Waiting for Revival
We have been living through an American revival. Conservatives may want to stop wishing for the next.
Conservatives have said for decades that America needs a revival, and in recent years they got their wish. Our society has undergone a remarkable upsurge in moral fervor, as Americans have sought to transform individual lives and remake public institutions in line with a high calling. On race, sex, and gender, Americans have adopted a new creed sometimes described as the Great Awokening. Revival has arrived—and conservatives hate it.
Of course, revival didn’t come in the form that they hoped. Instead of an upsurge in conventional piety, patriotism, and thrift, American zeal has been channeled into progressive causes. But even this strange revival has something to tell us about the problems of conservative revivalism more generally. It’s not obvious that conservatives really want revival. Nor is it clear that they should.
Conservative intellectuals often issue calls for revival in place of, or in opposition to, calls for public regulation. For more than a century, Christian publications have reprinted a passage attributed to the Wall Street Journal that sums up the sentiment: “What America needs more than railway extension, and western irrigation, and a low tariff, and a bigger wheat crop, and a merchant marine and a new navy is a revival of piety. The kind mother and father used to have.”
Hopes for revival reflect a basic tension in the conservative outlook. Conservatives take a dark view of the state of society. They note the explosion of drug use, deaths of despair, school shootings, and suicides. They lament the decline of marriage and rise in out-of-wedlock births. But they oppose any ambitious measure to combat these things if it seems to involve economic, or sometimes even moral, regulation. They believe the crisis is great—and that little can or should be done about it, at least insofar as men are acting collectively.
Standing behind this response are some noble instincts. Conservative calls for revival reflect a sound Christian belief that our affairs are decided ultimately by God’s providence. But a reliance on providence cannot be an excuse for neglecting one’s duties. Likewise, it is true that many unintended consequences and perverse incentives attend government regulation. But if the crisis is great, then it is worth attempting even risky things to address it.
It is far from clear that revival is something conservatives should hope for. In the American tradition, revival is bound up with a populist spirit. The Second Great Awakening (1795–1835) was a great outpouring of religious belief, but it did not reliably support the established order. Revivalist preachers resented America’s clerical establishment and worked to undermine social regulations such as prohibitions on Sunday mail. Revivalism, far from being an alternative to politics, fed into it in disruptive ways. Conservatives say they want revival—but how comfortable will they be when it arrives?
Get weekly emails in your inbox
Indeed, their discomfort wouldn’t be altogether misplaced. As Ronald Knox, the Catholic writer, noted in Enthusiasm, the revivalist takes “exceptional cases” when religion has radically transformed a man’s life as “the average standard of religious achievement.” He imposes a high standard on all mankind and will tolerate no “weaker brethren who plod and stumble.” Anyone who urges him to rein in zeal, or makes excuses for other men, is regarded as his enemy. Whatever he says about his internal state and the state of the world must be believed, for he has an unchallengeable inward assurance. As Knox notes, this spirit leads to social division. It ends up working against Christian charity.
Wokeness has worked similarly in American life. It is an intensification of liberal and progressive zeal, directed not just against those who hold other views but against those who hold liberal and progressive views in a qualified, humane, and gentle manner. That is why so many of wokeism’s casualties have been center-left figures in universities, boardrooms, and newsrooms. They have been pushed aside by a vanguard whose members insist that their internal truths matter more than whatever any external authority might say. Their gender identity, their account of sexual abuse, their experience of racial oppression is not to be called into question, even on the basis of the firmest evidence.
We have been living through an American revival. Given the unpleasantness of the experience, conservatives may want to stop wishing for the next. Instead, we could work for social improvement in less dramatic ways. This will require using the faculties God has given us, political as well as personal, collective as well as individual, for the good of the country. Because this is a fallen world, those efforts will lead to unexpected and frequently unwelcome outcomes. But to err is human—more human, in fact, than doing nothing at all.