Commentary Magazine

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism by Robert William Fogel

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism
by Robert William Fogel
Chicago. 383 pp. $25.00

Robert Fogel, a Nobel laureate in economics, is best known for his acutely original and politically controversial book, Time on the Cross (with Stanley L. Engerman, 1974), a study of the economics of American slavery. Now he has produced a long-awaited account of American life in which he hopes to show how technological changes, religious movements, and human improvement have interacted to produce a political culture that is, in his view, remarkably egalitarian in some respects but deeply contentious in others.

By the end of the 20th century Americans were vastly better off than they had been in 1900; better off, but just as discordant. That discord, however, is no longer centered on the material aspects of life. Thanks to the vast increase in worker productivity, improved communications and transportation, the advent of information technology, and the globalization of commercial markets, the basics of food, clothing, and shelter and the conveniences of leisure have become so abundant as to render divisions of economic class less relevant than they once were. In the 1930’s, the Marxist Left protested against what it identified as the cause of the Great Depression, and many people were impressed; in 2000, the leftover Left protested against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and nobody was impressed. Economic change and a more egalitarian society have deprived the Left of a credible enemy and hence of a large audience.

Today’s discord, writes Fogel, is rather over the immaterial aspects of life: the competing arguments between, for example, those who believe in the right to an abortion and those who believe in the sanctity of life; between those who are for easy access to drugs and those who feel the need to prohibit them; between those who advocate an enlarged individualism and those who wish to preserve traditional family values. The cutting edge of this quarrel can be found in the great gap that has emerged between the religious Right (as the media call it) and secular humanism (as evangelicals call it). Many liberals worry more about whether a conservative political candidate has been captured by the religious Right than about where he stands on taxes; many conservatives are more upset by whether a liberal candidate has endorsed abortion, opposed school prayer, or tolerated easier divorce laws than by his stand on Medicare.

Bringing together the effects of economic and technological change with the new disputes over immaterial issues and the rise of new religious movements, Fogel has written not one but three books, each of which is only loosely related to the other two. The first, describing the changes in our material condition, is a masterpiece; the second, a recounting of what we have learned about religious awakenings, is an excellent summary of the relevant scholarship. As for the third, an explanation of why we need greater “equity” in our “spiritual assets” and how we can attain such equity, it would be better if it had never been written.



There has long been an argument among economic historians as to whether the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century did or did not make the ordinary person better off. By contrast, when it comes to the 20th century, there has long been a general consensus that, in a few developed nations, some people became much more affluent, but inequality increased. The problem with settling the argument over the 19th century or assessing the agreement over the 20th is that both have been formulated in monetary terms: the real wages of workers, distribution of income, and the like. Such terms are obviously important, but it is often hard to know for a certainty what a given wage could buy, or whether income inequality fully explains social and class divisions at a time when some people had virtually no income at all except for the food they could raise or steal.

Fogel’s great accomplishment is to bring in biomedical measures of the human condition: how much food people had to eat, how tall and heavy they were, how long they could expect to live, their risk of fatality or chronic disease. Relying on these various measures of health, he concludes that economists have overestimated the improvement of human life during the 19th century, and underestimated it for the 20th.

Although the Industrial Revolution set the stage for improvement, Fogel writes, it did not actually produce much improvement until after 1890. Both the life expectancy and the height of the average white American male, which had risen somewhat during the latter part of the 18th century, actually declined during much of the 19th, only to explode upward during the 20th. In 1900, only half the people born 40 years earlier were still alive; today, 95 percent of the people born 40 years earlier are still alive. Although the average African-American male lives six years fewer than the average white male, the gap between the two races that existed in 1900 has been cut in half.

People have also gotten steadily taller, and not just in the U.S. In the middle of the 19th century, the average height of a fully grown Dutch male was 64 inches; today, it is 72 inches. Much of this improvement in physical well-being is the result of an increase in the supply of food, coupled with public-health measures that have reduced infant mortality, quarantined people with communicable diseases, and overcome the risk of infection that once came from living in big cities with impure water and inadequate sewage systems.

These gains, which once again occurred chiefly in the 20th century, have narrowed the physical differences among social classes. In the early 19th century, the average member of the British aristocracy was five inches taller than the average Englishman; today, the gap is only one inch. In 1875, a member of the British upper class lived seventeen years longer than the average Englishman; today, the rich enjoy only a two-year advantage. This means that, in about one century, the typical Englishman improved his life expectancy by 34 years, an increase that in Fogel’s estimation exceeds any other such gain in the preceding 200 millennia.

Not only do most people now live as long and grow as tall as their social betters, but the difference in their income has also narrowed. Economists measure this difference using something called the Gini ratio. A Gini of zero means income is equally distributed; a Gini of one indicates maximum inequality. In Britain and the United States, the Gini ratio was .65 at the beginning of the 18th century, .55 at the beginning of the 20th, and only .32 in 1973. Contrary to the economists’ consensus, the 20th century did not increase but rather reduced income inequality.

In America, some of this reduction came about as a result of government policy. Fogel estimates that in 1990, about $22,000 was taken in taxes from the average household in the top fifth of the income distribution and about $8,800 of that was paid to people in the bottom fifth, thereby raising the incomes of the poor. But no less significant in reducing inequality, Fogel believes, has been the substituting of human capital (that is, knowledge) for physical capital (that is, land and money). In the production of wealth, doing clever things with your mind has become more important than inheriting money.

It is true that, since 1973, inequality has leveled off or increased. This may be because human capital has yet to be extended to everyone, or because some people, however exposed they are to modern education, have not acquired or will not acquire that capital. But, according to Fogel, much of the rise in income inequality since 1973 can also be explained by changes in the way people work. While the more affluent are working harder and for longer hours, the less affluent have begun to work less, thus widening the income gap. (This is in sharp contrast to the 1890’s, when the richest worked fewer hours than the less rich.) Another complication is that even as the real income of the least affluent workers has declined since 1973, their expenditures have increased, owing to time spent in educational programs, moving from one job to another, or going through a bad patch in business. During such periods people live off their savings; but the great majority—nearly three-fourths—also move out of the low-income category every year as a new group moves in.

Fogel’s analysis provides powerful support for the idea that the gains now enjoyed by Americans were won jointly by rapid economic growth and sound public health. But he does not recount these facts to prove that all is well; to the contrary, as I have indicated, his argument is that these same gains have shifted cultural and political discourse from economic envy to what might be called spiritual issues. Whether this is as clear as he claims may be a matter of dispute, but he does not pause on that question. Instead, in what I have called his second book, he tries to show that the shift itself can be understood in terms of a new religious awakening.



There have been three religious awakenings in American history. The first began around 1730 and created the background for the American Revolution. The second began in about 1800 and culminated in the attack on slavery. The third began around 1890 and, while it lasted, gave a moral edge to the Progressive movement and created the notion of a Social Gospel.

In narrating these momentous popular changes, Fogel follows the work of William G. McLoughlin, whose 1978 book, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, is an interesting examination of how religious impulses have had profound consequences in American political history. McLoughlin himself speculates that a fourth great awakening may have started around 1960, and it is in this possibility that Fogel locates the message of what he himself calls the central chapter of his book, “The Emergence of a Postmodern Egalitarian Agenda.”

But there is a problem here, evident in McLoughlin and magnified in Fogel. The First Great Awakening was clearly religious in nature. It featured the young Reverend George Whitefield, an extraordinarily successful preacher who told his enraptured audiences that God was not only just but merciful. Every man and woman, by accepting personal responsibility, could be saved from damnation—and could enjoy the unique blessings offered by the free government of the new United States. What was new about this government was that it was subordinate to the people; but this meant that the people had to accept the challenge of governing themselves. The link between the powerful, un-Puritanical religious view expounded by Whitefield and many other itinerant revivalists and the demand for colonial independence soon became obvious. As the historian Gordon Wood has put it, “revolution, republicanism, and [religious] regeneration all blended in American thinking.”

The Second Great Awakening was also heavily religious in tone, but we are now speaking of a different kind of religion. This one emphasized the teachings of the Enlightenment, and it animated not just country folk attending tent revivals but rebellious college students eager to remake society and city dwellers interested in philosophical refinement. The great revivalist this time around was Charles Finney; unlike Whitefield, he did not remain a preacher but became a professor of theology (at Oberlin College). This awakening had its greatest effect in the North, where it soon provided the basis for the Anti-Slavery Society under William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Weld—a development that made its religious view anathema in the South.

The Third Great Awakening, in the early 20th century, was even more divided. As a mass movement, it was led by preachers like Billy Sunday; but it also had an elite, Social Gospel wing, led by Walter Rauschenbusch. Sunday, who had a magnetic influence on ordinary people, was reviled by the emerging “smart set” for his denunciation of Darwin and support of Prohibition. Rauschenbusch, by contrast, thought religion meant the brotherhood of man ratified by broad new social legislation, and so he became an important part of the Progressive movement. His allies helped found the American Economic Association, an organization that according to Richard T. Ely, one of its first leaders, regarded the doctrine of laissez-faire as “unsafe in politics and unsound in morals.” Business was wrong because it believed in profits; Jesus, by contrast, had been the first socialist. When Eugene V Debs ran for President in 1904 on the socialist line, Rauschenbusch proclaimed socialism a halfway house to the kingdom of God on earth.

In other words, the religious element in the Third Great Awakening led less to a widespread awakening than to a deep political and cultural divide. Liberals had begun to distance themselves from conservatives; neither side was likely to think that the differences between them could be resolved by a better reading of the Bible.

Now McLoughlin and, following him, Fogel have come along to write of a Fourth Great Awakening, and one is thoroughly puzzled by what they mean. To McLoughlin it seems to have a lot to do with the “death of God,” the secular city, the Beat Generation, the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, a concern about civil rights, and opposition to the war in Vietnam. In his account of the political culture of the late 20th century there is very little left of religion and a good deal of hope concerning the need for “Judeo-Christian socialism.”

Fogel takes a different tack, acknowledging the importance of evangelical Christianity and its concern for spiritual reform. He notes, correctly, that evangelical churches are the only part of American Christianity that is growing rapidly—in his estimate, 60 million Americans adhere to some form of “enthusiastic religion”—and he shows how the Moral Majority of the late 1970’s became transformed into the culturally broader, politically more sophisticated Christian Coalition. He also writes sympathetically about the religious Right’s concern for traditional family values, by which he means families bent on rearing decent children.

The rise of the religious Right was brought about, in Fogel’s judgment, by the same technological change that led to the new material egalitarianism—especially improvements in the efficiency with which communications are carried out, transportation is organized, and information is manipulated and exploited. He may have a point. But there are rival explanations. Some analysts, for example, think the religious Right has grown in reaction to the rapid expansion of civil rights for black Americans; others believe it is a rejoinder to undemocratic decisions made by the Supreme Court concerning abortion and school prayer; still others think it reflects a response to the excesses of individualistic hedonism. Fogel does not address these alternative explanations.

Besides, if the Fourth Great Awakening can be traced chiefly to technological causes, what about the Third? No doubt speedy ocean liners brought immigrants here in large numbers, thereby giving rise to anti-immigration sentiment; no doubt mass production made possible the growth of vast new corporations, thereby giving rise to anticapitalist sentiments. But Fogel does not make a case for such an interpretation. And no wonder: neither the followers of Billy Sunday nor those of Walter Rauschenbusch talked much about technology; the former talked, instead, about personal spiritual redemption and the latter about greed, profits, and human equality. It would be nice to link history to technology, but there is more going on in human life than can be explained by how things are produced.



But has there, in fact, been a Fourth Great Awakening? In some limited sense, yes, but it is not one that has affected how the nation as a whole defines its culture, nor is it one that operates, like earlier awakenings, against a rival religious view. Liberal Americans who are deeply suspicious of the religious Right are either determined to maintain a strict separation between church and state or are sympathetic to such groups as the National Council of Churches or Reform Judaism, which represent the religious Left (though the media never so characterize them). We are, in short, a partially religious nation, and our cultural conflicts do not pit one religion against another so much as they set nonreligious Americans against their religious rivals.

Describing our present situation in terms of a religious awakening thus leaves the reader with, at best, a fuzzy view of reality. And this fuzziness only gets worse when Fogel proceeds to explain that the Fourth Great Awakening has made Americans in general concerned about “spiritual equity” and “access to spiritual assets,” among which are to be found “a sense of purpose” and “self-esteem.”

Unless I fail to understand the term “equity,” it cannot be used to describe spiritual matters. Most people are to some degree decent, honest, and sympathetic, and many are God-fearing. One can argue that they should become more so, but that is hardly the same thing as suggesting that there is some equitable distribution of decency or sympathy or religiosity.

Using the word equity helps Fogel balance what he claims were the accomplishments of the Third Great Awakening (creating a fairer, more equitable society) with what he hopes will be the achievement of the Fourth (getting our moral lives back in order). But equity cannot be used to cover both cases. The fight over abortion is not a fight about fairness or balance, which is what equity means, but one over competing versions of right and wrong.



And that brings me to the third and final book contained in The Fourth Great Awakening: Fogel’s listing of what he would do to deal with the “spiritual inequity” he has described. If I pass over this portion lightly, it is because I do not want to draw the reader away from his fascinating first book and his interesting second. But let me offer a sample. According to Fogel, we can acquire more “spiritual equity” through “the democratization of self-realization,” to be accomplished by “life-long education” accompanied by a “sense of purpose,” a “vision of opportunity,” a “strong family ethic,” engagement with “diverse groups,” a “thirst for knowledge,” and greater “self-esteem.”

I hope the legislature in my home state of California does not create a task force to come up with ways of accomplishing these things, although, to judge by past experience, it might. What I can advise the reader, at any rate, is to skip pages 202 to 217. You will not miss anything worth knowing, you will spare yourself puzzlement as to how a Nobel laureate could write in such a fashion, and you will not be put off from remembering a great deal that is worth knowing in the preceding 200 pages.


About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

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