Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

James D. Bratt

God & Mammon, Inc.

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, by Robert William Fogel, University of Chicago Press, 383 pp.; $25

When a Nobel laureate in economics contends that Americans have too many commodities and need to pursue spiritual goods instead, people should take notice. When the same famed expert, usually placed on the conservative side of the political spectrum, has some good things to say about state intervention in the economy and some harsh words for the Industrial Revolution, liberals might take hope. When one of the most famous quantifiers in American history-writing makes religion—specifically, evangelical revival religion—a prime cause of American progress, Clio and Christ alike may look on in interest.

What they will read in this latest treatise from Robert Fogel, a historian for the University of Chicago's free-market school of economics, is mostly good news. American society has achieved material plenty and distributes it fairly enough, Fogel asserts; henceforth ethical and spiritual needs will be paramount in people's lives. Providing equal access to the satisfaction of such needs will be the key challenge for national politics if the United States is to keep faith with its historic commitment to equality. But politics cannot help on this front nearly as much as religion can. Happily, just in time—since the 1960s—the right sort of religion has reemerged to do the work. The resurgence of evangelical Protestantism constitutes nothing less than America's "Fourth Great Awakening," a culture-changing phenomenon so important as to deserve close study by social scientists and full appreciation by political liberals.

Whether evangelicals themselves should join in such delight is an open question, however. Their first warning should come from the complete absence of prayer, worship, meditation, or any other classic spiritual discipline, not to mention theological virtues, from Fogel's list of the "fifteen spiritual resources" vital for the years ahead. His list instead catalogues the classic economic disciplines required for success in this world as defined by the impersonal market. The Fourth Great Awakening misconstrues a lot of American religious history, but it revives one precedent perfectly: Fogel is offering Ben Franklin's seduction of George Whitefield all over again.

Franklin got to know the British evangelist during the Great Itinerant's first visit to Philadelphia in 1739. The printer liked the preacher personally, liked his theatrical sense of self, liked the market savvy and self-promotion that built his audience, liked the profits Whitefield's instant publications brought Franklin's publishing house, and liked the sense of responsibility evangelical religion taught its adherents. All this, of course, without believing one word of Whitefield's theology. No innate depravity for Gentle Ben, no exclusive redemption in Christ, no authority of Scripture, no bliss of church fellowship, certainly no predestination. Religion—even, or perhaps especially, Whitefield's evangelical Calvinism—was good despite the errors it taught because of the virtues it wrought.

Whitefield's Christianity effected individual self-restraint, voluntary benevolence, and a social cohesion all the stronger for being informal—just the ticket for the pragmatic, secular future Franklin saw aborning. Whitefield accepted this bargain because it won Christ attention. His sometime collaborator Jonathan Edwards would dismiss it. So would the Baptists and Franklin's despised Presbyterians who were spreading the faith in the backcountry. Fogel's book raises a similar choice today.

Robert Fogel made his name by subjecting one of the most controversial aspects of American history, black slavery, to hard-boiled quantitative analysis.[1] The intense controversy his efforts provoked owed less to his use of a cold method on a hot issue than to Fogel's conclusions that, relatively speaking, American slavery was an efficient, materially benign system under which slaves took their economic cues from their masters and pursued the main chance for upward mobility: Sambo as Horatio Alger, one critic put it.

Fogel's later extension of his argument gave considerable place to the antislavery politics that killed slavery's viable economics;[2] antislavery politics in turn led him to its roots in evangelical Protestant religion. Where did evangelical religion lead? To William McLoughlin, one of the great chroniclers of American revivalism in general and of its antebellum phase in particular.[3]

Marrying revival history to anthropological revitalization theory, McLoughlin built a grand explanation for American religion as an engine of American historical achievement. As McLoughlin taught it, four great cycles of revival, begun in religion, have spun out across American politics and culture to build epochal movements that ended oppression, gathered in the ostracized, upgraded culture, renewed ideals, achieved progress, and brought the nation ever closer to its shining destiny.

McLoughlin's book appeared just as Ronald Reagan, hardly his favorite politician, was cultivating this very language in his successful run for the White House. Thus, what was sown in the last gasp of Cold War liberal hopes, Robert Fogel now reaps in post-Cold War conservative dreams. The result is a hugely ambitious attempt to correlate three cycles of development—technological innovation, religious reorientation, and political realignment—so as to explain the past and to predict, even prescribe for, the future.

That the attempt does not succeed does not negate the value of the book, for it will attract three different audiences that should attend to each other's concerns more than they do. If each readership finds the book most valuable where it maps their two terrae incognitae and least convincing where it depicts their own backyard, they can still profit from the cross-disciplinary jolt. Policy wonks can muse on Fogel's argument for where the state has, and has not, been effective be fore. The TV pundocracy might consider how Fogel defies the simple Left-Right polarization that is their bread and butter. And everyone will do well to heed Fogel's fundamental challenge—that, at a time of peace and great prosperity, Americans give some thought to Socrates' question: what is the good life?

The simple fact that this is indeed a live question for masses of people attests, Fogel maintains, to one of the great triumphs of human history: the series of technological innovations that has effected virtually complete control over the natural environment so as to provide material sufficiency for nearly all inhabitants of industrialized nations. This story is closest to Fogel's oldest interests and so comes lavished with statistics on changing life expectancies, average body mass, public health indices, and so forth, all specific, nuanced, and oozing expertise.

Two data will suffice for the rest: since 1700, human beings have increased their average body size by 50 percent, their average life expectancy by 100 percent. True, malnutrition and grinding poverty still mark much of the world's population, but, citing the recent success stories of some East Asian nations, Fogel intimates that such problems are, by historic measure, temporary conditions amenable to technical solutions already known to social science.

Not that he is blind to pain. Fogel sounds Dickensian (and quite unlike present-day "conservative" enthusiasts of industrial development) in depicting the nineteenth-century British or American city as a hellhole of poverty, squalor, and disease. Life expectancy in the northern United States declined by 25 percent from 1790 to 1850, he estimates, and by twice that rate in the big cities (one reason slavery could look good). Nor did the magic of the market heal this distress. The laissez-faire nineteenth century remained punitive for the working-class majority all along. Only in the twentieth century, reaping the benefit of huge state investment in education and public health, did the masses make up most of the difference with the elites in body size and longevity.

Fogel notes that the gap in personal income did not shrink as much, but only to discount this as a significant measure; that two world wars helped shrink the gap by decimating the British and German aristocracy he notes not at all. That sort of radical politics is discomfiting to his technocratic mind, which needs civic calm to permit enlightened bureaucracies to support its materialist magic. Thus Fogel's politics are like Franklin's, down to the demographic auguries which prove that the magic is working.

Two flies—or pterodactyls—mar this ointment. First, personal and institutional coping mechanisms have always lagged behind the pace of technological change, breeding crises of maladjustment. These crises for Fogel are the triggers of religious awakenings.

Second, by the end of the twentieth century the material needs that industrialization could satisfy had been met, yet satiation has not spelled satisfaction. The great frontier of the new century will thus be "spiritual."

Significantly, Fogel immediately translates "spiritual" into "immaterial commodities": a sense of purpose, of discipline, of self-esteem; a work ethic and family ethic; the thirst for knowledge; the "capacity to resist the lure of hedonism"; and so on. Some of this is barely disguised advice to the underclass to cultivate the old immigrant ethic and join the march for material advancement. The rest is the floundering of a self-confessed secularist who was once convinced of the salvific properties of economic growth and is now trying to find a language for realities that numbers cannot capture.

"Today people are increasingly concerned with what life is all about," Fogel intones. They want to find "values" and "meaning" and "self-realization." Christopher Lasch and Walker Percy sent up these bromides as they were born in the 1970s, but such fun is not noticed here. Fogel wouldn't even get the joke.

In fact, Fogel seems painfully short on "spiritual resources" all around. Choosing not to avail himself of his ancestors' Judaism, he settles for "obedience to ethical commands from a transcendent being" as a definition of religion. Yet isn't the mandate for "self-realization" diametrically opposed to the words of Jesus, whose enthusiastic evangelical devotees are Fogel's prime evidence for religious revitalization today? Jesus' counsel, after all, was to seek first God's kingdom and let secondary benefits accumulate as they may, or to lose one's life as the only means of saving it. But neither these words nor those of Jesus' prophetic forebears nor those of his Muslim successors can play in Fogel's space, where individual rational choice still rules.

Dewey and Rorty are his "postmodern" guides, teaching him that "an individual's potential … is something that must develop within each individual … depend[ing] critically on how well endowed an individual is with spiritual resources." That is clumsy and tautological enough to have been written by Dewey, but Fogel misses the master's redeeming social sensibility. Family, ethnicity, and neighborhood come in for a brief bow, but community and faith in the end remain the net sum of personal choices, with no reflection on what convictions might lie behind those choices, or what might make them endure, or how much individual choosing must go by the boards for the sake of community or "transcendent being" alike.

Fogel's reading of the American religious past is not this thin, but it is derivative and suffers from the errors of the McLoughlin original. The faults are too many to enumerate in this space, but three of them are conspicuous by their operation in The Fourth Great Awakening.

First, Fogel sees a straight path from each awakening's opening theological salvo to its culminating ethical victory. But in his paradigm case, the Second Great Awakening (1800-30s) and its support for antislavery, we should note that it is a hard, twisting journey from Charles Finney's premise of individual free will through William Lloyd Garrison's renunciation of all coercion to slavery's eradication in the most massive convulsion of state-sponsored violence the United States has ever seen.

Second, there were evangelical Christians—lots of them—on both sides of the Civil War. Great Awakenings breed conflict and not (contra McLoughlin) just in their start-up phase or only against those adhering to the old-line spirituality. This rancor can be damaging enough to cause all parties to seek a new unity outside of religion; thus Old and New Lights in the First Great Awakening reconciled back on the ground of politics. Put otherwise, the American Revolution and Civil War are as much signs of evangelical revivalism's failure as success in achieving its promise.

Finally, Fogel follows McLoughlin in calling the rise of liberal theology and the Social Gospel from 1890 to 1920 the "Third Great Awakening." Never mind that these movements were resolutely opposed to revivalism and the theology of miracles, personal conversion, and supernaturalism that undergirded it, nor that a real revival occurred just then among Holiness, Pentecostal, and Fundamentalist devotees who would show little love for the socio-political program which the putative "Third Awakening" promoted. A "religious reorientation" did occur in these decades, as in the 1960s, but clarity, maybe even honesty, is poorly served by calling these the Third and Fourth "Great Awakenings."

In any case, Fogel's disagreement with McLoughlin over the Fourth "Awakening"—that is, the current religious scene—shows the complications present in all these reorientations. By the 1990s, McLoughlin predicted, the American soul would have regained sweet amity; in fact, Fogel claims, "Americans are more deeply divided and angry with each other today than at any time since the 1850s."

That both assessments are equally wide of the mark is less interesting than the cause of their divergence. For McLoughlin the Fourth Awakening dawned in the sixties with the "new religious consciousness" of hippies, feminists, neo-pagans, and converts to Eastern religion; for Fogel it came with the resurgence of born-again Christianity. Each calls the other's innovators the foredoomed "old lights." How Fogel can see Haight-Ashbury as the final stop on the Social Gospel train is as puzzling as McLoughlin's belief that the seventies and eighties' burgeoning Religious Right was the last glimmer of a faded past. Their theory is not equipped to see that the sixties' two religious insurgencies are twins, equally committed to affect, experience, and individualism, equally at home with consumer technology and shifting identity, equally susceptible to a quest for the spiritual as commodity.

But each has resources to the contrary as well. These lie in the stalks of faith and tradition off which they have sprung as the latest green shoots. Religious faith in and of itself is not something to which McLoughlin or Fogel gives much consideration, and tradition is scanted by their theory as much as it was by Franklin and Whitefield's programs. The new shoots by themselves do not promise perfect harmony, growing as they do from very different roots. But together they might sustain life even against the technological wind that Robert Fogel sees bearing us to the edge of paradise.

James D. Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College and director of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship.


1. Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, 2 vols. (Little, Brown, 1974).

2. Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract, Vol. 1 (Norton, 1989).

3. William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607-1977 (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978).

NOTE: For your convenience, the following product, which was mentioned above, is available for purchase:

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, Robert William Fogel

Most ReadMost Shared