Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism

Magazine article Ideas on Liberty

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism

Article excerpt

The Fourth Great Awakening

and the Future of Egalitarianism

by Robert William Fogel

University of Chicago Press * 2000 * 383 pages * $25.00

Reviewed by Sam Bostaph

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. …

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