America's Religious Awakening May Be Ringing False Alarms

By Witham, Larry | Insight on the News, September 29, 1997 | Go to article overview

America's Religious Awakening May Be Ringing False Alarms


Witham, Larry, Insight on the News


Ministers and scholars disagree whether the United States is experiencing a religious revival. Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God, but church attendance has been flat for 50 years.

For three months in the 1970s, Julie Hedges tried everything to shake the trauma of being sexually assaulted while an undergraduate at Ohio State University She was only freed, she says, after turning to God.

"I went to bed that night and prayed to God and was suddenly fired with a sense of peace," she says of her turn from apathy to belief. "I woke up a different person."

Dramatic conversions have spanned the history of faith, from Augustine of Hippo to convicted Watergate figure Charles Colson. But some say such personal stories are chronicling an American revival or awakening as the third millennium approaches.

Certainly Hedges has no doubt about God's ability to turn around a life. "I had partied with the best of them," she recalls of her student days. "I never went back to that lifestyle."

Americans today have more ways than ever before to describe religious conversion: enlightened, spirit-filled, one with nature, self-affirmed or freed of addiction and codependence. Nearly 40 percent of Americans say they have been "born again," the conversion experience first described by Jesus, according to pollster George Gallup. Half of the people who experienced spiritual transformation say they were in a "turbulent time" personally.

"We live in a conversion-prone society," says John Seel, associate director of the Post-Modernity Project at the University of Virginia. "We have a proclivity toward believing. But we probably don't believe things as strongly as Americans used to."

Ninety percent of Americans believe in God, but only two in three say it's the loving and stern personal God of the Bible. Others define God as consciousness, the energy of the universe or even the self.

"If you want an old-fashioned renewal, you need a stronger sense of truth that is objective, outside of us," says Seel. American clergy and historians use a historical benchmark to judge a true shift in personal or national conversion: New England's Great Awakening of the 1740s, when theological giant Jonathan Edwards tried to sort out real and illusory "religious affections" (see sidebar). But even Edwards had to deal with three ongoing debates that continue to define "the surprising work of God."

* The clash between "New Lights" and "Old Lights." Revivalist George Whitefield was a New Light when he traveled through Boston in 1740 and said the city "has the form of religion kept up, but has lost much of its power." New Light Presbyterians broke with the old Congregationalists and founded Princeton as their rival seminary.

And so it goes today. Pentecostal evangelist the Rev. Steve Hill, the man who sparked a two-year revival at the Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola, [see "Meanwhile, Old-Time Religion Rocks," Sept. 8], preached a New Light message to 4,000 pastors this spring. "Get out of the web of religion," he said.

* A differing emphasis on God and human roles in conversion. In colonial times, Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius argued that humans are free to work out their personal salvation. But Edwards believed salvation was God's work alone. Since then, American Christianity has split between the doctrinal and the experiential.

Even the Rev. Billy Graham, the great revivalist of the postwar era, has struggled with what is God's work and what is human effort, according to Graham biographer William Martin. "He was always bothered that he didn't have this dramatic conversion experience, which he thought he should have had," says Martin. As a consequence, Graham's ham's ministry has promoted the idea of a "decision" to accept Christ, a matter of human will.

* The sometimes conflicting uses of spontaneity and outreach.

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