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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
It’s not a unified movement, any more than it was back in the days of slavery and Prohibition. Some 20 percent of evangelicals believe in gay rights. About 30 percent believe in the right to abortion. They’re overwhelmingly conservative on those issues. But the fact remains that great egalitarian efforts of reform in America have always been led by evangelicals. And I think they’re leading again today. They’re pointing out the fact that the main issues now are the distribution of immaterial assets, and they are doing a lot of good things in that respect.
So how do you see the Fourth Great Awakening working itself out?
Well, I hope it will work itself out in compromise, in much the same way I think the Third Great Awakening incorporated much of the legacy of the Second. The Third Great Awakening was an extraordinarily prolific and positive thing in American life. It’s impossible not to incorporate what it has built up. No movement that wants to leave the country in a better condition can fail to recognize how successful that earlier movement has been. One of the things I wanted to do in the book was to show the extent to which the Third Great Awakening succeeded.
You point out that the Third Great Awakening more or less moved from a theological to a secular moral vocabulary but that the Fourth Great Awakening is going the other way.
Well, I’m a very secular fellow, but from my point of view, the vocabulary does’t make too much difference. It’s the content of the message that matters. Ultimately, I’m dedicated to the egalitarian ideals that I grew up with, and I’m worried about how you continue that process in an age when the level of material comfort is very high. I don’t think it’s over. There are new mountains to climb. I’ve been trying to define what those mountains are.
How do you interpret the 2000 presidential election results in the light of your thesis? Do you see Bush’s innovations with faith-based programs as new evidence for the vitality of the Fourth Great Awakening?
We already transfer funds to faith-based programs. What Bush is announcing is a somewhat expanded program, in which he wants to get resources to faith-based programs that serve the young and the elderly. We would probably have moved in this direction no matter who was President, because social needs sooner or later dictate the direction in which the government moves. What we may be seeing is differences in rhetoric, along with some differences in the size of the programs.
Do you see Bush’s electoral strength among evangelical voters as evidence for your thesis?
Not as particularly new evidence. But I will say this: The outcome of the election confirms the fact that the forces of the Fourth Great Awakening are successfully challenging the forces of the Third Great Awakening and are gradually pushing their program to the fore. Economic issues are less important than they were in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and social issues continue to move to the forefront. To the extent that economic issues remain important, they are about financing Social Security and health care, and the demand for health-care financing arises from the skewing of the age distribution as a result of previous advances in public health and in health care. People want to be healthy enough to enjoy their extended lives. This is a different kind of politics.