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The Fourth Great Awakening

June 2024
14min read


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.

These movements have always had complex and contradictory elements and, if you want to put it in political language, a left and a right. Black Pentecostal and evangelical churches are much more left-oriented in their social programs than are predominantly white evangelical churches, and they want to move in different political directions. But on both sides there’s a belief that society has to be reformed, and while there are strong differences, there is also a considerable area of overlap in what they see as the reform program. There is always an old school and a new school, and there’s always a struggle over whose reforms will win out. That’s true of every one of these movements. Just to mention two issues, the left wing of the evangelical movement was hostile to slavery and friendly to Prohibition, while the right wing was not. We could go through a much larger agenda of issues and see further splits and agreements.

Let’s talk about slavery. How did the basic pattern you describe work there? What was the crucial technological innovation that sparked a crisis that produced an evangelical and then a political response? The cotton gin?

Not just the cotton gin. The crisis was the intrusion of modern productive methods on all aspects of life. The rise of the factory system drastically changed labor relations and brought pressure on traditional artisans. Advances in ocean transportation made the trek from Europe cheaper and safer and encouraged millions to come to our shores. These immigrants settled mainly in the North, turning small towns into huge cities so rapidly that housing was swamped and so was public sanitation. These cities came into conflict with the agrarian ideal of the country and were very unhealthy. Life expectancy in New York and Philadelphia in 1830 was only 24 years, about 6 years less than for slaves in the South. Between 1820 and 1860, the urban population of the United States grew faster than it ever had or ever would again. There were all kinds of problems that hadn’t really existed before: ethnic conflicts, racial conflicts, pandemic diseases, a decrease in life expectancy, and the sense that the cities were going to corrupt the whole nation. There was great fear in evangelical circles that they were not going to have a city on a hill. They were going to have hell.

So these people say, “Look, we’re in a crisis. How do we save America? We want to prepare America for the imminent coming of Christ, and look what we’ve got.” So they argue over what the programs should be. What they come up with are things like getting rid of drinking. Alcoholic consumption was about four times as great as now, and that was driven by technological change, which made alcohol so cheap that people could afford fantastic quantities of it. A lot of people became unchurched because the churches couldn’t keep up with the movement of the population. Also, the huge increase in Catholics was transforming a Protestant country where virtually the entire free population had been of British origin in 1790.

What do you do about it? Well, first you develop a campaign to get people to promise not to drink. If that doesn’t work, you pass laws so that it’s illegal for them to drink. You raise the level of education, and particularly you make the King James Bible the center of public education, which creates another crisis, because the Catholics don’t want their children studying the King James Bible, they want them studying the Catholic Bible. Then, when you look around at what’s corrupting people, you decide it’s not only alcohol but also slavery. Slaves can’t achieve grace because they can’t exercise free will, and their masters are corrupted by their pursuit of absolute domination.


“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.”

Does this mean that without opposition to Catholic immigration and urbanization there wouldn’t have been opposition to slavery?

Anti-immigration politics and antislavery were closely intertwined. Lincoln himself didn’t link the Catholic threat and the slave-power threat, but his campaign manager and many Republican newspapers did. The Republican party had a strong anti-Catholic tinge.

So, the antislavery movement was part of a whole cluster of evangelical-led political movements?

Right. Some of them were about education. Some of them were about temperance. Some of them were about slavery. Some of them were about peace. And, of course, the feminist movement comes out of abolitionism. It’s women in abolitionism who create the feminist movement.

Your Third Great Awakening is in many ways more secular, but it has a big religious component. It’s essentially an attempt to address the rising inequality produced by industrialization, and it turns to government to make things change.

In the Second Great Awakening the notion of how to end slavery was originally that you had to change people’s hearts. They were going to do it by getting the churches to change their creed so that mere ownership of a slave was a sin and incompatible with continued membership. But they couldn’t get any of the main evangelical churches, even the Northern churches, to go that far, so they decided to go outside the churches, over the heads of the church leaders, as some of the antiabolitionists put it, and create a Christian party, called the Liberty party. That party didn’t do well; its first presidential candidate got only 3 percent of the vote in 1840, but it had some of the most brilliant political strategists this country ever created—Salmon Chase is my particular favorite—and within a decade and a half they had created the Republican party, which put Lincoln in the White House. This success provided the political foundation for implementing the subsequent reform agenda of the Third Great Awakening.

The leaders of the Third Great Awakening thought their predecessor reformers hadn’t fully understood how the rise of big business was changing things. In the old agrarian world, someone who went into small business as a journeyman could think that by the time he was 50 or so, he could be the master of his own shop. But nobody working on a furnace in the Carnegie Steel Company thought he was going to own Carnegie when he was 50, if he lived that long. That kind of opportunity was disappearing.

What the reformers were doing now was saying, “Look, we’re in a crisis. People are striking. They’re burning down buildings. They’re killing one another. We face the specter of a French type of revolution on American soil. How are we going to save the country?” They come up with the notion that you can no longer depend on market forces alone. You have to have the government intervene, because the power of big business has gotten so large. You’ve got to reduce the supply of labor, after which the price of labor will go up. You’ve got to cut off immigration, which is bringing too many workers in. You’ve got to get women and children out of the labor pool, to raise the wages of the labor force that remains.

They won out. In general, they produced a state that was more friendly to labor. Most economists today would concede that not all the innovations of the 1930s are useful, but it would be hard to argue that they were never useful.



Let’s go to the Fourth Great Awakening. That one began in the 1960s.

The ideological upswing began in the sixties. The political realignment it produced began in the 1980s.

And the ideological issue is people beginning to think of the state not as a solution but as part of the problem?

No. Religious conservatives aren’t against state intervention. They never have been. They’re for state intervention for their policies and against state intervention for policies they condemn. But they have made common cause with some economic conservatives who believe that the government plays mainly a negative role. That’s a coalition, not the same movement.

The foundation of my argument is that we’ve become so rich that the material goods that were decisive in 1900 are less and less relevant to politics now. Eighty percent of all consumption 120 years ago was food, clothing, and shelter. Nowadays, that’s down to 15 percent. So the liberal welfare state, which was concerned with alleviating material inequalities, is no longer wholly relevant to the issues that concern us most urgently. We are faced by a crisis of what I call spiritual inequality, and redressing that sort of inequality is the egalitarian agenda of the Fourth Great Awakening.

That’s the most heretical-sounding part of your book.

Not heretical among economists. We’ve been looking into ideas of human capital and knowledge capital for about 40 years. The old issues of distribution have largely been solved. The issues in the 1880's, the 1890's, in 1900, even into the 1920's, were whether you’d starve and whether you’d be living six people in a 12-by-12-foot room. These problems were very acute, and we solved them. If we Haydn’t, we’d be living about half as long as we are now, and those of us who did get old would be in much worse shape. We’Ave gone from lack of nutrient intake to too much nutrient intake, from having no time for leisure to being couch potatoes. So the issues of social and economic progress are still there, but they’re different.

Yet a great many people I know are struggling for enough income to get into the housing market or to secure health care at a level that would once have been part of their employers’ standard benefit package.

Well, if you look at housing, you all see we have more and better, not less. A place like New York City is not typical: If you value being able to go to the theater there, and the museums, then you’re going to be one of the people who boost housing costs. But, nationwide, the average new family has twice as much floor space as their parents did. Housing is not increasing its share of national income, but health care is, as is education.

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?

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.


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