A New Great Awakening?

The agenda of reformist evangelicals may signal a big shift in 21st-century religion and politics.

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There is has been much talk in recent years about whether America is going through—or has perhaps just completed—one of those tumultuous periods in which religion, society, and politics interact in powerful ways that leave all three decisively transformed. Historians call these periods Great Awakenings, though they often differ over how many there have been and exactly when they took place.

The first Great Awakening occurred in the mid-18th-century colonies, as popular Protestant church leaders such as Jonathan Edwards sparked a movement that shook up staid, institutionalized Congregationalism with a new emphasis on personal experience and born-again revivalism. Challenging established authority figures, and not just those in the church, this awakening encouraged the anti-authoritarian and individualistic tendencies of an increasingly independent-minded people and even supported the growth of a new, transcolonial American identity.

The second Great Awakening of the early 19th century placed an even greater emphasis on revival and completely rearranged the ecclesiastical landscape. While the Baptist and Methodist denominations made huge gains in membership, soon dwarfing the old established Anglican (Episcopal) and Congregational churches, scores of new denominations (including Seventh-Day Adventists and Mormons) emerged overnight. At the same time, a new breed of highly entrepreneurial (and often nondenominational) evangelist like Charles Finney won huge followings. This powerful awakening contributed to the growing populist strain in American politics, culminating most dramatically in the presidency of Andrew Jackson, and it inspired scores of social reformers and particularly abolitionists.

Less clear in its religious outlines, the third Great Awakening spanned the last decades of the 19th century and pushed into the early decades of the 20th century. It was notable for directing religious energies into the arena of social activism, from women's suffrage and temperance to prison reform and a host of social uplift efforts that found political expression in the Progressive movement. But it was also associated with the anti-Darwin crusades of figures like William Jennings Bryan, who fought the teaching of evolutionary science partly on the populist grounds that social Darwinism supported a ruthlessly competitive capitalist ethic.

If the contours and content of the Third Awakening are less distinct than those of the first two, the fourth Great Awakening is perhaps the most difficult to pin down. Broadly speaking, though, this movement—which may or may not be a true awakening—emerged in the late 1960s and early '70s, largely in response to what conservative (and mostly white) Christians saw as widespread moral and social decline coupled with an aggressive secularist agenda to remove God and religion from the public sphere. The early leaders of what came to be known as the Religious Right were not at first partisan. Some even flirted with Jimmy Carter, hoping that a devout Baptist minister in the White House would support their stands against abortion and gay rights. Quickly disappointed, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other fundamentalist leaders soon made their movement a part of the Republican juggernaut that would dominate American politics for most of the past 30 years. The religious right could claim important victories in key court appointments, including those to the Supreme Court, and wider popular acknowledgement of permissible expressions of religiosity in our public life. (Though the line of church-state separation will continue to be negotiated in a nation that grows even more diverse, only the most militant secularists now insist that religious expression has no place in the public square.)

Despite such successes, many old-line evangelical leaders continued to employ an alarmist and divisive rhetoric that caused uneasiness among the wider evangelical community. At the same time, liberal and progressive evangelicals—including most African-American evangelicals-- were mounting a vocal attack on the conservatives' monopoly on religion, arguing that causes like poverty, AIDS, and climate change are just as central to Christian teaching as the institution of marriage and prenatal life. Even many moderately conservative white evangelicals saw the justice behind this broadening of the agenda. And it is now fair to say that the word evangelical is no longer automatically associated with only the old hot-button issues.

But are we at the beginning, as some progressive evangelicals claim, of yet another Great Awakening? Jim Wallis, the noted liberal evangelical minister and founder of the Sojourners community in Washington, D.C., is making that claim very boldly in both the title and argument of his newest book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America. Whether he is right or wrong, it is far too early to say. But Wallis raises a number of interesting questions. If this proves to be the beginning of a Great Awakening, will it be the extension of the one that began in the late '60s, which some would argue is drawing to a close? Or is it a radically different Great Awakening?

If the latter, as Wallis clearly thinks, it remains far from proved that an activist reform movement spearheaded by a more diverse evangelical community (which might constitute as much as 30 percent or more of the total U.S. population) will be able to accomplish as much as the more sharply focused, narrow-gauge religious right movement of the past 30 years. Certainly James Dobson, Paul Weyrich, and other old-guard leaders of the religious right don't think so. That is why they have been so quick to censure people like Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, when they talk about concerns such as climate change. And the old guard may be right, if only on purely pragmatic grounds. Interest groups are effective in electoral politics only if their leaders are able to mobilize their constituencies with a set of narrowly focused and often highly contentious issues.

Wallis and other progressive and moderate evangelicals claim that they are moving beyond mere partisanship and interest-group electoral politics, attaching their Christian idealism to something larger in the land: a bipartisan populist desire for change and activism on a number of pressing national and global issues. Whether this view will itself be seen simply as a subtle form of partisanship—a quiet way of making more evangelicals vote Democratic—will be the first test of whether another Great Awakening is aborning. Or whether the last Not-So-Great Awakening is simply dying.