By Howard Smead


The Great Awakening is over. The twenty-five year religious upheaval that brought Christian fundamentalism, "scientific creationism" and "traditional vales" to the American mainstream reached its climax with the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Like its three predecessors, this grass-roots religious revival had profound social and political consequences, not the least of which was "the Culture Wars," that sweeping clash between traditionalism and postmodernism Congressman Henry Hyde felt moved to feature in his impeachment presentation. In his presentation towards the end of the impeachment, he said, "I wonder if after this culture war is over. . . an America will survive that's worth fighting to defend."

Was the Great Awakening a success or a failure? Did traditionalism win or lose the fight over values? Listening to cultural conservative Paul Weyrich one might conclude it was a dismal failure, with only short term victories: the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the 1994 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives.

In his widely noted letter to fellow conservatives and in the Op-Ed pages as recently as Sunday March 7, he recommended a degree of tactical disengagement from the political process. He suggested a strategic shift toward building "new institutions for ourselves: schools, universities, media, entertainment, everything - a complete separate, parallel structure." Similarities to fanciful separatist ideologies of Black Nationalism aside, Weyrich's post-impeachment gloominess should not be mistaken for defeat in the culture wars. The trial may mark the end of the Fourth Great Awakening, but not its repercussions. Not if history is any guide. The effects are most likely permanent.

The first Great Awakening began in 1739 when "New Light" ministers, fed up with the staid rationalism of the colonial clergy and alarmed by declining morality, began giving hellfire and brimstone jeremiads. At the time church membership was about 17%, compared to 47% in more recent times. (claims of attendance is 40%. Most pollsters thing it’s abut 20% IRL) The result was a period if intense religiosity characterized by the sort of emotionalism seen on numerous televangelist programs since the 1970s. In the end, the Great Awakening gave individuals and congregations greater independence to worship God free of religious hierarchy, especially the emerging Baptist denominations, which preached the autonomy and independence of the local church. The major outcome, however, was political. The Great Awakening freed people spiritually to contemplate rebelling from George III, the head, by the way, of the Anglican Church. Because, at its heart, as Perry Miller so eloquently put it, the American Revolution was to the many of that day and of the era of the Second Great Awakening that followed “a protest of native piety and against foreign impiety.” (Perry Miller, “From the Covenant to the Revival,” in Religion in American History, p. 155)

A Second Great Awakening rose 100 years later over concerns of societal deterioration, and gave us the many denominations that to this day make up American Protestantism, most notably the Baptists, and was characterized by the rise of Evangelicalism.  Even greater religious enthusiasm appeared in tent revivals and camp meetings, and spread from religious services into social and political reform, including abolition and feminism, which viewed slavery and the inequality of women an affront to God. Ultimately, this second Great Awakening stirred up much of the ferment that led to the Civil War.

At the turn of the century, with Biblical certainties about the creation and all things scientific falling before Darwinian empiricism, hard science and especially the withering critique of its accuracy by “higher criticism” and with the emergence of modernist mass popular culture challenging once unquestionable standards, traditionalists reacted by formalizing their beliefs into Christian Fundamentalism. As wave upon wave of non-Protestant immigrants crowded into the crime- and corruption-ridden cities, traditionalists blamed Charles Darwin and Pragmatists such as William James and John Dewey for introducing religious and cultural relativism to these shores. Unfortunately for the movement, it led to the debacle in Dayton, Tennessee, known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. Although John Thomas Scopes was convicted for violating the Butler Act which forbade teaching evolution in public schools, the victory for Christian Fundamentalism was Pyrrhic.

Reduced to a laughing stock before much of the public, fundamentalists retreated to rural areas and the South. The rise of televangelism in the 1970s signaled the advent of the fourth Great Awakening. The public was shocked by the numbers and the fervor of evangelical and charismatic Christians that seemed to come from nowhere and began gathering converts by the thousands. They came from all social, racial and economic strata. And their fervor was matched only by their outrage at the country's moral climate.

The founding of the Moral Majority in 1979 signified another conservative reaction to social, political and cultural change. The scourge this time was postmodernism in the form of feminism, abortion, gay rights, multiculturalism and political correctness. For religious and cultural conservatives, Bill and Hillary Clinton came to embody everything radical, relativist and decadent about contemporary American society. The president's public demonstration of private immorality surely didn't do much to dispel the perception.

For the forces unleashed by the Great Awakening, the president's acquittal was a setback of monstrous proportions, representing a defeat surpassing even that of the Scopes Trial. But does that mean the reform impulse failed? No, this time, unlike Scopes, it spurred cultural conservatives to greater efforts. Something not inconsistent with 19th Century Great Awakenings. The passions that drove it have not dissipated.

The same passions that venerated Ronald Reagan as the conservative standard-bearer in the culture wars while allowing its adherents to excuse the widespread corruption in his administration have not gone away. They have merely diverted into the purely political realm. This was not a victory for the pro-Clinton/anti-impeachment forces. Nothing could be more mistaken. It ways unseen and unanticipated, secular America will continue to feel the sacred heat for years to come.