February 20, 2008
The New Center and A Great Awakening
Are David Gushee and Jim Wallis on to something happening within American evangelicalism?
The Jim Wallis road show pulled into the editorial officials of CT yesterday. Jim still turns out in fine form with his signature black jacket and turtleneck; and, this time, was accompanied by a surprisingly large entourage. Wallis, author of God's Politics, is talking about his new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America.
There are several core ideas resident in this book and (full disclosure) I'd much rather interact with Wallis than read his prose. (The Publishers Weekly reviewer observed: "As a cohesive book...this has a rough and clunky sensibility, with considerable repetition of ideas, examples and even phrasing.")
The ideas in Great Awakening include:
1. The Religious Right as we have understood it from the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan is dying out.
2. It is being replaced by a younger generation of evangelicals who are post-Religious Right, under age 30, progressive and holistic in bringing together faith, mission, and justice.
3. This new reality will reshape the American evangelical landscape and in turn have a lasting impact on changing the American nation-state into a more compassionate country with political leaders who link values and policy in what Wallis calls "non-violent realism."
4. These developments neatly fit into American religious history. Wallis enthusiastically places a headline-grabbing label "Great Awakening" on these socio-political developments, thereby linking them with historic Great Awakenings, dating all the way back to colonial America and the First Great Awakening.
But there's a fly in this ointment, I think.
One big problem is that there is sooo much rhetoric out there about revival, renewal, and the next awakening. These three terms do not have agreed-upon definitions or boundaries, nor are these words exclusively reserved for Christian use.
One significant perspective on awakenings is the book, Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Fogel authored this title in 2002. It's been years since I looked at this book, but I don't believe you can fully understand changes happening in American society without this top economist's analysis.
To understand what is taking place today, we need to understand the nature of the recurring political-religious cycles called "Great Awakenings." Each lasting about 100 years, Great Awakenings consist of three phases, each about a generation long.
In this generation-long cycle, where are we today? Well, Fogel dates the start of the Fourth Great Awakening in 1960. By following Fogel's three-phase approach, Americans are now in the third phase of the Fourth Awakening. The first phase is religious revival. The second phase is rising political effect. The third phase is increasing challenge to the dominance of the political program.
If, indeed, we are in the Fourth Awakening, Phase III, in which the current political program is being challenged increasingly, it makes sense that Sen. Obama's mantra is "Change We Can Believe In."
"MO-bama-menum" seems to know no bounds and it may carry him into the White House in the November election.
Finally, let me put another card on the table for consideration. In a web commentary, titled "The Emerging Evangelical Center May Decide 2008 Election," Christian ethicist and author David Gushee notes:
It is quite possible that the votes of centrist evangelicals - perhaps representing as many as one-third of our nation's massive evangelical community - will decide the election this fall.
I believe that the emerging evangelical center represents a maturing of the Christian public voice in American life. This is a more peaceable, forward-looking, holistic and independent approach to politics than what has come to carry the evangelical label. Its emergence is good for our nation and for evangelicals. Centrist evangelicals bear watching in this election and beyond.
Gushee shares the view with Wallis that the old-guard Christian Right is being eclipsed. That part makes sense to me. The evidence is all over.
The piece of the puzzle that I don't think any one has yet fully understood at the 50,000-foot level is the spiritual dynamic driving the change. My questions are:
* Is it a rebirth of historic Christian orthodoxy?
* Is it a third wave of the Holy Spirit?
* Is it a culture war-like reaction against globalizing pluralism and secularism?