Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Evangelicalism and the "Third Great Awakening"

Over at The American Interest Crawford Gribbon of Queens University, Belfast has written a nice little historiographical essay on American evangelicalism set in the context of what he calls the "Third Great Awakening" of American Christianity that occurred in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. He argues that during this period evangelicals brought "born-again" religion to the United States even as evangelicalism weakened as a religious and theological movement.  He writes:

To outsiders, at least, the evangelical transformation of America has been one of the most startling and significant of all modern social changes. Millions of Baby Boomers were “born again” during what may fairly be called the “third Great Awakening”, a spiritual revival that extended from the 1960s until the 1980s and that appealed to presidential candidates, Bay Area “Jesus freaks”, and just about every kind of person in between. This mass religious movement was driven by a hunger for community and for moral certainty in a world that suddenly seemed to lack both; the Cold War crises of mid-century fueled fears of global apocalypse, while the collapsing social consensus of the 1950s and 1960s mirrored changing attitudes to privacy, race, family, and reproductive rights. At the same time, the political scandals of the 1970s raised questions about the integrity of trusted institutions.

Evangelicals responded to this multifaceted cultural change with a heady cocktail of condemnation and self-confidence. Drawing on the lessons of Scripture and American history, they sought to understand the significance of what seemed to them the self-evident crisis of contemporary American civilization. Their most prominent preachers and best-selling prophecy writers convinced believers that the sudden social changes could be explained. Audiences of hundreds of thousands attended sermons in sports stadia, while tens of millions of readers consumed popular prophecy books like The Late Great Planet Earth (1970). As their minority print culture expanded into a burgeoning and occasionally scandalous media empire, evangelicals honed the interpretive tools to offer moral and political certainty to millions of Americans.

The new evangelical movement transformed the lives of its adherents and shaped the social and political condition of the nation, helping to fuel the electoral successes of almost every U.S. president from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. It provided an almost universal language of political aspiration and national exception at the same time as it drove the bifurcation of American ideals and values between believers and, presumably, everyone else. It provided the cadences of hope in the speechmaking of Presidents Clinton and Obama, while offering their critics a powerful and often implicit vocabulary of protest. But the character of evangelicalism changed as its influence extended, and as a newer focus on sentiment overtook the older emphasis on dogma. The movement’s impact can be measured in the paradox that its success was made possible by its failure: Evangelicalism divided and weakened as America itself was born again.

Gribben touches on recent books on the history American religion by Molly Worthen, Steven Miller, Darryl hart, Michael McVicar, Julie Ingersoll, Matthew Stewart, Matthew Sutton, Grant Wacker, Tod Brenneman, and Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel.