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The Fourth Great Awakening
A NOBLE PRIZE-WINNING ECONOMIST AND HISTORIAN SAYS WE’RE IN THE MIDDLE OF ONE OF AMERICA’S MAJOR PERIODS OF REFORM
July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
Robert Fogel is best known as one of the two authors of Time on the Cross, a pathbreaking 1974 book that applied statistics and numerical analysis to history to make a provocative and important point: American slavery on the eve of the Civil War was not an economically inefficient, slowly dying system, as was widely believed at the time, but rather a healthy monster that would perish only when the Union’s armies drove a stake through its heart. The book provoked furious controversy but withstood it so well that it helped Fogel win a Nobel Prize in economics in 1993. • His newest book, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, published by the University of Chicago Press, also make surprising assertions about our national past. In it Fogel contends that historians have greatly misunderstood the role of evangelical religion in American political events. He argues that over several long periods, technological innovation has brought massive economic change that has in turn fomented social crises the existing political institutions could not handle. Each time this has happened, there has been a political transformation that gave rise to new institutions and laws to cope with the changes. And every transformation, Fogel insists, has been driven by evangelical Christians. • This is a claim as startling as Fogel’s discovery about slavery. American historians typically think of evangelical Christians as being backward-looking and see their occasional forays into politics as attempts to hold back the tides of cultural change. Fogel sees that view as a caricature of a complex and many-sided phenomenon, and he believes that evangelicals are again leading the drive toward a political reformation of the first magnitude right now. • We spoke about The Fourth Great Awakening at Dr. Fogel’s office at the University of Chicago’s Center for Population Economics, of which he is the director.
You argue that evangelical churches and Great Awakenings are a key to American political history. What do you mean?
In Europe, the main churches are state churches, and they have usually backed governments in power. America is absolutely different: The churches here are independent. Evangelical churches, which have represented the majority of American Protestants, played a leading role in ending aristocratic privilege in America, and they’ve been the principal vehicles through which ordinary people have shaped American society ever since. They’ve promoted popular democracy, and there has always been a close relationship between populism and evangelical religion in this country.
The First Great Awakening began in the 1730s and ripened into the American Revolution. The Second Great Awakening started about 1800 and produced the crusade against slavery that culminated in our Civil War. The Third Great Awakening came at the end of the nineteenth century and led to the rise of the welfare state. The Fourth Great Awakening, which began about 1960, has recently entered its political phase and is focused on what I call spiritual reform.
This is a cyclical pattern?
Yes, it is—the cycles caused by technology so transforming everything that there’s a gap between economic change and the state of the society. Human institutions always lag behind technological change, and after a certain period of time this results in a cultural crisis that produces deep soul-searching and an effort on the part of people who are concerned to try to come up with ways of reforming the society. I think the most fundamental groups in this process have been the evangelical churches, not merely as people who worry about what is the right society but also as the founders of populist movements. Every populist movement in the United States that has been of enough scope to get into the history books has had a big religious underpinning, and the First and Second Great Awakenings are the two famous examples. But the populist movement of the last third of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth, which culminated in the New Deal, was also driven by grass roots evangelical churches. And the new populism, as magazines are beginning to call it, comes out of what we refer to as the religious right. That is a pattern. In the book, I explore this pattern, and I try to show what the connections are.
Your evangelicals are progressives, but many people see them as backward-looking, not only today but, say, when William Jennings Bryan was arguing against Darwinism.