Marilynne Robinson on America’s ‘Third Great Awakening’ (i.e. Christian Fundamentalism)

Marilynne Robinson 2‘History is a great ironist, though historians seem rarely to see the joke’. So observes Marilynne Robinson in a delightful essay titled ‘Hallowed Be Your Name’ (in Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel. ed. Peter Laarman; Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, pp. 1–12). One of the interesting things that Robinson does in this wee essay is to contrast the First and Second Great Awakenings (she notes Edwards and Finney respectively) with what some have identified as a Third Great Awakening. Robinson contends that this third movement – which is what American Christianity is currently living under the burden of – differs significantly from the first two in a number of respects, not least its being ‘notably devoid of interest in equality’. She goes on to argue (and I cite at length) that this Third Great Awakening, whose other name is Christian Fundamentalism,

‘… passionately supports a government whose policies have created a sharp rise in the rate of poverty. For a self-declared Christian movement, it shows startlingly little sense of responsibility for the vulnerable in society.

And here is the culminating irony. This movement, which calls itself fundamentalist, subscribes fervently to the principles of laissez faire capitalism. It has helped to push American society toward what the English economist Herbert Spencer called “the survival of the fittest.” Darwin borrowed that phrase from Spencer to name the dynamic of natural selection in the evolution of species, otherwise known as Darwinism. In other words, our anti-Darwinists are Social Darwinists. The great defender of what were then called “the fundamentals” was William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat and a pacifist and a passionate campaigner against what he saw as the economic structures that created poverty. His “Cross of Gold” speech spoke of the poor of America as Christ crucified – not at all the kind of rhetoric we hear these days. Bryan, a liberal by any standard, opposed Darwinism because it was taken at the time, rightly or wrongly, to justify not only economic exploitation but also racism, colonialism, eugenics, and war. He feared the loss of belief in the sanctity of the human person, the only stay against these things.

The neofundamentalists treat the matter as if the central issue were the existence of God or the literal truth of the Bible. They seem to overlook the implications of the dignity conferred on every human being in the narratives of creation. They speak of a right to life, an oddly disembodied phrase which, isolated as it is by them from human context, tends to devalue the incarnate person and is therefore as unbiblical a conception as Bergson’s élan vital. It invokes Jefferson, but Jefferson posited a divine endowment to every person that includes also liberty and the pursuit of happiness – terms that are difficult to define but that clearly imply dignity and hope and the exercise of meaningful agency. These are rights that, though “inalienable,” have to be enabled and respected in society if they are to exist in fact. For example, they more or less require that one come through childhood in a reasonable state of health. Policies that spread and intensify poverty, besides being unbiblical, deprive individuals of what Jefferson called their God-given rights. The thought among anti-Darwinists was, and supposedly still is, that humankind is demeaned by the notion that God was not in every sense present and intentional in the creation of our first parents. The passionate loyalty of the neofundamentalists to the second chapter of Genesis (the first is startlingly compatible with the idea of evolution, though not Darwinism) seems to have prevented them from reading on in the text. Were they to do so, they would find there much to indicate that God continues to be present, and also intentional, in the lives of Eve’s children.

Since these folk claim to be defenders of embattled Christianity (under siege by liberalism, as they would have it), they might be struck by the passage in Matthew 25 in which Jesus says, identifying himself with the poorest, “I was hungry, and ye fed me not.” This is the parable in hallowed be your name which Jesus portrays himself as eschatological judge and in which he separates “the nations.” It should surely be noted that he does not apply any standard of creed – of purity or of orthodoxy – in deciding whom to save and whom to damn. This seems to me a valuable insight into what Jesus himself might consider fundamental. To those who have not recognized him in the hungry and the naked, he says, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.” Neofundamentalists seem to crave this sort of language – more than they might if they were to consider its context here. It is the teaching of the Bible passim that God has confided us very largely to one another’s care, but that in doing so he has in no degree detached himself from us. Indeed, in this parable Jesus would seem to push beyond the image of God as final judge to describe an immanence of God in humankind that makes judgment present and continuous, and that in effect makes our victim our judge. Neither here nor anywhere else in the Bible is there the slightest suggestion that our judge/victim would find a plea of economic rationalism extenuating. This supposed new Awakening is to the first two Awakenings, and this neofundamentalism is to the first fundamentalism, as the New Right is to the New Deal, or as matter is to antimatter’.


  1. This is one of the most lucid and powerful indictments of neo-fundamentalism (a new—appropriate—term to me) that I have ever read. Thanks for sharing!


  2. I think in general she makes some obvious points about Fundamentalism; but then I also think her points are a bit sweeping, since not all of “Evangelicalism,” socially, fits into her cross-hairs. I.e. the “Moral Majority” is not reflective of all Fundamentalists (but surely many).


  3. The key statement (to me) in this article is: “This movement, which calls itself fundamentalist, subscribes fervently to the principles of laissez faire capitalism.”

    First, I completely agree with the observation.

    Secondly, the true measure of whether or not a movement cares about economic disparity and caring for the poor is not their political policy. Christians are more devoted to separation of church and state than they ever have been. Remember that the states still had official denominations during the first two awakenings. The true test is in what they do individually and as church organizations. While I don’t have access to good statistics…anecdotally, in my circles, giving of time and money in the private sector is on the rise.


  4. Funny, I was once a member of one independent fundamentalist and calvinist type church. While working in a public welfare program one day, I had a case where a client with an incredibly misshapen face needed to travel some distance to a hospital for teatment. Welfare in thos days only provided for public transportation which would have been a traumatic experience for that teenage girl. Needing money so a social worker could take the girl and her mother in a private automobile, I went out to the church and told the pastor. He said, “That sounds like missions to me,” opened a drawer, pulled out an envelope and extracted the amount needed for the trip. Nothing is ever like we imagine, and even in history one must be careful. Any study of the First and Second Great Awakenings will suggest that Finney lies outside the scope of the Second Awakening, and comparing Edwards and Finney is like comparing Apples and Oranges, two very different fruits. The first two Awakenings have a great deal to do with the transformation of Proestantism from a gospel-recovery, contentious, combative movement into an outgoing, more ethical effort at persuasion through missions. At the core of those awakenings which transformed American Society and Government lies theology and a Presence not so readily evident in the labors of Finney (although his ministry did comprehend Abolitionism) which resulted in a burnt over area where converts really became hard to get. Even Finney decried the problems about his converts in his Autobiography. As to the Third Great Awakening, it is perhaps in the process of beginning to approach us. Edwards’ Humble Attempt has yet to be explored and made relevant to our age and then implemented in proper response before the Awakening will, likely, become evident.


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