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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
There is still a problem reaching the dispossessed, the underclass, and it is a severe, exceedingly difficult problem that won’t be overcome without effectively targeting substantial resources toward it. There is also the problem of the chronically poor. Reaching them, and changing the lives of their children so that they don’t inherit the same position, is one of the most urgent issues of our age. Giving the poor more consumer goods won’t solve anything; they already have a lot of them. They have conveniences that the rich never used to have, like indoor plumbing and electric light. Nearly everybody has a washing machine or access to one. You know, I’m old enough to remember when not everybody had a radio. Now people have radios coming out of their ears, literally.
So the Fourth Great Awakening is concerned not with material goods but with what you call immaterial goods. For example?
If you have a good education and know how the world works, you’re going to have a high standard of living. If you have a poor education and can’t figure out how the game is played, you’re going to have a low standard of living. In business, most capital is no longer physical. At the turn of the century, most capital was physical capital in big businesses. Nowadays it’s mainly human capital: the chemist you have, the computer programmer, the people who know how to advertise or organize a production process.
So wealth depends on human capital, which depends on education, and the ability to take advantage of education requires spiritual resources that are in fact very unequally distributed.
Yes. A lot of people my age who are successful came out of very poor families. It’s not that if you’re materially poor, you’re cut off from opportunity. If you get the right kinds of spiritual capital, or knowledge capital, which includes an orientation when you’re very, very young as to how to conduct yourself, how to be disciplined, and how to have a vision of opportunity, you can do very well. If somebody tells you what opportunities there are in front of you, what you can be, and so on, and helps prepare you for the more formal aspects of education, you can do well. I think a big part of the crisis for people who are in poverty, who don’t go up the ladder, is not having this very important set of intangible assets.
We secularists have spawned some legends about this process and have produced a myth in which the psychology and character that let you do well in the modern world are fundamentally secular attitudes. There was a very popular encyclopedia when I was a kid titled The Book of Knowledge. I still have it. My mother got it for me when I was 8 or 10, and I just pored over it. When I read about science in it, what I learned was that the evil party in the history of science was the church and that scientists had to fight against the church in order to come up with great discoveries. I did’t learn until late in my life that Newton was a very religious man. He thought some of his greatest papers were theological papers. In the secularism that I was introduced to, all science was secular, and it was good, and the church was superstition. This prejudice was quite common in the secular branch of the Third Great Awakening, and I think it blinds us with reflexive hostility to the religious elements of the Fourth Great Awakening.
But what about the antiscientific, creationist streak in American evangelicalism?
Science works too well for opposition to it to have much success. It will continue to march forward.
In your view of the Fourth Great Awakening, you don’t accept a conventional argument about the broad political realignment of the last quarter-century, that it began when the Democratic party embraced black America and the party’s Southern wing bolted for the Republican party.
I don’t think there was any big realignment in the immediate wake of the civil rights movement. To me the big issue was that after 1980 the evangelical vote, which had previously been split evenly between the Democrats and the Republicans, quickly shifted to the Republicans, by three to one. That was a big realignment. Did they bolt because of race issues? I don’t think so. The race issues were very well established long before then, yet the Democrats still had most of the Statehouses through the 1970's, most of the assemblies, and the big-city vote. The popular realignment really did’t take place until the eighties.
“The forces of the Fourth Great are successfully challenging the forces of the Third.., are gradually pushing their program to the fore.”
Evangelicals can be backward-looking as well as forward-looking, can’t they?