America’s “Fourth Great Awakening,” marked by a period of evangelical revival and reform, is coming to an end, judging by the failure of such religious and moral change and programs to gain wide resonance in the U.S., writes Ronald Bailey in the libertarian magazine Reason (April).
Bailey’s reference to the Fourth Great Awakening is taken from historian William McLoughlin and economist Robert Fogel, who both argue that there is a cyclic pattern of evangelical-led upsurges in religion and moral reform in the U.S. every century dating back to the first Great Awakening in the 1730s. Fogel posits that such Great Awakenings are largely political phenomena in which “evangelical churches represent the leading edge of an ideological and political response to the accumulated technological, economic, and social changes that undermined the received culture.”
Fogel argues that there are three phases to such events: revival, when cultural stresses cause religious revitalization movements; reform, when activists are able to convince government to take up moral improvement programs; and resistance, when religious fervor wanes and opposition builds against the forces of moral upliftment. Bailey sees the first stage of the Fourth Great Awakening in the growth of evangelical churches and the decline of the mainline denominations in the 1970s.
The eventual adoption of the antiabortion crusade by the evangelicals and the resulting emergence of the Christian right led to the reform stage of the Fourth Great Awakening, according to Bailey. In the 1980s, these moral crusades were bipartisan, including the attacks against rock music (led by Tipper Gore) and the later faithbased social programs to use the government to accelerate moral betterment. The high point of the reform period was the Bush administration’s abstinence-only sex education programs and his foreign policy based on fighting evil and spreading democracy abroad.
But now this period is coming to an end, argues Bailey, as best seen in the failure of a wide range of programs and movements appealing to morality to gain a foothold with the public. Thus, the opposition to gays and gay rights is fading, even if gay marriage is still unpopular (though efforts to ban gay marriage are passing by much narrower margins than was the case a few years ago). The support for embryonic stem cell research, the division and weakness of the Christian right and the slackening off of support for Republican would-be presidential candidate Mike Huckabee all suggest a mood of resistance to evangelical moral reform.
Bailey argues that another scenario may be that the Fourth Great Awakening is “taking a left turn,” where “environmental revivalism may supplant the fundamentalist aspect of the Fourth Great Awakening. If so, we may be in for a period in which campaigns for green reform programs dominate American politics.”
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