Monday, January 14, 2013

Waves of ethical and religious change

I'm looking at Robert Fogel's The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, starting here.

So Fogel argues the main challenge is no longer material inequality, but spiritual inequality. He adds a theory of cyclical evolution of ethics in responses to changes in technology and the economy. This is quite intriguing.

While economic growth since 1700 has been relatively steady and technological change has accelerated, there has been a recurring lag between the vast technological transformations and the human adjustment to those transformations. It is this lag which has produced the crises that periodically usher in profound reconsiderations of ethical values, that produce new agendas for ethical and social reform, and that give rise to political movements that champion the new agendas. p8-9.

People must evolve new ethical perspectives to cope with technological transformations. Exactly, and it seems obvious when put like that. He does not appear to adopt a vulgar Marxist-type approach, however, where ethics and culture are simply superstructure above the real economic base. People adapt their ideas ro suit circumstances when external events force them to reevaluate their perspectives and needs. And those ideas in turn create political and legislative programs.

Interestingly, he argues that this revaluation shows up in religious movements first, long before electoral politics, which, because of its compromise and balancing tends to lag behind. For example,

The greatest of all reform movements in American history, the abolition of slavery, was for decades almost exclusively a religious movement until a number of religiously inspired Northern politicians developed brilliant tactics and strategies necessary to create a winning antislavery coalition. P7

So he has a theory of how and why ethical transformations occur, which is fascinating. Why should religious movements be more responsive? Because in the frenetic competition of American religious denominations, indepedent congregations are likely to evolve responses to new ethical needs far quicker than political parties. The Awakenings are more political than relgiious, but they show up more quickly in relgious reaciton to new technology and new circumstances.

The religious response has been more rapid because of the high degree of independence of specific evangelical congregations from hierarchical control and from the restraints imposed on political parties, which must often trim their policies to maintain coalitions. P9


Great Awakenings

Evangelical religion reacts more quickly than more hierarchical and less populist churches. It means there have been a series of "Great Awakenings" in American religious life, which spilled over into politics after a generation or two.

These Great Awakenings are reform movements with an ethical/programmatic phase followed by a legislative/political phase, both of which arise out of the lag between technological change and institutional adjustment. Each Awakening lasts about one hundred years, including a declining phase in which exponents of one great awakening clash with those of the next. The First Great Awakening began in the 1730s and ripened into the American Revolution against the British Crown. The Second Great Awakening began about 1800 and produced the crusade against slavery that eventuated in the Civil War. The Third Great Awakening arose at the end of the nineteenth century and led to the rise of the welfare state and policies to promote diversity. The Fourth Great Awakening, which began about 1960, has recently entered its political phase and is focused on spiritual reform. p9-10

Importantly, the Awakenings mostly came from the margins of society.

The Great Awakenings have not usually originated from the top; generally, they have welled up from below and have often been given voice by ministers and novice leaders on the fringes of the establishment. p42

The First Great Awakening eroded older Puritan beliefs and emphasized individial rights. The Second Great Awakening emphasized equality of opportunity, and moved even away from Calvinist ideas of predestination towards a sense , influenced by Methodist theology, that people could work towards their own salvation.


Individual sin versus Social Corruption

The third Great Awakening arose in large part because of the challenge of industrial development and the growth of huge enterprises. That produced a move away from emphasis on individual sin and corruption to social reform, as well as economic and social egalitarianism. Equality of condition mattered more than equality of opportunity.

The Third Awakening rejected the idea that poverty was the wages of sin, and came to terms with Darwinism and science. The innate depravity of man was abandoned in favor of a conception the innocent young corrupted by society.

Modernists in the mainstream denominations evolved into the Social Gospel movement.

Its leading figures argued that, if America was to realize itself, it would have to change not only its creed, its theory of man's relationship to God, but also its ethics. It would have to make poverty not a personal failure, but a failure of society, and evil would have to be seen, not as a personal sin, but as a sin of society...The victory of the modernists and the Social Gospellers laid the basis for the welfare state, providing both the ideological foundation and the political drive for the labor reforms of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, for the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and 1960s, and for the new feminist programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. p24-5

The first three awakenings are part of mainstream historical scholarship, but Fogel is more isolated is seeing a fourth awakening, including the rise of the religious right in recent decades. Logically, however, major shifts in technology and transformation of the economy would entail some sort of Fourth Awakening in due course, however. And it is undeniable, as he points out, that the mainstream Protestant denominations have shriveled, and evangelicals have risen to over a third of the electorate.

Meanwhile, the Third Awakening forces have been secularized.

As modernist theory grew stronger, the supernatural aspects of religion diminished among those creating the New Theology, and conversions ceased to be central to their missionary work. Social reform increasingly replaced personal reform as the center of the struggle to perfect American society... The essence of religion became the elimination of poverty and inequality. p121

The rise of the professional classes has been one of the main economic transformations, and they tend to be secularized, along with a liberal mainstream media. The universities were originally founded largely to train one profession - the ministry. But the growth of new professions and vast increase in demand for skilled graduates transformed them. Academic disciplines which generally had their modern origin in 19th century theological disputes (such as economics, as founded in the American Economic Association) tended to forget the history of their disciplines.

It would be easy to quibble with this scheme of revivals and awakenings, and some would be uncomfortable putting religious feeling so close to the heart of economic and political life. Nonetheless, it is a viable and interesting theory of how and why changes in ethical perspective come about, and I had not read about these movements in any detail before. It is a story of how deep changes in the assumptions about human nature and possibility ramified through theological debate and into practical political outcomes over a period of generations.

The story is now more secularized, as ethical debate now takes place on a much wider sphere than it did one hundred years ago. But it is equally clear that purely secular perspectives can overlook much of the deeper changes going on in the world, which include the massive growth of evangelical religion in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Something is going on out there even if it is not evident in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books view of the world. The world is less secular on the whole than we think.

Inequality of Income

Moreover, many of Fogel's do not rely on his Awakening scheme for their force. He is skeptical of the Third-Awakening focus on income distribution, and he has good technical reasons for saying so. For one thing, that approach underestimates the massive improvement in nutrition, healthcare and life expectancy since the nineteenth century, as well as more leisure, both of which accrued more to the poor than the well-off.

The theory projected by the Social Gospelers, and embraced by modernism generally, held that cultural crises could be resolved by raising incomes. That theory has been given a long trial and has turned out to be incorrect. Despite the sharp rise in incomes, especially at the low end of the income distribution, the moral crisis of the cities remains unresolved. Although income transfers have gone far beyond the mild redistributions advocated by Bascom, Ely and Commons, such problem as drug addiction, alcoholism , births to unmarried teenage girls, rape, the battery of women and children, broken familitgies, violent teenage death , and crime are generally more severe than they were a century ago. p172

Income redistribution is at the core of the current political debate. But it is also increasingly irrelevant. We will conclude looking at the book tomorrow.

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