(Reprinted with permission from the Journal of Church and State, written by Gary W. Hull.)
Robert Fogel’s Without Consent or Contract attributed the demise of American slavery not to its diseconomy but to a religiously inspired vision that made slavery morally insupportable. This vision was generated by the Second Great Awakening which idealized the goal of equality of opportunity. While working with Stanley Engerman on Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974), he began to appreciate the power that religious enthusiasm has exerted in American politics in promoting that egalitarianism which he asserts is an enduring theme in American history. The result is The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism.
He defines egalitarianism as pursuit of equal access to those things considered spiritually and materially desirable in our society. But by tracing it to the food relief measures taken in Elizabethan England, he reveals that the term covers a very modest redistribution or “welfare” for the sake of social order that has continued to the present. As he sees it, the Third Great Awakening which began in the late nineteenth century eventually adopted and secularized a Social Gospel-inspired equality of material condition as its ideal because it saw evil as social, not individual, in origin. This was a response to the sense of individual helplessness in a corporate industrial age. The result was the twentieth-century welfare state. Since econometrician Fogel’s statistics convince him that nearly everyone in America has adequate food, clothing, shelter, household appliances, autos, etc., he, as a “secular child of the Third Great Awakening,” can maintain that we have achieved most of its notion of reform and need no longer concentrate on redistribution of material goods. Currently we are in the Fourth Great Awakening which began around 1960, and its concern is the inequality in spiritual resources. Its political manifestation (required for Fogel’s definition of a Great Awakening) came in national politics in the 1980s, notably in the “Religious Right.”
By spiritual resources Fogel means all immaterial, intangible assets and aspirations. In regard to assets, he notes that human capital (skills or expertise acquired primarily through education) now exceeds physical capital (land, machines, buildings) in our economy. Accordingly, technically proficient people receive increasingly more of the money made in our economy than do owners of land and things built of metal and brick. Spiritual resources include our vision of opportunity, thirst for knowledge, and sense of purpose, discipline, and self-esteem, acquired mostly not through the market and at a very young age. These are requisite not only for economic success, but for the kind of self-exploration and individual realization that technological progress has made possible for the masses and not merely the elites.
Fogel’s emphasis on technologically driven social change and cultural lag in institutions is reminiscent of the formative period of naturalistic social theory from Lewis Henry Morgan to William Fielding Ogburn. While Ogburn considered religion in the category of non-adaptive institutions, however, Fogel makes “enthusiastic” religion the chief force in adjusting American institutions to technological change. The current adjustment was made possible by what Fogel considers to be adequacy in nutrition and basic requirements for all but a few, releasing most for spiritual self-realization. It was necessitated by the growing disgust with materialism and self-indulgence in our consumption-obsessed society, and by the perception that material redistribution did not eliminate vice, crime, or other anti-social behavior. Revealing an understanding similar to that of the Religious Right, Fogel blames the counterculture of the 1960s for undermining morality and personal responsibility. At any rate, he shares the notion that reform should no longer concentrate on the body and neglect the spirit. Moreover, he thinks that the Fourth Great Awakening shares the Third’s commitment to publicly subsidized education for both spiritual and material advancement, and that this could be a basis of a collaboration such as there was between the Third and Second Great Awakening.
This book comes close to advocating a “grand theory” that provides all-encompassing explanations and connects centuries. Perhaps it is in the category of Turner’s frontier thesis, but it is more empirically grounded than Turner’s. In fact, Fogel treats the reader to a generation of econometric work, especially on the effects of technological change on human physiology over the last few centuries. This is fascinating page-turning stuff, and it does document how much better off the poor are today than more affluent classes historically.
Finally, though, the reader must deal cautiously with the foundation of this work, which consists of an integration of realignment theories of American politics with conceptualizations of Great Awakenings periodically erupting in American history. Be prepared to cavil at what constitutes a Great Awakening and what characterizes its political manifestation. For instance, presently the Religious Right has both inclusive and exclusive characteristics, making the future more uncertain than Fogel allows, and Fogel’s poorly defined egalitarianism may or may not be its commitment. More likely, anti-egalitarian and more secular conservatism exists in an unstable coalition with groups hungering for religious justification, sharing a belief in self-reliance and individual initiative and rejecting the goal of equality of condition. If this lasts, will a commitment to equality, however defined, be recognizable? And what New Deal or Great Society advocate ever sought equality of condition?