A New Religious Awakening: Can it Avoid Being Co-opted?

In an excerpt from his new book The Great Awakening, Jim Wallis claims a new religious awakening is beginning. It’s a renewal of faith that combines personal faith with social justice.

“Something is happening,” Wallis writes. “People are yearning for a moral center for our public discourse.”

I think it’s true and it’s to Wallis’s credit that he has helped to frame the discussion that’s led us to this point.

The Awakenings are interesting phenomena. The first Great Awakening in the 1730s through the 1740s in Great Britain and the North American colonies saw a resurgence of religious fervor and personal religious experience. And it had significant effect on the public discourse, initiating the Abolitionist Movement and prison reform.

The Second Awakening took hold in the United States in the 1830s and resulted in the mass marketing of religious experience through revivalism and also encouraged women’s suffrage and the temperance movement. Both Awakenings were fueled by evangelical fervor and led to social justice movements based on religious teachings.

Wallis bases his claim on this history. It’s a reasonable proposal. The Great Awakenings represent a grand tradition in religious life in the North America and Europe. The Wesleyan Movement I cited in the previous post was notable for more than its evangelical zeal. Wesley said there is “no holiness but social holiness.” His movment led to social reform, and Wesley was especially pointed in his critique of wealth and the wealthy.

But they had multiple results and not all are as beneficial as the end of slavery. For a revealing and very helpful discussion of the importance of the wider influence of the Awakenings see Gary Wills’ book, Head and Heart: American Christianities. Wills shows how religious movements in the North American colonies shaped government and society, and how these influences remain today for good and for ill.

And Wills also show how the Awakenings were co-opted for purposes other than justice.

Referring specifically to the emergence of Evangelical power, Wills recounts how non-Evangelical clergy became less important in the 1850s in the excesses of the Second Industrial Revolution. These excesses are remembered as the Gilded Age and were marked not only by changing personal morality, they were also marked by industrialization and worker exploitation.

Where educated clergy had once played leadership roles in running leading institutions including colleges and universities they were replaced in leadership roles by new specialists as the country industrialized and power shifted. These clergy were relegated to the sidelines. (p. 339)

However, Evangelical revivalists were not marginalized, they were courted and even supported by wealthy financiers who saw them helping put out some of the fires of discontent of workers with grievances. The revivalist Dwight L. Moody denounced personal sins–especially drunkeness–but directed his listeners away from social concerns, according to Wills. Moody encouraged punctuality and alertness at work, making for good workers among other benefits, while ignoring the conditions in which they worked, and which very likely contributed to the abuses of alcohol in the first place.

Years later, the popular revivalist Billy Sunday became an advocate for a kind of evangelism that reveled in anti-intellectualism. Wills notes Sunday also preached a form of private religion that was perfectly suited to the businessmen who supported him because it made no claim for religion concerned with justice. His appeal to workers and the poor rested in part on his theatrics and in part on his ability to communicate in colorful, straightforward language. Sunday’s theatrics were so upfront that religious content took a backseat, according to Wills. The effect was to make religion less important. And because the personal behavior he advocated would result in punctual, submissive workers, one analyst Wills notes called Sunday, “the best strike breaker the country has produced.” (p. 410)

Toward the close of World War I as Evangelical Christians identified patriotism with religion, Wills recounts how William Randolph Hearst put the strength of his newspaper empire behind support for Youth for Christ. Later, when evangelist Billy Graham began his ministry Hearst similarly promoted his Crusades for Christ. (p. 455)

Wills cites the assessment of theologian Martin Marty that Graham was so inoffensive that no one found fault or judgment with it. The sharp-edge of social critique that radiated from the Second Awakening devolved into the blandishment of an inoffensive personal salvation that challenged no system of injustice and popularized religion as a private affair disconnected from the public discourse. Graham counseled Dwight Eisenhower to be baptized in the Presbyterian Church when Eisenhower told him the American people would not likely follow a candidate who was not a church member. (p. 456)

This co-opting of religious sensibility has continued. Many commentators have pointed to the use of wedge issues by Karl Rove attract and hold the Evangelical right while co-opting them for political reasons. David Kuo’s recent book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, is the most recent and damning.

Wallis knows the danger of co-optation and the privatization of religion. He has written that faith is always personal but never private. Faith is always expressed in relationships that include interaction not only with God but with others in a community. While solitude is a legitimate repose of faith, it is never the sole repose. Faith leads to expression and Wallis is calling for expressions of faith as “justice revivals” that would result in a movement to reclaim culture in the U.S. and politics from co-optation and for justice.

It’s a grand vision. And one that if successful would be refreshing. History reminds us, however, that principalities and powers will seek to influence, direct and control it. And the longevity of past Awakenings reminds us that they have a short lifespan. But to limit our vision and continue the status quo would be to give in to the principalities and powers that have brought us to our current state.

So I hope Wallis and other voices calling for a new movement of religious commitment to justice are heard, and I hope the movement toward justice grows and finds a voice. We’ve been in the wilderness long enough.

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