A Third Awakening?

camp meetingDid President Bush lose the evangelical vote? Is he trying to get it back? Was there ever an evangelical vote for the Texan to corral? The history of the Bush administration's relationship with Christians is nowhere near being closed, but Bush said something rather significant Tuesday that is going to receive quite a bit of attention -- first from reactionaries claiming that he is trying to bring a theocracy to America, and later from historians. But first, check out this Weekly Standard piece by Marc Ambinder. In it, Ambinder reflects on what Bush's political strategists (think Karl Rove) are just now beginning to realize:

For that matter, these organizations are not all that influential inside the Beltway. Nationally, the Christian Coalition is near death; in its place, the Family Research Council and other small groups try to keep the embers burning. They claim hundreds of thousands of members. They have access to top White House officials, and they hold events to keep their membership satisfied; but Republican strategists with access to polling know they move the votes of very few Christians.

The current crop of well-regarded evangelical leaders, like David Barton of WallBuilders, a group seeking to rekindle appreciation of the country's religious heritage, and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, are better pastors and behind-the-scenes operators than they are political strategists. They are good at gauging the mood of voters in the states; they don't try to build national movements.

Ambinder cites a rather significant development of muscle-flexing by smaller, community-based Christian political organizations in local races. His conclusion is that evangelicals are driven by national security and not so much by the culture wars. This is why GOP movers and shakers are looking so fondly at former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Ambinder writes.

But does that mean Karl Rove has given up on courting evangelicals or at casting the current political climate as some grand global spiritual battle between the forces of evil and good? Check out this blog post at National Review's The Corner, which The Washington Post's Peter Baker jumped on in a page A5 story:

President Bush said yesterday that he senses a "Third Awakening" of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation's struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as "a confrontation between good and evil."

Bush told a group of conservative journalists that he notices more open expressions of faith among people he meets during his travels, and he suggested that might signal a broader revival similar to other religious movements in history. Bush noted that some of Abraham Lincoln's strongest supporters were religious people "who saw life in terms of good and evil" and who believed that slavery was evil. Many of his own supporters, he said, see the current conflict in similar terms.

"A lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me," Bush said during a 1½-hour Oval Office conversation on cultural changes and a battle with terrorists that he sees lasting decades. "There was a stark change between the culture of the '50s and the '60s -- boom -- and I think there's change happening here," he added. "It seems to me that there's a Third Awakening."

great awakeningSeeing that Baker could not have started writing this article until after 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, he did not have a lot of time to gather facts or cite history. And seeing that he was not included in this meeting of conservative journalists, he did not have the chance to question Bush on what he meant by a "Third Awakening."

Baker, who should be credited for catching on to a great news story first cited by another media outlet, did a great job quickly tracking down some historical facts on what Bush meant by Great Awakening. There are no doubt going to be many ways to look at it, but I was impressed by his reporting and his insightful note that Karl Rove, among other Bush aides, has read The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism by Robert William Fogel.

Now an obvious contradiction lies in this comparison. The book talks about a Fourth Great Awakening. Scholars have legitimate debates over whether we have had two, three or more Great Awakenings.

But forget for a moment the historical details and debates over numbering, which in this case is pretty insignificant. Bush is citing a historical movement that is near and dear to the hearts of many evangelicals. This is something prayed for in church, at bedsides and around the dinner table.

How radical is it for Bush to say he believes we are in a Great Awakening? What do historians say? In 40 to 50 years will there be a case to be made that the Bush II years were something of a religious revival? After Bush won reelection two years ago, some were saying that already.

Is Bush just echoing the beliefs of his evangelical supporters? He did say that he feels their prayers.

There is the whole issue of how this plays into the war on terrorism that happens to be primarily against Muslims. Baker addresses that in a brief paragraph that says Bush is now careful not to describe the battle in religious terms (such as "crusade") and an explanatory statement from an aide (who might that be?).

It will be very interesting to see how this statement plays in overseas media, which will have little appreciation for the historical value of the statement. You can forget about Muslim media. Imagine what type of historical misunderstandings would be communicated if the leader of a major Middle Eastern country made a remark akin to Bush's. Hey, wait a minute ...

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