Saturday, September 30, 2006

Commonweal Institute Newsletter vol. 5 no. 5

Vol. 5 No. 5 (September 2006)

Uncommon Denominator

The Newsletter of the Commonweal Institute

“These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, first inaugural address


Talking Points: Great Awakenings

Wit and Wisdom: Condi and the Lions of Monotheism

Check It Out: “The Denial Industry”

Featured Article: “Empires with Expiration Dates”

Happenings: Monthly round-up

Endorsements: Joan Blades

Get Involved: Spread the word; become a contributor


In a September 12 meeting with a group of conservative journalists, President Bush suggested that the United States might be experiencing a “Third Awakening,” or widespread resurgence of religious faith and expression similar to earlier such revivals in American history. Bush, offering his views on the causes of this apparent trend, predictably linked it to anxieties generated by the ongoing “war on terror”:

“A lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me,” Bush was quoted as telling his audience. “There was a stark change between the culture of the ‘50s and the ‘60s -- boom -- and I think there’s change happening here. It seems to me that there’s a Third Awakening.”

Aides hastened to emphasize that Bush did not see this “confrontation between good and evil” as a religious war between Christianity and Islam. “He’s drawing a parallel in terms of a resurgence, in dangerous times, of people going back to their religion,” one aide told the Washington Post. “This is not ‘God is on our side’ or anything like that.”

Nonetheless, his Manichean language suggests that Bush does see the conflict as some kind of religious war, and himself – as he has revealed in other contexts – as the leader of the forces of good. In the President’s mind, evidently, everything gets drawn back inexorably into the great vortex known as the “war on terror.” He toned it down in a press conference three days later, avoiding talk of war and good and evil, but the garbled language signaled that he didn’t quite believe in his own backpedaling: “And so I was wondering out loud with them. It seems like to me that something is happening in the religious life of America. But I’m not a very good focus group, either. I’m encapsulated here. But I’m able to see a lot of people, and from my perspective, people are coming to say, I’m praying for you.”

This is not really about President Bush, though, but about the “awakening” he perceives. For might he actually be right? Certainly, a glance through the headlines would seem to support the claim that the country is undergoing a broad-based rise in religious expression: “faith-based” initiatives are increasingly popular, religious schools report higher enrollment, more and more political candidates campaign on the basis of their spiritual beliefs, and so forth. If these developments constitute more than just passing trends, what might be some of the deeper causes, and the long-term consequences?

As always, a little bit of history is in order, and that history might lead to conclusions somewhat different from the President’s.

Scholars of American religious history have generally pointed to at least three major “awakenings” (a problematic but convenient term). The first, from the 1730s to the 1750s, saw an outpouring of religious sentiment up and down the Eastern seaboard, with a new emphasis on the emotional as opposed to the rational side of religious experience. The second, from about 1820 to 1850, radically expanded the number of Baptist and Methodist churches, particularly in the South and Midwest, and was powered by a generation of energetic evangelical preachers. The third, during the 1890s and early 1900s, witnessed a surge of interest in “muscular” Christianity and its responsibility for addressing widespread social problems. More recently, some historians have talked of a Fourth Awakening, starting in the 1960s and continuing through the 1990s, which has been characterized by the “born-again” movement and the rise of the “mega-church.”

Contrary to what some might believe, these upswings in religious feeling, expression, and observance are not mystical events brought about through supernatural agency. Rather, they are social phenomena driven by a confluence of identifiable cultural forces, and there are certain structures and patterns that characterize such awakenings. Some central features, briefly sketched out, include:

* Enabling communications networks. During the First Great Awakening, news of the revivals passed from one community to another through newspapers, pamphlets, and the public mails, which formed a newly vibrant print culture indispensable to a widespread social transformation. The Second Great Awakening was able to occur over a vast geographic territory for these same reasons, but also because of the expanding network of travelable roads. By the time of the Third Great Awakening, magazines were ubiquitous, and the United States had truly become an information culture. Finally, the Fourth Great Awakening has thrived in part due to the agency of television, which has fatefully linked the power of the pulpit to the power of the image.

* Reaction to rapid scientific, intellectual, or cultural change. Much of the energy of the awakenings in American history has come from the anxiety people feel when the world around them is changing in ways they either do not understand or do not like. In the mid-eighteenth century, that meant the decline of traditional Puritanism under pressure of the transatlantic Enlightenment. During the antebellum decades, it was the rapid expansion and diversification of American society, and in the late nineteenth century the challenge posed by natural science, particularly Darwinism, to traditional religious beliefs. Since the 1960s, numerous forms of cultural instability or transformation have appeared, the most significant being globalization and the advance of secular individualism, or what some have termed “moral relativism.”

* Definition and assertion of social identity. In response to unsettling cultural change, religious awakenings provide people with a means of clarifying their own relation to other people, to the institutions of their society, and to history itself. They create and reaffirm social bonds, establishing lines between the in-group and the out-group, between believers and non-believers. They help like-minded people identify and organize with each other. Ordinarily, in this process denominational differences become less important than a sense of shared piety.

* Motivation for social reform movements. Religious awakenings have long been associated with a desire to improve the world – to remake society in accordance with the views of the believers. Such reform can be progressive, even revolutionary, but it can also be reactionary in nature. The First Great Awakening, for example, by forging a feeling of common identity among American colonists, contributed to the political climate leading to the American Revolution. From the 1830s to the 1850s, religious revivals stimulated an interest in the major single-issue reform movements of the day, especially temperance and anti-slavery. In the Gilded Age, the Third Great Awakening went hand-in-hand with anti-poverty activism and resistance to the abuses of laissez-faire capitalism. More recently, religious reformism has taken a decidedly conservative cast, despite the involvement of liberal churches in protesting the Vietnam War. The greater emphasis since the 1970s has been on rolling back a culture deemed self-indulgent and on bringing church and state into closer alignment.

In assessing the impact of religious awakenings on society, scholars have debated a number of difficult questions. To what degree do such phenomena either reinforce or undermine the interests of religious establishments? In what ways do they exert centrifugal force (i.e., driving people apart) or centripetal force (i.e., bringing communities together)? What role do they play in socioeconomic and/or racial tensions? How significant a role do they play in challenging theological orthodoxy? This is not the place, obviously, to address such questions in depth; the point, rather, is that resurgences in religious expression are always complex and unpredictable in their social consequences.

To return to the immediate issue at hand. What seems likely is that we are witnessing a new phase of the most recent awakening, one possibly connected to the war on terrorism, but much more involved and potentially more dangerous than President Bush probably realizes. There are two defining and interconnected features of this new phase, and both should give us pause.

First, it is international in scope, thanks to the deployment of global electronic communications, particularly the Internet. This has several crucial implications. By allowing for the rapid dissemination of information and viewpoints, it delocalizes religious revival, making it possible to happen simultaneously in a range of far-flung places. Moreover, modern information technology might actually be stimulating an awakening across national borders by creating anxiety both about the character of modernity and about the relationship between different cultures. To a greater degree than ever before, modern human beings are vividly aware of how other people go about their lives, of what they believe, of what their aspirations and ambitions are. This can feel threatening – both to the West and to those in developing countries – and so a reaffirmation of religious identity provides a kind of psychic stability in the face of global turbulence. Most troubling, however, the Internet has allowed radical elements to assert themselves anonymously or surreptitiously, and to organize among themselves. Awakenings have historically represented a challenge to the moderate mainstream, but not to the degree we seee today. Which brings us to the second major issue.

That is the power of fundamentalist religion in the current awakening, both in the United States and in developing countries, particularly the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Southeast Asia. Fundamentalism promises order, simplicity, and clarity in the face of change, confusion, and complexity. It hearkens back to a supposedly better age from which we have fallen into turmoil and sin. Fundamentalism offers a vigorous stance for challenging all the developments of natural science and secular society which it opposes, from evolutionary theory to women’s rights. And the fundamentalist mindset feeds on social division, marking clear lines between believers and non-believers, identifying enemies, and promoting fear and aggression. This is its inevitable tendency, however innocuous individual fundamentalists might seem.

The emergence of multiple awakenings in different societies, therefore, and the influence of religious fundamentalists on political governance, are obvious causes for concern. Many countries have gone down this route many times before, and it leads to religious war. That is why President Bush’s aide quickly tried to disclaim any such notion. But the language of good and evil, particularly when linked to politics, allows for little flexibility in solving social problems, and reinforces the entire structure of thought which has brought us to this perilous passage in the first place.

The word “awakening,” therefore, is probably not appropriate. If we are to avoid widening conflict and social disruption, what people really need to wake up to is the need for a reassertion of the values of the Enlightenment: rationality, tolerance, free inquiry, benevolence, secularity. President Bush pays lip service to these ideas (excepting secularity), but they don’t seem to exert any actual influence over his administration’s policies. These are values that need to be reaffirmed not in opposition to spirituality per se, but in opposition to the fanaticism that can grow malignantly from upwellings of religious feeling.


“It’s been reported that Condoleezza Rice is dating a high-level Canadian diplomat. Sources say you can tell because Rice has an extra bounce in her step and is giggling a lot as she prepares for the invasion of Iran.” — Conan O’Brien

“In the West Bank a group calling itself the Lions of Monotheism fire bombed four churches, telling the Associated Press the attacks were carried out to protest the Pope’s remarks linking Islam and violence. The irony of the statement, and this is often the case we find, was lost on them.” — Jon Stewart


“I certainly hope that Hillary is the candidate. “I hope she’s the candidate, because nothing will energize my (constituency) like Hillary Clinton,” he said. “If Lucifer ran, he wouldn’t.” – Jerry Falwell, apparently channeling Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, at a Sept. 22 breakfast session in Washington D.C., to several hundred pastors and religious activists who had gathered for a “Value Voter Summit” conference.


If you are concerned about global warming, and wondering what can be done about it, check out George Monbiot’s forthcoming book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning (soon to be released by Allen Lane in the U.K. and Doubleday in Canada). Monbiot is a fierce social critic and environmentalist who has always retained a clear, realistic sense of the world’s problems while not losing his belief that human beings can make things right in the end. Advance reviews of his new book suggest that it will be a crucial addition to the debate surrounding global warming, and hopefully to the solution:

“George Monbiot has written a stunning book. It could easily be titled The End of Hypocrisy, because Monbiot systematically unveils the denial, deceit, and self-delusion that are our common responses to the enormous challenge of global warming. . . . Then with a step-by-step plan grounded in the latest research he explains how we can achieve a 90 percent reduction – in our vehicles, factories, retail centres, and homes – without wrecking our standard of living. When it comes to global warming, it’s time to stop being hypocrites and get on with saving the planet, and this book shows us how.” (Thomas Homer-Dixon)

“Avoiding disastrous climate change is the central challenge of our time. George Monbiot addresses it with wit, verve, and rigor. He shows that all of our excuses for inaction are just that — excuses. If you care about the future of the planet, you should read Heat, and then give a copy to a friend.” (Elizabeth Kolbert)

"An engaging, lively, and sometimes fiery analysis of the possible technological and political responses to the crisis of climate change, that starts where so much of the debate remains stalled. To those who say that the requirements of the Kyoto protocol are impossible to meet, Monbiot responds not only that it is possible to hit far, far more ambitious targets, but that it is urgently imperative that we do so. And then he shows how.” (David Chernushenko)

An edited extract from the section of the book having to do with the efforts by oil companies and conservative think tanks to discredit the science of global warming appears in the Sept. 19 issue of the London Guardian. Titled “The Denial Industry,” it is online at,,1875762,00.html. Check it out.


The following is an excerpt from Niall Ferguson’s “Empires with Expiration Dates,” which appears in the September/October 2006 issue of Foreign Policy.

“Empires, more than nation-states, are the principal actors in the history of world events. Much of what we call history consists of the deeds of the 50 to 70 empires that once ruled multiple peoples across large chunks of the globe. Yet, as time has passed, the life span of empires has tended to decline. Compared with their ancient and early modern predecessors, the empires of the last century were remarkably short lived. This phenomenon of reduced imperial life expectancy has profound implications for our own time.

“Officially, there are no empires now, only 190-plus nation-states. Yet the ghosts of empires past continue to stalk the Earth. Regional conflicts from Central Africa to the Middle East, and from Central America to the Far East, are easily—and often glibly—explained in terms of earlier imperial sins: an arbitrary border here, a strategy of divide-and-rule there….

“Today’s world, in short, is as much a world of ex-empires and ex-colonies as it is a world of nation-states. Even those institutions that were supposed to reorder the world after 1945 have a distinctly imperial bent. For what else are the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council if not a cozy club of past empires? And what is “humanitarian intervention,” if not a more politically correct-sounding version of the Western empires’ old “civilizing mission”?”

Read the whole article at


TV Appearance - Commonweal Institute President Katherine Forrest will appear on KMTV television in October. The program, Democratic Television (DTV), is a half-hour public-access cable TV program produced by the Santa Clara County Democratic Party (SCCDP) and hosted by Steve Preminger, County Chair. The purpose of DTV is to provide a method for the SCCDP to reach the general public with the ideas and goals of the Democratic Party, to discuss issues of concern to the Democratic Party and its constituencies, and to provide a platform for Democratic elected officials (both partisan and non-partisan) to reach the public in an effective manner, and in a relaxed interview setting.

The show on which Dr. Forrest has been invited to appear will address the following issues:

· how the conservative movement has come to be so dominant in this country

· how this is affecting politicians and public policy

· examples of how whole large sectors of concern to progressives are being impacted (e.g., public education, civil justice, role of government)

· what progressives can do about the situation

· concerns about security, disenfranchisement, & the 2006 election

· the work of the Commonweal Institute.

More information, broadcast times and channels, and a schedule of events are availabe at

At the Clinton Global Initiative – CI Fellow Dave Johnson was invited as a citizen journalist to cover the Clinton Global Initiative in New York earlier this month. See his comments – the items marked CGI – on his personal blog at Also read results of some of Dave’s research on the “swift boat” attacks on political candidates at


“Quality information is the basis on which all good policy must be built. Commonweal Institute’s mission, to research, educate and communicate on issues of importance, is key for policymakers and activists alike.” – Joan Blades, Co-Founder,


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© 2006 The Commonweal Institute

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