American society periodically weathers de-cades-long storms of moral renovation set off by thunderclaps of Christian evangelism. Old spiritual and moral doctrines get reinterpreted in a new light, producing far-ranging, and not always welcome, political change. Scholars commonly refer to these tumultuous periods as "Great Awakenings."
Historians date the First Great Awakening to the mid-18th century, when widespread Presbyterian and Baptist revivals helped beget the American Revolution. The second came in the early 19th century, when evangelical Christians launched temperance, abolitionist, and other reform movements, culminating in the Civil War. The third was a response to Darwinian theory and to the social problems caused by rapid industrialization and urbanization in the late 19th century, ending with the Progressive Era in the early 20th century. The fourth unleashed the "culture war" that began in the 1960s and has dominated political debate ever since. But thankfully, there are signs that the Fourth Great Awakening is finally coming to a close. Among other beneficial side effects, this ending of an era likely will reduce calls for censorship and other legal intrusions into private activities while broadening tolerance for new and different ways of life.
Historian William McLoughlin, in his 1978 book Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607–1977, defined awakenings as "periods of ideological transformation." They "begin in periods of cultural distortion and grave personal stress, when we lose faith in the legitimacy of our norms, the viability of our institutions, and the authority of our leaders in church and state," McLoughlin wrote. "They eventuate in basic restructuring of our institutions and redefinitions of our social goals."
The Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Fogel, in his 2000 book The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, posited that Great Awakenings "are primarily political phenomena in which the evangelical churches represent the leading edge of an ideological and political response to the accumulated technological, economic, and social changes that undermined the received culture." Awakenings, Fogel maintains, go through three phases: revival, when cultural stresses produce religious revitalization movements; reform, when activists persuade governments to adopt moral improvement programs; and resistance, when religious fervor wanes and the forces of moralization encounter stiffened cultural opposition.
The Fourth Great Awakening has reached the stage where moral hectoring is being resisted. The once politically potent Moral Majority has disappeared, and the Christian Coalition is a shadow of its former self, its membership down from millions to tens of thousands. Voters have tossed out such Bible-thumpers as Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.), Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.), and Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.). Evangelical political projects have failed around the country, from a ballot measure to prohibit abortion in South Dakota to a Missouri initiative to ban embryonic stem-cell research. The Kansas state school board has repealed guidelines that had questioned biological evolution.
These developments may be glimmers of the Fourth Great Awakening's impending demise. But there is a darker possibility as well: that the awakening is merely mutating into a more left-wing phase of moralizing.
The First Awakening
The First Great Awakening erupted in Great Britain and its American colonies in the 1730s. Preachers such as the English Methodist George Whitefield and the New England Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards began to soften the harsh Calvinist doctrine that only a few predestined elect would be admitted into the joys of Heaven while the majority of born sinners headed straight to Hell. Whitefield and Edwards stressed God's willingness to save those who had truly repented of their sins. During revival meetings, repentant sinners experienced an emotional "new birth."
The revivalists urged believers to trust their own experiences rather than depend on the authority of corrupt church officials. Consequently, many converts defied traditional authorities in asserting their new convictions. This spirit of defiance also led many Americans to challenge the colonies' tax-supported churches as inimical to freedom of conscience.
The theological idea that all people were equal in the sight of God had other political implications. If everyone is equal before God, on what grounds could elites claim moral or political superiority? As the Protestant minister Elisha Williams put it in 1744, "Every man has an equal right to follow the dictates of his own conscience in the affairs of religion…even an equal right with any rulers be they civil or ecclesiastical." By teaching citizens to question both church and civil authorities, the First Great Awakening helped unleash the American Revolution.
The period of resistance to reform, to use Fogel's schema, took off after the Revolution. Paradoxically, as religious tolerance became widespread, religious enthusiasm waned. By 1790 only 5 percent to 10 percent of the adult population belonged to formal churches. Both the democratic spirit and the call of the frontier loosened American morals. In their 1982 book Drinking in America, the historians Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin described the period from the 1790s until the early 1830s as "probably the heaviest drinking era in the nation's history." In 1800 the mean absolute alcohol intake for Americans 15 years and older was 5.8 gallons per year. By 1830 that had risen to 7.1 gallons per person, of which 4.3 gallons were hard liquor and 2.8 were beer, cider, or wine. The historian W.J. Rorabaugh argued in The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (1979) that post-Revolutionary Americans regarded heavy drinking as their right as free people. As Lender and Martin summarized Rorabaugh's argument, "a personal binge…was in a sense an assertion of individuality, a freedom from communal restraints. Even the drunkard, in essence, was a pluralist—free under the laws of the nation to pursue his or her own lifestyle no matter what others thought."
In American Metropolis: A History of New York City (1999), the historian George Lankevich estimated that 1820 New York, with a population of 124,000 people, was home to 2,500 saloons—one bar for every 50 residents. Today, by comparison, there are just over 10,000 licensed bars, restaurants and nightclubs in a city of more than 8 million people—one bar for every 800 residents.
Prostitution also became common in cities during the period of the First Great Awakening. By 1831 moral reformers improbably claimed that New York City was home to some 10,000 prostitutes; that would have been 27 percent of the city's young female population. The historian Timothy Gilfoyle offered a more reasonable, and still quite high, estimate in his 1992 book City of Eros: "five to 10 percent of all nineteenth-century young women in New York (between 15 and 30 years of age) prostituted at some point." Whatever the number, it was clear that the fire-and-brimstone religious revival ushered in by the likes of Jonathan Edwards had become a distant memory in the wake of the revolution it helped inspire.
The Second Awakening
Even as Americans were enjoying themselves in barrooms and brothels, the revival phase of the Second Great Awakening was gathering strength. When Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, became president of Yale, the vast majority of students described themselves as skeptics. But through a series of powerful sermons beginning in 1801, Dwight revived Christianity on campus. About the same time, Methodist camp revivals were taking root in the trans-Appalachian West.
These revivalists completely rejected Calvinist predestination in favor of free moral agency, arguing that anyone could be saved by God's grace if he struggled fiercely against sin. Evil arose from an individual's conscious choice, not, as Calvin had claimed, from his innate depravity. Since everyone was free to choose good or evil, the revivalists located the source of social problems in individuals. "Lurking in this view," Fogel writes, "was the belief that poverty was the wages of sin."
The Second Great Awakening fostered the rise of numerous single-issue organizations advocating programs of moral and political uplift, from temperance in alcohol to the abolition of prostitution to official enforcement of the Sabbath. The temperance movement proved so successful that per capita alcohol consumption fell by more than 50 percent between 1830 and 1840.
All this took place against a background of mass immigration, especially from Ireland. Some reformers feared the tide of alien Catholics would overwhelm and outbreed America's Protestant majority. Thus arose a campaign to ban abortions, led by the newly formed American Medical Association. (In the early 1800s American women were legally free to terminate a pregnancy until quickening—that is, until fetal movement in the womb could be felt.) The Boston physician Horatio Storer kicked the anti-abortion campaign into high gear in 1855, a full 14 years before the Vatican definitively forbade abortion for Roman Catholics. "The fashionable young bride, accustomed to adulation, is reluctant to forego at once the excitement of society," he warned. "Wishing still to enjoy the immunities of unmarried life—to be as free, as unshackled as ever—she will not endure the seclusion and deprivations necessarily connected with the pregnant condition, but resorts to means, readily procurable, to destroy the life within her."
Reformers also preached the virtues of bodily purification. The Rev. Sylvester Graham, who in 1830 became the general agent for the Pennsylvania Temperance Society, inveighed against "venereal excess." He claimed that immoderate sexual passion would cause indigestion, headaches, feebleness of circulation, pulmonary consumption, spinal diseases, epilepsy, insanity, early death of offspring, and more. He also claimed that "high-seasoned food; rich dishes; the free use of flesh; and even the excess of aliment; all, more or less—and some to a very great degree—increase the concupiscent excitability and sensibility of the genital organs." To cool people's sexual passions, the minister proposed a special diet that included two of his own inventions, Graham crackers and bland, whole wheat Graham bread.
The most politically significant reform movement linked to the Second Great Awakening—and the most appealing from a libertarian point of view—was the campaign to abolish slavery. If all men are equal before God, then no man may justifiably own another. By 1838 the American Anti-Slavery Society had grown to 1,350 chapters, with more than 250,000 members. Politically the reform period of the Second Great Awakening climaxed with the Civil War.
Resistance to these crusades rose in the aftermath of the Civil War. Once again, the expanses of the frontier beckoned Americans to leave behind the constraints of family, community, and church. The restless movement westward was complemented by an unprecedented spate of industrial, economic, and population growth. The richest industrialists indulged in showy displays of opulence, provoking Mark Twain to brand the era the Gilded Age.
The Third Awakening
The revival period of the Third Great Awakening began in the 1870s. Crusades by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago drew tens of thousands of worshipers. Moody, sometimes described as the first Christian fundamentalist, preached a literal interpretation of the Bible and rejected any accommodation with the new evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin.
A theological split gradually opened within the evangelical movement. On one side stood the modernists: mainstream Protestants who no longer believed in the inerrancy of the Bible and who accepted Darwinian evolution. Their New Theology argued that God worked through natural laws and revealed Himself through the progress of history. Moody's spiritual heirs, calling themselves fundamentalists, rejected the New Theology and asserted that a believer's personal salvation was ultimately more important than social action. They insisted on the inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth, bodily resurrection, and salvation only through Christ. A series of 12 booklets, titled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, set out and defended these principles between 1910 and 1915. The two evangelical groups' political agendas did not overlap significantly, although there were figures—most notably the three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan—who straddled the divide, combining fundamentalist religious views with a modernist economic agenda.
It was the modernists who dominated the Third Awakening. In his 1917 book A Theology for the Social Gospel, the Baptist modernist Walter Rauschenbusch warned of "the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it." We couldn't end personal sin, Rauschenbusch argued, without ending social sin; collective sin required collective redemption. Equality of opportunity as preached in the First and Second Awakenings was not enough for Third Awakening evangelicals, who called on the government to redistribute wealth. This, they believed, would enable the lower orders to rise above their spiritual poverty and amend their moral faults. Equality of condition became a prerequisite for moral improvement.
The reform stage of the Third Great Awakening flowered in the first two decades of the 20th century, known as the Progressive Era. This period saw both new interventions in the economy and new restrictions on private and public pleasures, from boxing to the movies. Prohibition advanced with breathtaking speed. By 1900 every state required mandatory "temperance education" in public schools. Under pressure from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, the number of dry states increased from three in 1903 to 32 in 1916. The 18th Amendment, which established Prohibition nationally, was ratified in 1919. Many advocates of the Social Gospel were also prominent Progressives. Lyman Abbott, for example, was both the pastor of Brooklyn's Plymouth Congregational Church and a confidante of President Theodore Roosevelt.
There was a concurrent surge in concern about hygiene, pure foods, and sexual self-control. The scientific cooking movement trained women in "domestic science," showing them how to use precise recipes to produce uniform dishes in the home. One of the more prominent pieces of Progressive legislation was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which empowered the federal government to ensure foods and drugs were not adulterated. The authorities also launched campaigns against opium, cocaine, and heroin. A campaign against "self-abuse" had another lasting effect: The Seventh-Day Adventist doctor John Harvey Kellogg invented corn flakes, a bland breakfast cereal intended to suppress the urge to masturbate.
Resistance to the Third Great Awakening took off after World War I. Millions of troops returning from European battlefields wanted more than drudgery on the family farm or factory floor. Women who had flocked to wartime workplaces resisted being consigned again to the dull routines of homemaking. Wider access to new technologies such as automobiles and movies helped push traditional values into the background. The fact that by 1920 more than half of all Americans were living in urban areas also eroded traditional social bonds and hierarchies, since cities have always been refuges for people seeking greater autonomy and self-expression. The 1920s became the era of hot jazz, speakeasies, bathtub gin, and flappers. Novels, movies, and magazine stories became more sexually explicit. While mild by comparison to contemporary American mores, a new sexual freedom flowered.
The Fourth Awakening
After World War II, American economic expansion resumed. Often described as the era of the "organization man," the 1950s also gave us books like Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), which exalted drugging, drinking, and sexual libertinism. In 1960 the anarchist sociologist Paul Goodman, in Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System, highlighted "the disaffection of the growing generation" with "the disgrace of the Organized System of semimonopolies, government, advertisers, etc." The sexy rhythms of rock and roll became popular, and Playboy magazine, founded in 1953, both reflected and amplified a new wave of sexual liberation. The introduction of the birth control pill in 1960 gave women much greater control over reproduction, putting them more on a par with men in the workplace. These liberating cultural and technological developments fueled the social and political eruptions of the 1960s and '70s.
McLoughlin and Fogel both argue that the upheavals of the 1950s and '60s were the beginning of the Fourth Great Awakening. Writing in 1978, McLoughlin argued that the Beats, the rise of interest in Asian religions such as Zen Buddhism, the growth of environmental consciousness, and the spread of "experimental life-styles" would "produce a new shift in our belief value system, a transformation of our world view that may be the most drastic in our history as a nation." He even compared rock concerts to old-fashioned revivalist camp meetings.
In hindsight, this reading misinterpreted the turmoil of the period, which is better understood as a continuation of the arc of cultural liberation that began in the 1920s. But while McLoughlin was getting the period wrong, Dean Kelley was getting it right. Kelley, a United Methodist minister and an adviser to the National Council of Churches, presciently and controversially recognized a coming fundamentalist surge in his 1972 book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. Membership in ecumenically minded mainline Protestant denominations was declining, he noted, while the doctrinal strictness and discipline of conservative denominations were attracting many Americans. Evangelical Protestant affiliation has grown from 17 percent to 20 percent of the American population in the early 1970s to between 25 percent and 28 percent today. Largely outside the purview of liberal intellectuals who were celebrating the counterculture, a social force was incubating that would eventually power the Fourth Great Awakening. These modern evangelicals were the direct descendants of Moody's fundamentalists.
Proponents of conservative interpretations of Christianity felt themselves under attack by policies aimed at limiting public expressions of religious belief. In 1962 and 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that any requirement that prayers and Bible verses be read in public schools violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In 1968 the Court declared that a state cannot ban the teaching of biological evolution in public schools. And in 1973 the Court found in Roe v. Wade that women had a constitutionally protected right to privacy that allowed them to end their pregnancies in the first trimester.
Initially most Protestant denominations did not react strongly to Roe, viewing abortion as a "Catholic issue." In 1974 the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution reflecting the "middle ground between the extreme of abortion on demand and the opposite extreme of all abortion as murder."
That moderation was not to last. Just six years later, the same group called for "appropriate legislation and/or a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother." The shift on abortion was part of a strong negative reaction to what the Southern Baptists saw as countercultural excesses undermining the Christian moral order.
Although McLoughlin dismisses President Jimmy Carter's neo-evangelicalism as a dead end, Carter's professed religious faith awakened his fellow evangelicals to the potential for political action. Carter wore his born-again Christianity on his sleeve, declaring that his religious convictions were "the most important thing in my life." Although it is not much appreciated now, Carter used the abortion issue to mobilize his fellow evangelicals. He declared during the 1976 presidential campaign that "abortion is wrong," and he signaled his support for the Hyde Amendment, which cut off federal Medicaid funding for abortions. As president he eliminated funding for abortions for women in the military. Carter was no conservative, but he helped America's 60 million self-described evangelicals find their way out of the political wilderness. He functioned as a Moses pointing his co-religionists to the promised land of political potency, although it would be another man who would lead them there.
Power to the Pulpit
In 1979 the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 60 denominations and 45,000 churches, passed a resolution opposing abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, and homosexual rights. When the Democratic platform defended all three in 1980, evangelicals were horrified. That same year, Jerry Falwell, a 44-year-old Baptist preacher, founded the Moral Majority as a vehicle for evangelical Christians to influence national politics. After the 1980 election, Falwell claimed that the Moral Majority had 4 million members and that the organization had helped mobilize more than 10 million evangelical voters. With that election, the religious right made itself essential to the Republican Party's political fortunes. The Fourth Great Awakening had entered its reform phase.
First the Moral Majority and then Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition launched political crusades against abortion, premarital sex, explicit entertainment, sex education, drug use, and homosexuality, all in the name of promoting traditional family values. For the first time since the 1920s, even evolution became a live political issue. Among other things, "traditional family values" meant restoring the authority of the husband in the family, because, as Falwell said, quoting Ephesians, "the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church." Falwell blamed women's lib on a "minority core of women who were once bored with life, whose real problems are spiritual problems." He added that "many women have never accepted their God-given roles."
As in previous awakenings, concerns about sexuality were paramount. In the 1980s, Falwell and evangelical leader Donald Wildmon campaigned against the "distributors" of pornography, by which they meant ordinary stores with magazine racks. Responding to the anti-porn crusade, the Reagan administration created the Meese Commission on Pornography in 1985. The commission concluded that smut contributed to sexual violence and discrimination against women, and it sent letters to 12 chains of drug, grocery, and convenience stores threatening to list them as "distributors of pornography." Subsequently, thousands of outlets yanked Playboy and Penthouse from their shelves. Some frightened stores even dropped Cosmopolitan and the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.
The crusades were firmly bipartisan. In 1985 Tipper Gore, wife of Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.), and Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker, founded the Parents Music Resource Center to attack rock music lyrics. At a 1985 Senate hearing, Baker testified, "The proliferation of songs glorifying rape, sadomasochism, incest, the occult, and suicide by a growing number of bands illustrates this escalating trend that is alarming." In 1986 the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart joined the anti-rock crusade, declaring that music magazines were "pornography, pure and simple. They're more dangerous than Hustler and Playboy." In response to Swaggart, Wal-Mart pulled 32 rock and pop publications from its stores, including Rolling Stone, Creem, and Tiger Beat.
As gays began demanding greater acceptance, Falwell thundered, "If homosexuality is deemed normal, how long will it be before rape, adultery, alcoholism, drug addiction, and incest are labeled normal?" In 1981 he persuaded Congress to overturn a District of Columbia ordinance that would have decriminalized sodomy. In 1986, the same year a Gallup poll found that more than half of Americans considered homosexuality a sin, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Georgia's anti-sodomy law in Bowers v. Hardwick. Falwell crowed that the Supreme Court "has issued a clear statement that perverted moral behavior is not accepted practice in this country."
Unlike their fundamentalist forebears, the evangelical crusaders of the Fourth Great Awakening have not demanded that the government leave them alone; they want to use government for their own ends. As Bill McCartney, founder of the Christian men's organization the Promise Keepers, explained in 1997, "Social problems are moral problems, which ultimately have a spiritual cause." This inverts the Social Gospel conviction that poverty, slums, and ignorance prevent people from leading
Christian lives. On this view it is impossible to solve social problems without embracing spiritual reform first. So the followers of the Fourth Awakening are enthusiastic supporters of faith-based tax-funded social programs. Although Congress has never approved these programs, President George W. Bush issued an executive order in 2001 to create the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In 2005 it distributed $2.1 billion to support religious efforts, about 11 percent of all federal community grants.
The election of the "compassionate conservative" Bush in 2000 was the high water mark in the reform phase of the Fourth Great Awakening. The Bush administration embraced abstinence-only sex education in public schools and appointed evangelically motivated advisers to the Food and Drug Administration, where they opposed the agency's approval of the abortion pill RU-486 and the over-the-counter sale of the emergency contraceptive Plan B. Asked if intelligent design should be taught in public schools, Bush answered that "both sides" ought to be presented. Bush also supports a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to two people of the opposite sex. And the president's condemnation of foreign "evildoers" surely is informed by his Christian faith. (It wasn't the first time the awakening had an impact on international affairs. Many evangelicals interpreted the rise of the state of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies indicating the impending return of Jesus and his thousand-year reign of peace. Thus it became "God's foreign policy" that the U.S. should back Israel.)
But just as each of the previous awakenings cycled through revival, reform, and resistance, there is evidence that the resistance phase to the Fourth Great Awakening is now under way.
The Beginning of the End?
Awakenings don't end with a bang. Their conclusions begin with nearly imperceptible political shifts signaling a political realignment.
One bellwether event was the tragic case of Terry Schiavo, a brain-dead Florida woman attached to a feeding tube. Her husband wanted to let her die, and her parents did not; keeping her alive had become a rallying point for the religious right. According to a leaked strategy memo written by a senior staffer for Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), congressional Republicans thought the case would be "a great political issue" because "the pro-life base will be excited" by it. Republican legislators and President Bush rushed back to Washington on Palm Sunday in 2005 to pass a law preventing the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube. As the courts promptly ruled that the tube could be removed anyway, polls showed Americans disapproved of Washington's intervention by almost 2 to 1.
Nationally, animus toward gays is fading. In the 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court overruled its 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick and found sodomy laws unconstitutional. A 2003 Harris Interactive poll found that 74 percent of Americans favored the Court's decision. The same poll also found Americans opposed state laws regulating private, sexual relations between opposite-sex married couples (87 percent) and same-sex domestic partners (82 percent).
Gay marriage is still unpopular, but the trend is moving away from the fierce intolerance of the early Fourth Awakening. Since 1996 the Gallup Poll has asked Americans, "Do you think marriages between homosexuals should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages?" In 1996 only 27 percent of Americans approved of same-sex marriages. By May 2007, 46 percent did, and 62 percent of those under age 35 favored them. Most state ballot measures to ban gay marriage still pass, but in 2006, for the first time, one failed, and the ones that succeeded did so by much narrower margins.
The drug war's moralistic march into private life may also be slowing down: Since 1996, a dozen states have passed legislation approving the use of medical marijuana, and polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans favor such measures.
Americans now spend an estimated $90 billion a year on gambling, despite myriad prohibitions. And even as evangelicals rail against it, pornography has become widely available and highly profitable, with an estimated $13 billion in revenues in 2006. Meanwhile, its allegedly corrosive effects on society are hard to discern: Since the early 1990s, divorce rates, rape rates, and domestic violence are all down.
Attempts to restrain biomedical progress in the name of religious values are receding too. In 1998 researchers derived stem cells from five-day-old human embryos, provoking a firestorm of protest from anti-abortion crusaders. But by 2007 a Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans favor embryonic stem cell research. Congress has twice voted to expand federal funding for such work.
And the party of moralizers lost the congressional elections of 2006. Many voters, admittedly, were motivated mainly by congressional corruption—the Jack Abramoff and Mark Foley scandals—and the increasingly unpopular Iraq war. But in the run-up to the 2008 elections, the evangelical coalition seems even less influential than in 2006. The Christian right is weak and divided, its leaders unable to settle on a favorite candidate. Even after Mike Huckabee emerged as the leading social conservative in the race, he failed to duplicate his stunning upset win in the heavily evangelical Iowa and at press time he was fighting for his political survival against a candidate (John McCain) who famously called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance." Robertson himself went so far as to endorse former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, despite Giuliani's three marriages and his pro-choice, pro–gay rights record.
One of the most reliable constituency groups of the Republican Party has been born-again Christians. In 2004, 62 percent of born-agains voted for George Bush. In February, the Christian marketing consultancy, the Barna Group, released a striking poll which found that 40 percent of all born-agains say that if the 2008 election were today they would vote for the Democratic presidential candidate and just 29 percent would choose the Republican candidate. Even more stunning is the shift among self-described evangelicals. In 2004, 85 percent voted for Bush, but now 51 percent are either leaning Democratic or are undecided.
The Other Scenario
Then again, the Fourth Great Awakening might simply be taking a left turn. While the fundamentalists have dominated this awakening for the last quarter century, the intellectual descendants of the Social Gospel movement also have been busy, particularly in the movements for healthy living and environmental reform. Some of these activists have an overtly religious outlook, while others continue the secularization of the Social Gospel that began in the Progressive Era.
Environmentalism arose as a movement just a few years before the Moral Majority, with an end-of-the-world undercurrent that harked back to the millenarian sects of the Second Great Awakening. Green millenarians do not expect a wrathful God to end the corrupt world in a rain of fire; instead, humanity will die by its own gluttonous, polluting hand.
Such apocalyptic visions were limned in Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring, which predicted massive cancer epidemics as a result of chemical contamination of the environment. Paul Ehrlich asserted in his 1968 book The Population Bomb that in the 1970s "hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." And the Club of Rome's 1972 report The Limits to Growth announced the imminent, catastrophic depletion of nonrenewable resources. In the run-up to the first Earth Day in 1970, the ecologist Kenneth Watt declared, "We have about five more years at the outside to do something." The Harvard biologist George Wald estimated that "civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind." Even the staid New York Times editorial page warned of the human species' "possible extinction." It wasn't so far from the evangelists' fears of a literal Armageddon, embodied in books like Hal Lindsey's best-selling The Late Great Planet Earth (1970).
Although all those predictions failed, environmentalism still exhibits millenarian tendencies. Former Vice President Al Gore has warned that man-made global warming is producing a climate crisis that might "make it impossible for us to avoid irretrievable damage to the planet's habitability for human civilization." For Gore, global warming is not merely a technical question of how to produce the energy humanity needs without emitting greenhouse gases. It is "a moral issue."
It is possible that environmental revivalism may supplant the fundamentalist aspect of the Fourth Great Awakening. If so, we may be in for a period in which campaigns for green reform programs dominate American politics. And it's worth noting that some evangelical churches recently have embraced environmental issues. In 2004 the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals adopted an "Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility" affirming that "because clean air, pure water, and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order, government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation." Huckabee, the evangelical candidate, says plainly that he wants to be "a good steward of the earth"—and, to that end, favors an economy-wide "cap-and-trade" system to control greenhouse gases.
The heirs of the Social Gospel have also enthusiastically embraced and promoted modern campaigns for clean living. Contemporary anti-smoking campaigns resemble the old crusades against demon rum, particularly in the willingness to go beyond educational efforts and push draconian government controls. Campaigns against lifestyle diseases are just beginning. In 2006 New York City public health officials began requiring medical labs to report the results of blood sugar tests for all the city's diabetics directly to the health department. This is the first time that any government has tracked people with a chronic disease. The New York City Department of Health will analyze the data to identify those patients who are not adequately controlling their diabetes. They will then receive letters or phone calls urging them to be more vigilant about their medications, have more frequent checkups, or change their diet. If nagging is not sufficient, more coercive steps may be taken. For example, in a 2004 editorial in the American Journal of Public Health, New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Friedan called for "local requirements on food pricing, advertising, content, and labeling; regulations to facilitate physical activity, including point-of-service reminders at elevators and safe, accessible stairwells; tobacco and alcohol taxation and advertising and sales restrictions; and regulations to ensure a minimal level of clinical preventive services."
Scientifically unfounded fears about the danger of exposure to chemicals have displaced religious anxieties about spiritual impurity with new worries about bodily impurity. (They also have fueled new lawsuits and regulations. Excessive fears about exposure to secondhand smoke, for example, prompted the city of Belmont, California, to forbid smoking in private apartments.) The contemporary cult of the body, with its obsession with diet and exercise and its emphasis on beauty and perfection, has roots in the biblical notion of the body as a "temple of the Holy Spirit."
Still, it's not clear these attitudes have seized the public imagination. Despite all of the hullabaloo about environmental issues, for example, polls regularly show that they are at the bottom of most Americans' concerns. A December 2007 USA Today poll found only 2 percent of Americans saying they would take environmental issues into account when deciding for whom to vote. Every year Gallup asks Americans to identify the most important problem facing the country. In 2007 only 2 percent of respondents mentioned the environment.
Smoking bans are proliferating, although the percentage of Americans who believe second-hand smoke is very harmful has not budged from around 55 percent since 1997, according to various Gallup polls. And while it is true that most Americans favor some restrictions on smoking in public areas, they are against total bans in workplaces, bars, and hotels. In fact, Americans remain largely tolerant of their fellow citizens' lifestyle choices. A 2003 Gallup poll asked Americans if they respect someone more or less because that person smokes, drinks, or is overweight. Seventy-seven percent said that smoking makes no difference and 83 percent said the same about drinking and being overweight.
Perhaps the best evidence that the evangelical phase of the Fourth Great Awakening is winding down is that large numbers of young Americans are falling away from organized religion, just as the country did in the period between the first two awakenings. In the 1970s, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that between 5 percent and 7 percent of the public declared they were not religiously affiliated. By 2006 that figure had risen to 17 percent. The trend is especially apparent among younger Americans: In 2006 nearly a quarter (23 percent) of Americans in their 20s and almost as many (19 percent) of those in their 30s said they were nonaffiliated.
The Barna Group finds that only 60 percent of 16-to-29-year-olds identify themselves as Christians. By contrast, 77 percent of Americans over age 60 call themselves Christian. That is "a momentous shift," the firm's president told the Ventura County Star. "Each generation is becoming increasingly secular."
Just as movies and the pill enticed people out of the pews, so is modern technology making it harder to impose any single moral vision. In the old days, Roman Catholics could pressure Hollywood to adopt a Production Code decreeing that "no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it." Today the means to produce video entertainment are increasingly cheap and the methods of distribution are becoming more and more decentralized. The notion that a book could be banned in Boston—or anywhere with an Internet service provider—is laughable. Social utilities like Facebook and MySpace encourage the proliferation of virtual communities. Virtual worlds like Second Life enable people to privately experiment with different personalities and lifestyles.
Global trade, too, is making it harder to impose any single vision on a society. Attempts to restrict advanced biomedical treatments such as embryonic stem cell transplants will simply shift such activity to more tolerant jurisdictions. The next couple of decades will see the development of biotech and nanotech enhancements that dramatically extend the range of human capabilities. If they are outlawed in one country, more liberal ones will make them available.
In 1908 Clarence Darrow told the Personal Liberty League, "The world is suffering more today from the good people who want to mind other men's business than it is from the bad people who are willing to let everybody look after their own individual affairs." That has been true for a long time now, but we may finally be heading toward a better world—one where Americans are increasingly willing to live and let live.
Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is the author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).