Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism”


FogelThe Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. By Robert William Fogel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Nobel Laureate Robert William Fogel (1926-2013) upset the historical discipline throughout his entire career. One of his first major works, Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History (1964), used sophisticated statistical analysis to overturn the traditional assertion that railroads in the nineteenth century greatly stimulated American economic growth by making a strong case that the impact was actually quite small, only about 2.7% of 1890 GNP. Moreover, Fogel, working with Stanley Engermen, published Time on the Cross (1974), a major quantitative reinterpretation of American slavery. It argued that Southern slavery was enormously profitable and productive, perhaps even more efficient as an economic system than free labor. It created a firestorm by arguing that since slave owners were good capitalists they were less exploitative and oppressive than previously characterized.

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism is not as controversial as his study of slavery, but Fogel made the case in it that there have been four cycles of religious fervor, driven largely by evangelicalism, and this has fueled a never-ending march toward greater equality. In it he offers “a framework for analyzing the movements that shaped the egalitarian creed in America” (p. 39). One of the most interesting aspects of this book is Fogel’s characterization of these various “Great Awakenings.”

  1. The First Great Awakening (1730s-1820s general dates), arose from a mixture of Enlightenment principles with greater equality. It found its greatest manifestation in the American Revolution. Fogel stated: “Steeped in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and harboring suspicions of the established churches, the leaders of the Revolution tended to view all political issues through the prism of natural rights rather than divine revelation” (p. 20).
  2. The Second Great Awakening (1800s-1870s general dates), undertook a remaking of society through greater egalitarianism with the abolition of slavery as the penultimate success of the era. “The abolition of slavery was the most radical and far-reaching of the reforms sought by the evangelicals of the Second Great Awakening, especially with respect to the egalitarian ethic” (p. 104). Ultimately, according to Fogel, these reformers sought to make the Earth acceptable for the coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth.
  3. The Third Great Awakening (1890s-1930s general dates) continued many of the reforms left unfinished by earlier crusaders, but emphasized the rise of a Social Gospel. This effort “laid the basis for the welfare state, providing both the ideological foundation and the political drive for the labor reforms of the 1930, 1940s and 1950s, and for the civil rights reforms of the 1950 and 1960s, and for the new feminist reforms of the late 1960s and early 1970s” (p. 25).
  4. The Fourth Great Awakening emerging in the 1970s and 1980s and still going strong has emphasized seeming retrenchment—pro-life and pro-family emphases, values-oriented school curricula, and attacks on the failures of the Welfare State—but in actuality are disagreements over tactics over the method of achieve greater egalitarianism rather than the opposite.

Fogel comments: “As set forth here, the Great Awakenings are not merely, nor primarily, religious phenomena. They are primarily political phenomena in which the evangelical churches represent the leading edge of an ideological and political response to accumulated technological, economic, and social changes that undermined the received culture” (p. 39).

Collectively, this structure of cycles of reform in American history have been called, by others and not by Fogel himself, “The Fogel Paradigm.” John B. Carpenter commented, “Fogel’s paradigm is drawn from what he believes are cycles of ethical challenges America has undergone provoked by technological innovations that create moral crises that, in turn, are resolved by evangelical awakenings” (“The Fourth Great Awakening or Apostasy: Is American Evangelicalism Cycling Upward or Spiraling Downward,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 44/4 (December 2001): 647).

Fogel makes clear that these egalitarian reform movements achieved reality only through the intervention of government, at all levels. Accordingly, such achievements as the increase of income and life spans has been possible through public investment. Subsidies for all manner of “public goods,” especially through New Deal and Great Society programs, led to what he calls an “egalitarian revolution” in the twentieth century. It changed everything. Most of these changes have been accomplished through a relatively simple transfer of funds from one part of society to another, and as much as some many complain about this it has been a generally positive process for America as a whole. What is harder, and Fogel tries to address this in the last part of his book, is the need to pursue reforms in relation to “immaterial goods”—a sense of purpose, a work ethic, a spiritual wellbeing—as the major egalitarian agenda for the twenty-first century. The spiritual gap that Fogel perceives cannot be resolved through simple transfer payments from one part of society to another. He sees the need for mentoring, extended education, greater community, and the like as the challenge before all Americans.

At sum, Fogel argues that “the egalitarian creed…is at the core of American political culture” (p. 32). He demonstrates that while political elements in the United States might disagree over methods, individual objectives, and even short-term outcomes all sides agree on both the opportunity and the mandate to make the world a better, more equitable place. They might differ over the end-state, “equality of opportunity” versus “equality of condition,” but they do not disagree over the desire for greater egalitarianism.

Fogel’s argument is masterful, bringing together insights from history, religion, biology, nutrition, demography, economics, and sociology. The result is an impressive analysis that merge the priorities of both the political left and right into an egalitarian crusade that has been underway for more than three-hundred years.

If there is one take-away, it is that both Great Society liberals and hard-edged conservatives have the same objective, making the world a better, more fulfilling place. They differ over tactics and approaches. I don’t know if Fogel thought of himself as a political uniter, but he drew closer connections between those seemingly divergent groups than I had thought about before. This may be a helpful perspective for those seeking a way forward in our political process.

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