Clinton, Hybels and Photo Ops

Political junkies pay close attention to Bill Clinton's jogging partners.

One morning last summer, the president ran alongside the Rev. Bill Hybels, whose Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago is a hot spot for Baby Boomer believers. Afterwards, the two adjourned to the White House porch facing Pennsylvania Avenue to pray -- in full view of reporters and tourists.

A mere photo opportunity? A megachurch pastor communing with a sincere seeker? A politician wooing an evangelical superstar? All of the above?

It's safe to say Clinton's motivation was similar to that of Sen. Bob Dole, when he announced that he and his wife, Elizabeth, were leaving Foundry United Methodist Church in search of more conservative pews. Perhaps Clinton and Dole were thinking along the same lines as Sen. Phil Gramm, when he preached to the Christian Coalition, or Gen. Colin Powell, when he told interviewers on CBS This Morning that he understood the Religious Right's concern about moral decay in America.

Truth is, these politicians are responding to what University of Chicago scholar Robert Fogel believes is the latest of four "cycles of religiosity in American history." He can back this lofty language with inspiring statistics.

Exit polls in 1982 congressional elections showed that a third of the voters were evangelical Christians or what Fogel calls "believers in enthusiastic religion which is characterized by spiritual intensity linked to conversions." The key is that these voters split their 1982 votes evenly. But in 1994, only 26 percent voted Democratic while 74 percent voted Republican.

On top of that, the percentage of votes cast by "believers in enthusiastic religion" went up. If these voters "turn out in the same proportion in 1996, and if they continue to favor the Republicans over the Democrats by the same margin, there will have been an inter-party shift of about 7.5 million voters," said Fogel, in a recent address to the American Enterprise Institute. "We are in a process of political change that is to a large extent spawned by trends in American religiosity."

Cycles in American religion last for about 100 years and have three stages, said Fogel. First comes an intense "revival" that establishes social and theological principles, followed by a phase of political activism. Finally, the revival's principles come under attack and political coalitions created in this era decline. These cycles may overlap, with one cycle beginning as another ends.

The first "great awakening" began in the 1730s and peaked during the American Revolution. The second, centering on personal conversion and the reality of sin, led to the abolitionist and temperance movements. The third emphasized science and a social Gospel, instead of personal sin, and inspired many 20th Century progressive movements. This "modernist" revival soaked into American education and media, said Fogel.

"Journalists, essayists, historians, social scientists, novelists and dramatists who embraced modernist ideology were turned out by the tens of thousands. They became entrenched in the new mass media -- low-cost daily newspapers, glossy magazines, inexpensive books, popular theater, vaudeville and movies -- which they used to attack conservative religionists."

The result was the flight of traditionalists from the public square. Many conservatives even argued that it was sinful for Christians to be active in politics or media.

But this changed during the fourth awakening, which began amid the turmoil of the 1960s. This era produced a highly mystical approach to faith that emphasized personal experience -- which undercut some forms of traditional religion, as well as the work of modernists and materialists.

Today, millions of "enthusiastic" believers insist on being heard, said Fogel. Above all, they believe that moral and spiritual problems are real and demand solutions that transcend politics.

"It may be possible for President Clinton ... and other Democratic strategists to devise an appeal that will win back those intensely religious voters who have only recently deserted them," said Fogel. "By now it is probably clear to at least the Democratic moderates that their party committed a major political blunder when they pilloried believers in enthusiastic religion."