January 23, 2013

Are we seeing the end of a Fourth Great Awakening?

Per discussion with friends on Facebook, over the book "The Rocks Don't Lie," I'd say the answer is yes. (Partial review of the book below, followed by a jump into discussion.)

The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood
The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood by David R. Montgomery

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A genial refutation of young-earth creationism

Montgomery generally keeps this story about how the earth's geology refutes any version of a literal Noahic flood light on detailed scientific language. And, it is written as a story.

He takes the reader to various geological formations in the world thatr have been key to the development of geology as a science, while narrating how key figures from geology's history have studied and analyzed such formations. At the same time, he narrates the history of Christian theological thought on literal vs non-literal biblical interpretation in general, and specifically on the Noahic flood. He intertwines the two in discussing how different strands of Christian thought reacted to these scientific findings.

Basically, by the end of the 19th century, a literal or semi-literal young-earth creationism (if not 10,000 years or less, certainly no more than 100,000 years) had fallen out of favor with the great majority of theologians in most of the Western world.

With the exception of the United States.

Montgomery puts YEC developments in the historic context of:
1. Anti-evolutionism and the Scopes trial of the 1920s and
2. Anti-communism and the Cold War, etc., of the late 1940s and beyond.

As talk of "culture wars" continues, and as Montgomery stretches YEC roots back to the Second Great Awakening, this is good to remember.

And now, to tie this to a "Fourth Great Awakening."

First, unlike the First Great Awakening. the Second Great Awakening, or the Third Great Awakening, this "Fourth Great Awakening" has a much more political component.

To explain, for people not very familiar with the history of Christianity in America:

The First Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, and others, attempting to revitalize the Puritan Calivinist beliefs of New England and the Middle Atlantic colonies in the first half of the 1700s. It was also was intertwined with the growth of Methodism and Baptist denominations. The Second started to battle deism and skepticism, and at its tail end, was connected to the start of sects such as Mormonism and Seventh-Day Adventism. The Third was connected with the late 19th century Social Gospel and reform movements such as the temperance issue.

The First one may have had some connection to the American Revolution; Wiki's entry claims that, but I think it overstates the case. The Second spawned the short-lived Anti-Masonic Party, but was not directly connected to abolitionism. The Third  (I partially accept there was one, but definite more narrowly in time than Wiki) had a bit of a political angle, more in the "Social Gospel" of mainline Protestantism, though, than in the rising Holiness Movement. was a bit more political, but not extremely so.

I also accept the idea of a Fourth Great Awakening, but while I disagree with Wiki that its timeframe for the Third is too long, I think it's too short for the Fourth.

The Fourth relates to the rise of literalism in biblical interpretation and much more. It's definitely the most anti-intellectual of the Great Awakenings.

Evidence for one starting includes that the National Council of Churches "peaked" in the late 50s/early 60s, mainline Protestantism had clergy/laity separating more at that time, and fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism grew rapidly.

That said, previous "Great Awakenings" shot their Roman candle in 35-45 years, really. (Which is part of why I think Wiki is too long on the Third and too short on the Fourth.)  So ... W's two elections aside, is the Third Awakening pretty much dying? And, does that in part explain some of the vitriol? Angry death spasms?

We're at about the right time frame. Each previous Great Awakening died differently.

The First petered out, as much as anything. The fervor of the Second got a nurture in sects such as Mormonism, Adventism, etc., that got new life in the Third, which also faced American industrialization.

The Fourth had a start, if you will, and was almost stillborn, in the Scopes trial. Not all conservative Christians were young-earth creationists, and so, while they may not have been fully reconciled to Darwinian ideas about evolution, many probably could have halfway accepted a "tamer" version of evolution if combined with old-earth creationism.

But, the Second Red Scare ( the first being after World War I) changed everything. But not by itself. The Civil Rights Movement added a "second stage" to this rocket. (Although black megachurches have grown recently, the Fourth Great Awakening is much more a white Christian phenomenon.)

Because the Fourth Great Awakening tied with this, not just the Second Red Square, it naturally became more political. Non-Catholic parochial schools, battles over school prayer, tax exemptions and more, as well as political appeals, both open and coded, by both Democrats and Republicans, became part of this.

But, now, has it shot its bolt?

It may have. One sign? Per a new Wall Street Journal poll, almost 70 percent of Americans want to keep Roe v. Wade. Gay relationships, if not gay marriage, are also getting more support among centrist Americans.

That said, as I noted, the First Great Awakening pretty much faded out. The Second created the "burned over district," but eventually died down smoothly enough. The Third definitely faded out, after the passage of Prohibition and the fading of political Progressivism.

I don't think the Fourth will end the same way. To riff on T.S. Eliot, if it doesn't end with a bang instead of a whimper, its demise will be more emotionally violent. And, because it's more political, that emotionally violent denouement, which I believe we're seeing now, will have political fallout which none of us can probably fully see at this time.

That depends in part on how much the Democratic party tries to stay progressive on social issues while remaining conservative on financial ones, and even more if some conservative Christian laity become disgusted with a Republican party that panders even more to the rich.

Could we see the Constitution party, which is the closest thing the US has to a Religious Right party, move more fully that way?

It wouldn't surprise me. If a Ron Paul type were to temper his financial libertarianism with a heavier dollop of William Jennings Bryan type populism, that person could indeed lead such a "movement."

If we had parliamentary government, this would be a no-brainer. That said, countries like France, which has a modified presidential-parliamentary hybrid, but more power with the president than the leader of parliament, have multiparty government. The problem here in the US is, of course, the Electoral College system. One could have a spectrum of parties in Congress without it, and lesser parties focusing on Congressional elections.

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