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Sunday, May 28, 2006

My growing political paranoia

This past week I began teaching a four week summer seminar in American politics, and I decided a few weeks ago to focus it on a topic I know relatively little about -- the role of religion in American politics.

I came to this topic in a roundabout way while working with friend Domonic on some possible papers related to his interest in patronage and its role in American public administration. A major theme of Domonic's work is that patronage had been "demonized" during the Progressive Era efforts promoting civil service reform, and that got me to thinking about the American "political culture of reform" and its ties to religious movements. At one point we proposed a paper (not yet written) titled: "It Takes An Awakening".

The "Awakening" reference was, of course, to the intermittent episodes of religious revivalism ("Great Awakenings") that occurs in the US history according to some students of American religion. Most recently (in 2000), economic historian Robert William Fogel published a book titled The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, in which he posits a view of US political development that passes through overlapping cycles tied to the emergence of religious awakenings that eventually alter political agendas and result in significant policy changes (i.e., reforms) which, in turn, generate political reactions, and so on. Triggering these cycles are technological changes that challenge the egalitarian norms of Americans -- norms which Fogel vary from era to era. Without getting into detail, Fogel argues that there have been three such Great Awakenings in the past, and that we are in the midst of a Fourth which emerged in the 1970s and is hitting its political stride about now. For a summary of his argument, see here; also see here. Also see his speech on the subject at AEI.

With the opportunity of the seminar to dive deeper in this topic, I soon discovered that I knew little or nothing about what Fogel called "enthusiastic religions" and their role in US political history. I remember reading some Jonathan Edwards sermons/essays in high school and freshman English (oh, so long ago!), but I don't recall reading much about the Great Awakenings in my history courses. Religion was always a side story in the historical narratives. It was always there, but hardly more than background....

Boy, has my tune changed! In fact, I am in danger of going in the completely opposite direction as I start to see religion in almost every aspect of American political history as well as our political present -- and future. What's more, this is all beginning to have an impact on my relative indifference to current political events. The more I read, the more I am convinced that there is really some dangerous trends (shades of Roth's The Plot Against America) emerging that are starting to make me question my honed detachment from everyday politics.

I have not only assigned Fogel's book to the class, but also Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy -- a work which I initially thought to be a bit too pessimistic. As the students explore an everexpanding bibliography I am posting, I have been reading Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming (listen to her interview on Fresh Air), and waiting in the queue is James Rudin's The Baptizing of America. I am educating myself in the history and sociology of American religions by reading papers and articles by several credible historians of evangelical religions, especially George Marsden (especially his Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism). And the more I dig into this material, the more concerned I become....


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