NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Effects Of Religious Awakenings

January 5, 2001

Robert Fogel, a Nobel laureate in economic science, argues in The Fourth Great Awakening that a new historical cycle of religious enthusiasm in the U.S. began about 1960, paralleling three other historic religious revival movements.

Each revival intensified religious beliefs and ushered in new or reinvigorated theological principles. In turn, the new ethics precipitated powerful political programs and movements. Each cycle ended when the political coalition promoted by the religious revival declined. Thus:

  • The First Great Awakening, from the 1730s to the 1790s, hastened the disestablishment of churches (Episcopalian in the South; Congregational in New England) and weakened the influence of religion on American political life.
  • The Second Great Awakening -- about 1800 to 1840 -- encouraged reform movements, from temperance, abolition of slavery and immigration (the nativist movement to end immigration by Catholics), to anticorruption campaigns and public education.
  • The Third Great Awakening, 1890 to 1930, ended with the substitution of a belief in secular modernism for religious enthusiasm.

Fogel argues that the Fourth Great Awakening began as church membership among more enthusiastic religious grew and the membership of mainstream Protestant sects began declining. He says it is rooted in several social and political developments:

  • Improvements in "technophysio" evolution -- primarily humans' ability to conquer chronic, widespread malnutrition -- have ushered in unprecedented material prosperity for all coupled with a sense of spiritual poverty.
  • The program of the intellectuals to create a scientific, egalitarian state -- begun during the Third Great Awakening -- has failed.
  • Technological breakthroughs, such as control over human biology -- particularly reproductive technology and organ transplantation -- have provoked widespread ethical concerns.

The Fourth Great Awakening is challenging the prevailing faith in science and governmental activism, says Fogel. Ultimately, religious enthusiasts may achieve the egalitarian agenda of the previous awakening.

Source: Robert Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening, excerpted in Milken Institute Review, Third Quarter 2000, Milken Institute, 1250 4th Street, Santa Monica, Calif. 90401, (310) 998-2600.


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