The Sacred and the Profane: Religious Revivals Often Turn Political

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Sacred and the Profane: Religious Revivals Often Turn Political


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Last of three parts

As Virginia Democrats urge their Republican counterparts to keep religion out of this year's governor's race, state school board member Kay Coles James says that sounds like bigotry.

"The specter of `no Irish need apply' seems to have been replaced with `Religious conservatives have no legitimate voice in the public debate about the future of education for their children,' " says Mrs. James, a black Christian and a Republican.

If history is any guide, eras of intense religious renewal and awakening expand the political influence of figures like Mrs. James, dean of the school of government at Pat Robertson's Regent University. Broad-based popular religious movements invariably have led to changes in social and cultural attitudes. And, often, political action followed.

This concluding article in a three-part series on the signs of a new American "awakening" examines the impact of enthusiastic or life-changing religion on secular society - a final measure, religious leaders and scholars say, of a faith-based movement's ability to transform the larger society.

"Most educated Americans know that religion had some effect on reform movements, but they couldn't write a paragraph about the events," said Warren Nord, director of humanities at the University of North Carolina.

Mr. Nord's analysis of U.S. history textbooks found that they hardly discuss the First and Second Great Awakenings, or that the civil rights movement was born in black churches.

With the help of a few modern scholars, however, the role of religious impulses in social reform is gaining new respect.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, noted historian of Victorian England, has argued that religious ferment there mobilized moral forces that changed "the ethos" of the whole society.

"The moral behavior enormously improved over the 19th century," she said. "One can prove it almost statistically. . . . The religious revival we are experiencing today may have the same effect."

Religious leaders and historians say the resurgence of religious feeling comes in times of social crisis or as an "offensive-defensive" measure against threats to cherished value systems.

"A lot of these revival movements are a response to liberal impositions," said Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "The response is usually social and cultural first, such as sobriety or the work ethic. Then it may become political."

After polling Americans on their religion for years, George Gallup believes crises turn societies around. "When the public is hitting bottom just as with an individual, it either looks to God or other people," he said.

One view on the extent of the crisis is the "Index of Leading Cultural Indicators," set up by William Bennett, education secretary under President Reagan. From 1960 to 1990, the index found a 560 percent rise in violent crime, a 400 percent rise in out-of-wedlock births, a 200 percent rise in teen suicide and a nearly 200 percent rise in divorce.

"I think we could be called an addicted society," Mr. Gallup adds, citing alcohol in particular. Other addictions cited by social critics include drugs, sex, television and computer games.

Whatever the cause of social discontent, a specifically religious response has arisen, says evangelical scholar Mark Noll, who otherwise is critical of pat claims that America is a Christian nation.

"We are witnessing a resurgence of explicitly Christian political action unlike anything . . . since the years before the Civil War," Mr. Noll said in a recent lecture.

The energy for social reform also has arisen out of a particular wing of American religion, what may be called conservative, traditional, orthodox or revivalist religious forces.

In these kinds of groups, doctrines and moral standards are stricter and the level of commitment higher. …

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