For those not familiar with the term “awakening”, it is defined as, “A period of intense religious fervor, spreading over entire geographic regions.” In the past, awakening in this country have been the precursor to the creation of new denominations, social and/or political changes.
Since Mr. Bush was making this observation strictly to journalists he would basically consider friendly to his politics and theology, my assumption was this was his way of signaling the start of his campaign to rally the conservative Christian voters back into the fold, who may have drifted off over the past two years due to dissatisfaction with his administration. It’s pretty much common knowledge that Mr. Bush’s courtship of this large and very influential part of our society was key to his re-election.
So when things are looking bad on the political front, what should any good politician do? Play the God card and rally his forces, (“onward Christian soldier, marching off to war…”)!
My thoughts are, that the President feels this upcoming awakening, (like those before it…either two or three, depending on which scholar to choose to read on the subject), will foster many more people taking an active part in religion in this country, like they have in past awakening…which could only help the power base of conservative republicans. And you know what? He may very well be correct about this revelation…but not with it’s cause or effect!
From my over 10,000 miles of road trips, convention appearances and book signings this summer, I developed a pretty good feel of how the secular world views Christianity in this country. Since I have been mainly marketing the Eye Witness Christian themed graphic novels in secular venues, (re: comic-pop culture conventions, mainstream comic and book stores), I have had a great opportunity to gauge how young people react to even the mention of Christianity in locations where it is usually not found. What I have discovered is, that I agree with the President, that there could indeed be an awakening coming. But unfortunately, the coming awakening may not repopulate the ranks of existing denominations, but rather it might spurn the traditional church and it’s dogma and go into either totally new directions or really old ones*, (I’ll explain this further)!
In his reported comments to the press, the President stated that there was a cultural change that happened from the conservative 1950’s to the more liberal 1960’s…and according to Bush, “I think there’s change happening here (and now)…that there will be a third awakening,” (although some scholars already say that the period between the 50’s and 60’s was already the fourth awakening). That misrepresentation aside…I think he is right on target with the feeling that something of a cultural revolution along the same lines as the 1960’s could be on our horizon, that will indeed also radically effect the spiritual nature of our society. But what the President fails to take into consideration is, that in all previous documented awakening in this country, the religious status quo is always questioned and many times radically altered…which I do not think is the effect that Mr. Bush is really hoping for in tapping into this bit of our spiritual history!
Here is a capsulated history of great awakening in the United States**:
In the first awakening, (1730’s to 1740’s), religion became intensely personal to the average man and he became passionately involved in it, rather than just engaging in being a passive listener. Christianity was taken to the slaves, established religious authority was challenged, and people began to study the Bible in their homes rather than solely relying on their priest or pastor.
The second awakening, (early to mid 1800’s), was characterized by a wave of religious-social activism and emergence of many new denominations, (Methodists, Baptists and the Restorationists), that were focused on reaffirming many of the traditions of the original church, as described in the New Testament. During this time the country saw the creation of several Christian institutions still operating today, (American Bible Society, The Church of Christ and the Latter Day Saints movement).
The third great awakening, (1858 to 1908), was also known as the missionary awakening. Numerous social reforms were undertaken during this awakening, including child labor laws, compulsory elementary education and protection for women in the workplace. Both the YMCA and the Salvation Army were founded during this awakening to answer social needs. And Christian Science was created in an attempt to create a more culturally relevant approach to religion in a growing secular society.
As I already noted, some scholars think the fourth awakening occurred in the late 1950’s to the 1960’s, when many groups within society rejected the more conservative social mores of the 1950’s era. During this period, there were many changes reflected in society in regards to our feelings about war, segregation, school integration, and civil rights for all citizens of the United States, not just a chosen few. This awakening gave rise the development of many new sects, and the formation of the non-denominational mega-church and Para-church movement.
One of the common elements in all these awakenings is the social upheaval that accompanies them. Based on what I saw and heard this summer, my read on society is that a great many people, (especially the teen to “20-somethings” generation), feel a sort of disconnect to Christianity because it has become a, “love us or leave us proposition,” through it becoming so politicized. Because it has become the banner behind which the far right (politically speaking), gathers under, the observation by this age group is, if you do not share their political beliefs, than you cannot “be a good Christian.” And those who do not march in lock step politically, can be considered not only a foe to their political ideology, but also by association, maybe even to God himself?
This type of rhetoric is problematic for a number of reasons. One, that the average un-churched young person who is not familiar with Jesus, his gospels and the foundation of his teachings, will not understand the difference between someone who is truly representing Jesus in his life, with those “who are playing the Christian card” to achieve their personal or political goals. Two, if they happen to disagree with right wing political thought, they might then feel that Christianity must not be for them...since to be Christian is to follow a specific political ideology only, (which is the total opposite of what Jesus taught). This will have, (and really is already having), a chilling effect on this current generation, who rather than deal with this enormous barrier, are just choosing to marginalize faith and belief in God in their lives. And this is the spark that could light the fire of the next great awakening!”
*In the sixth paragraph, (in what is morphing from a blog entry to a novelette), I mentioned that I would explain the term “really old ones,” when referring to directions our country has taken during an awakening. In the second awakening, among the groups of emerging denominations came the Restorationists. This is defined as a number of different groups during this time all set out with one goal in mind...to transcend current religious tradition and dogma, and restore Christianity to it’s original form, as described in the New Testament by Jesus’ apostles. Their goal was to bring Christianity back to the way it was practiced in the original first century Church. At this time in our history this movement included the Baptists and Methodists.
The Restorationists of this time believed that the Christian religion was weakened and too divided, due to unreasonable loyalty to creeds, man created traditions and doctrines that made salvation seemed unattainable. Sound familiar? It was the same argument made by Jesus himself against the religious establishment of his day, and the same observation is pertinent in our society today!
If we view our current day religious landscape, we can see the seeds of a restorationalist movement already taking shape, through the increasing popularity of: Non-denominational churches, (which utilize many non-traditional methods and tools to connect to their communities); missional based churches; the Emerging Church movement; and the popularity of authors like pastor, Brian McLaren, (who has been recognized by one of TIME magazine’s 25 most Influential Evangelicals in America). In his most recent book, The Secret Message of Jesus, McLaren speculates that through history “the church” either manipulated and/or just left behind the true message of Jesus and the original Church…which is, that the Kingdom of God was in the here and now, and could be attained and embraced by all. According to McLaren, waiting for heaven was not what Jesus had in mind, but for all the people to be able to experience Heaven on Earth during their lives.
These kinds of shifts can only occur if there is a significant dissatisfaction with the religious establishment and our social condition, by both those in the clergy and those sincerely wanting to locate God but not finding him accessible through the Church, as they perceive it.
So fasten your seatbelts gang and get ready, for our beloved President may be right and the next great awakening is coming. As Bob Dylan wrote (during the last great awakening), “The times they are a changing”…and that is a good thing, if it allows more people to connect to Jesus!
Robert James Luedke, is the author and illustrator of the graphic novels… Eye Witness: A Fictional Tale of Absolute Truth & Eye Witness: Acts of the Spirit. Copyright 2006.