluntary and spiritually fulfilling (“volwork”). But this shift doesn’t mean that America will no longer have to worry about equality. Far from it. Only now we will have to be concerned with a new kind of equality: not equality of opportunity or equality of condition, but “equality of spiritual resources.” This will be our “postmodern egalitarian agenda.”
And what counts as a spiritual resource? Fogel gives us a list of fifteen resources, including such items as “sense of purpose,” “vision of opportunity,” “strong family ethic,” “sense of community,” “ethic of benevolence,” “work ethic,” “thirst for knowledge,” and “self–esteem.” This list is perhaps the weakest moment in the book. For one thing, it reads like a catalogue that might have been borrowed from a self–help column in a magazine found at the supermarket. For another, it’s arbitrary. Fogel doesn’t attempt to demonstrate why it should be this list and not some other. Why not faith, hope, and charity? Why not poverty, chastity, and obedience? Why not the four cardinal virtues of ancient moral philosophy—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance? Why not Aristotle’s more ample list of virtues, including philosophical wisdom? Why not Thomas Aquinas’ list, which blends Christian and Aristotelian virtues? At first glance, any of these other lists would seem to be more eligible than Fogel’s, since each has something Fogel’s does not, namely, a track record of producing spiritual virtuosi.
Further, this list is hardly consistent with Fogel’s thesis that the bearers of the Fourth Awakening are mainly conservative Protestants. Evangelicals and Pentecostals, were they to draw up a list of essential spiritual resources, would include some of the items on Fogel’s list, but not others—e.g., when did “self–esteem” become a Christian virtue? More importantly, Fogel’s list omits items that would certainly be on a conservative Protestant list, e.g., love of God, faith in Jesus Christ, diligent study of the Bible.
The book is written for the general reader, not the specialist alone. Fogel’s knowledge of economic history is immense, and one of the incidental pleasures of the book is the information about economic history it liberally scatters through its pages. At moments, however, I felt that the train of argument would have been clearer if the supply of information had been less. But my real complaint is that all this data is put in the service of such a tepid thesis. All these big and contested issues are brought to bear to allow us to predict . . . that in the future people will try to help themselves and help others to help themselves become nicer, psychologically healthier people. This is awakening from materialism, perhaps. But hardly something Great.
David R. Carlin is Professor of Philosophy and Sociology at the Community College of Rhode Island, as well as chairman of the Democratic Party in Newport, Rhode Island.