Will Hate Trigger A Religious Revival Via Social Media?

Mollycoddling white supremacists and playing footsie with bigots are not activities befitting the presidency, many argue in reaction to Donald Trump’s equivocations about the deadly violence in Charlottesville. 

The resurgence or reemergence of the far right is also an affront to the nation’s soul, as Mitt Romney warned. He said Trump’s words “caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn.” 

Ominously, Romney added that unless the president corrects course, “there may commence an unraveling of our national fabric.”

These dire warnings may prove all too prescient: The national controversy over race and racism now underway has brought forth angry forces that seem to revel in nihilism; they are already tearing our social fabric with acts of violence. But the impact goes beyond them.

Violence and vocal hate also force broad swathes of “ordinary” Americans to ask themselves what they believe and how they should respond. 

There are many organizations and movements responding to the rise in far-right extremism and hate, most without a religious element. Secularism and tolerance generally go hand in hand. But could those glaring questions, and the heartfelt sorrow of a large part of the American public over racial division, also trigger a religious revival – the Fifth Great Awakening in American history? 

It may seem like a long shot, but consider the video posted here.

Is it time to reconsider the generally dismissive views on religion that seem to prevail in more secular circles? Religion remains a powerful force in American life and is capable of uniting people from different communities. 

A religious revival now, in reaction to the dangerous outburst of overtly racist and anti-Semitic ideology, would have numerous precedents in the previous Great Awakenings – a series of Christian mass revivals that swept America from 1730 to 1980. They often grappled with the most pressing social issues of the day, including abolition, women’s rights, temperance and prohibition, and abortion.

As noted in a previous post, each Great Awakening was facilitated by its own new media — and the next Great Awakening, whenever it comes, will undoubtedly come via social media.

So far, America has seen at least four epic religious revivals, the Great Awakenings. Each pioneered an innovative communications strategy using the technology available at the time; however, the goal of these strategies was always to get people listening to revivalist preachers.

During the “First Great Awakening,” from 1730-1755, it was almost entirely word-of-mouth. There weren't many printing presses in the colonies, the postal system was rudimentary, and many people were illiterate. Communities were small enough for a single word-of-mouth advocate to be quite effective in building buzz around the approach of famous fire-and-brimstone preachers, like Jonathan Edwards.

By the time of the "Second Great Awakening," from 1810-1840, printing presses were common and more Americans were literate, so the communications strategy evolved to include a big print media push, with the foundation of the American Bible Society in 1816. 

The print media strategy included not just mass-publication of Bibles, but flyers and pamphlets promoting social causes associated with the revival. like the abolitionist and temperance movements. They also advocated for women’s and children’s rights, for example, opposing child labor in industry.

The same basic technologies dominated the “Third Great Awakening,” from 1870-1900, which saw the birth of fundamentalist Christianity in response to Darwinism. There was much more use of print, thanks to the growth of newspapers and the popularity of “campus revivals” at colleges and universities, as well as the work of Dwight Moody’s Bible Institute. (Later, the rise of radio in the 1920s allowed fundamentalists to form their own national and local media networks, such as evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.)

The most recent revival was the “Fourth Great Awakening” from 1960-1980, in reaction to hippies, gays and abortion, again characterized by the adoption of the latest media – most notably the modern phenomenon of televangelists like Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Pat Roberston, and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

The wave of televangelism was supported by new broadcast and cable networks dedicated to revival activity, including the Trinity Broadcast Network, as well as new genres of music like Christian rock.

While some of the Great Awakenings were undoubtedly conservative in response to the social issues of their day (Darwin, Prohibition, hippies, abortion, homosexuality), it’s also worth highlighting the contribution made by evangelical Christian abolitionists — many of them women — to the struggle against slavery, as well as for women’s and children’s rights.

Today, evangelical voters supported Trump in 2016, largely motivated by economic insecurity, according to a report from the University of Chicago Divinity School, which noted “Surveys showed that many white evangelicals objected to Trump’s sexism [and] racism…”

America once again faces a vast spiritual question about the contents of its own soul — fertile ground for religious ferment. Will there be another religious revival uniting the country in condemnation of racism? Or is the American public just too irreligious and apathetic to become excited about religion again? 

But one thing is for sure: the “Fifth Great Awakening” — should it come to pass — will take place via social media, continuing the tradition of evangelists adopting advanced media strategies. It will be enabled by the massive growth of email, social networks and digital media — especially online video.

It will allow individuals and organizations to coordinate evangelizing efforts by followers and reach out to potential new converts.


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