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Tuesday, January 1, 2002

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism

An Anecdotally Constructed Conjectural History


Robert Fogel argues that “egalitarianism” is a national ethic that has manifested itself in American history in three successive forms. During the eighteenth, and most of the nineteenth, century it took the form of desiring for everyone an “equality of opportunity” for material success. Toward the end of the nineteenth, and throughout most of the twentieth, century it was the “equality of condition” with respect to income and wealth that was the goal of the egalitarian ethic. At the turn of the present century there has been a return to the ethic of “equality of opportunity,” but with a new twist. Now the term means to provide an equal opportunity for “spiritual” growth, for developing one’s “spiritual assets,” for achieving one’s individual “potential,” rather than a focus on providing mere access to the material means for self-improvement.

Fogel, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in economics, identifies American evangelical churches as the leading religious force in achieving political reforms in response to the perceived social inequities of each age. The crucial period of transformation in theological beliefs, and their expression in action, are the four “Great Awakenings” of his book’s title. The inequities that produced each of the “awakenings” were themselves the result of the impact of technological change, manifested in economic institutions, on human cultural and physiological evolution. The guiding principle of social change is the way in which the ethic of “egalitarianism” is implemented in response to each “Great Awakening.”

The first “awakening” was a response to the perception that the moral and political corruption of Britain was infecting the American colonies. It produced the American Revolution and paved the way for the second “awakening,” which focused on individuals achieving a “state of grace.” This led to the abolition of slavery and the attempt to create equality of opportunity for material advancement. It was the eventual frustration of achieving that latter goal, given the modern structure of industry, and the associated belief that poverty was a social, rather than an individual failure, which led to the third “Great Awakening.” The latter belief eventually produced the welfare state as part of an attempt to achieve equality of condition, given the absence of equality of opportunity. The “Fourth Great Awakening” is Fogel’s speculative title for the recent focus of evangelicals on the spiritual development of the individual in the face of certain perceived “inequities” in the possession of “spiritual assets,” such as purposefulness, self-esteem, discipline, motivation, dedication to family and community, and intellectual curiosity.

Fogel ends with an outline of a reform agenda and a catalog of proposed measures for its implementation. He also characterizes his descriptive “cycle” model as one that reveals the continuity in 300 years of an American struggle to win over the world “to the egalitarian creed that is at the core of American political culture.”

There is much about specific technological, political, theological, religious, and economic history that can be learned from this book. However, and putting aside my fundamental disagreement with the notion that an “egalitarian creed . . . is at the core of American political culture,” Fogel’s general argument fails in two respects. The first is his failure to present a convincing causal tie between technological advancement and each of the “Great Awakenings.” Instead, what is presented is an anecdotally constructed conjectural history. Fogel accepts rapid technological change, and its consequences, as characteristic of the modern era. Why? It is obviously not some sort of primal force, or it would not be so new to human history.

It also must be mentioned that his “cycle” argument fails at the outset in that the American Revolution is identified as the religiously nurtured fruit of the “First Great Awakening.” Almost as an afterthought, Fogel points out an irony in the fact that most of the Founding Fathers and members of the Continental Congress were a-religious deists. Are we to take them as mere opportunists happening on a fertile field, rather than leading elements of a more general ideological struggle?

Those who believe that technological and social change are made possible and driven by ideas derived from fundamental philosophical beliefs—which are themselves independent of technological or economic change—will find little in Fogel’s argument to change their minds.

The second failure of the book lies at the end. Fogel’s “Postmodern Egalitarian Agenda” to redistribute “spiritual assets” reads like a social-engineering satire. His foundational beliefs are that “self-realization requires good health and leisure” and that, given the requisite governmental redistribution of our present material abundance, there is a necessity for the spiritually rich elite to educate the spiritually deprived masses so that they may also achieve self-realization. Thus will “spiritual redistribution” follow material redistribution and complete the realization of the egalitarian ethic. Both parts of this agenda are only superficially supported: the first by an offhand reference to John Dewey; the second by the usual reflection that education is the balm of the malformed soul. As Leon Botstein pointed out in his commencement address on May 20, 2001, at my university, the bloodbaths of the twentieth century were all led by educated men. And as Fogel himself recognizes, moral values inculcated through family and church are what tend to produce moral human beings. The problem is not one of education per se; it is that of the formation of character, and that is much more complicated in solution.

Samuel Bostaph is chairman of the economics department at the University of Dallas.