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Will Bernie Sanders’ defeat also end America’s latest Great Awakening?

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Santa Barbara, Calif., on May 28, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

(RNS) As Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination heated up in these past months, so too did comparisons between the fervor fueling Sanders’ political movement and the faith-based mobilization of an old-time religious revival.

“More than any other candidate Bernie draws on the language of right and wrong to make his pitch. Politics for Bernie isn’t a job, it’s a crusade,” Grant Diamond, pastor of Faith Baptist Mill Creek, west of Chicago, wrote on his blog last month.

“As a preacher myself I can’t help but admire the righteous fury with which he moves crowds and fills stadiums,” said Diamond, while noting that the fascinating aspect of Sanders’ “appeal to righteousness is that it’s a secular righteousness.”

For those seeking a precise parallel in American religious history, the most common — and convincing — analogy for the Sanders movement is to the Second Great Awakening, one of three (or perhaps four, depending on who’s counting) spiritual explosions that have periodically transformed society since the Colonial days.

George Whitefield preaching, circa 1857.

Photo courtesy of Belcher, Joseph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

George Whitefield preaching.

The first “awakening” was a revival that began in the 1740s, fueled by the renowned traveling evangelist George Whitefield, and it stirred grass-roots believers and helped lay the groundwork for the American Revolution.

The second such awakening, the one that most brings to mind the Sanders campaign, dates from around 1800 and ran up through the middle of the 19th century.

It was also a grass-roots movement, mainly of Protestants — Baptist and Methodist membership spiked during that era and new denominations were created in its wake — and the upstate New York region identified as the heart of this Second Great Awakening was marked by such religious fervor that Charles Grandison Finney, a leading preacher of the day, dubbed it the “burned-over district.”

In today’s political context, the term “burned-over district” is not just an analogy but an irresistible opportunity for a pun, which is why more than a dozen religion scholars from the University of Chicago Divinity School who are studying the Second Great Awakening titled a recent essay comparing that revival with the Sanders’ campaign “The Berned-Over District.”

In the essay, the scholars underscore the irony that Sanders is the most secular major candidate in the 2016 race, and perhaps in U.S. history. But they also detail how closely Sanders’ movement does in fact track a spiritual movement like a Great Awakening.

Yet the real test of how closely the Sanders revival parallels American religious history will be seen in how his followers respond to what appears to be an inevitable disappointment as his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, can now claim enough delegates to be considered the party’s presumptive nominee.

Faced with defeat, will the “Bernie Bros” and their allies melt away into the ranks of disaffected nonvoters? Will they instead work to propagate Sanders’ populist message in the Democratic establishment? Or will they try to undermine Clinton’s campaign and perhaps create a schism in the Democratic Party?

As this post-primary stage unfolds, perhaps the most instructive example to consider may not be the Great Awakening but rather what is known as the Great Disappointment — the letdown that true believers in the Second Great Awakening’s more messianic elements experienced when prophecies of Christ’s imminent return did not materialize.

The Great Disappointment forced followers of one of the revival’s more charismatic figures, the Baptist preacher William Miller, who had pegged the second advent of Jesus for sometime in 1844 or 1845, to reckon with what happened when Jesus did not return and establish the reign of peace and justice they had been promised.

Many of these so-called “Millerites” did indeed find a rationale for going forward with their faith intact, and the Great Disappointment actually gave birth to a number of religious movements, most notably the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

That phenomenon was also a precursor of the famous “cognitive dissonance” theory that psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues described in the 1950s when they infiltrated an apocalyptic cult and observed what happened when the cult leader’s prediction of an end of the world did not come to pass.

In their book “When Prophecy Fails,” Festinger and the other authors described how the members were so invested in the group’s belief system that they sought coping mechanisms to square their views with facts that belied those beliefs rather than altering or abandoning the doctrines. One such mechanism was to enlist others into the movement to provide social support and affirmation.

While cognitive dissonance was first defined in a religious context, it has obvious applications in the secular world, and die-hard Sanders supporters can certainly sound like they are setting themselves up for a similar reaction.

For example, some of them increasingly seem to be diverting their enthusiasm, which remains as strong as ever, from what were once blithe declarations of inevitable victory to darker theories about rigged votes and back-room machinations by a suspect rival. Their cause was so right and so just, they argue, that conceding defeat would betray the mission. So they must press on.

Sanders himself has seemed to tilt in that direction at times, to the chagrin of Clinton backers and a Democratic establishment that wants a more unified and predictable following — much as the established denominations of 19th-century America disdained the enthusiastic spirituality of the Second Great Awakening.

But the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening, even more than the revivals that came before and after, also took another direction for its less apocalyptic adherents that could provide another model for the Sanders movement.

Rather than waiting for deliverance from above, these devotees — followers of preachers like Finney more than Miller — channeled the zeal of their conversion into progressive movements such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, prison reform, temperance and a host of other causes that would later come under the umbrella of the “Social Gospel.”

Could Sanders inspire such a movement? As the longtime independent senator from Vermont, he hasn’t been known for building coalitions or courting allies to pass significant legislation.

But at a rally in San Diego on Sunday (June 5), even as he talked about a “contested convention,” the 74-year-old Sanders did seem to nod to the reality of the delegate math, telling a raucous crowd that his message of social, economic and environmental justice would eventually prevail even if he did not win the nomination:

“That message is now in the hearts and souls of the overwhelming majority of younger people in this country, which means our message is the future of America!” Sanders declared, according to a report from NPR.

Now it remains to be seen if Sanders’ secular choir will give that vision a hearty “Amen!”

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Bernie is not defeated.

    Bernie didn’t fabricate the superdelegate system. Bernie has nothing to do with Hillary’s FBI problems. Bernie does better over Trump despite whatever creative work is done in polls. Lastly Bernie did not fabricate the voter fraud and suppression in AZ, NY and even NV which calls into question the validity of a rigged democratic system. filled with voter suppression and exotic and unsupportable rules, voter purging, statistical anomalies on exit pools and an adversarial DNC. People being dismissed from jobs, but nothing put right even in a situation of obvious misdeed. A tainted electoral process. Bernie did not factricate Hillarys poor record or the globalist disaster of the clintons and the successions of trade deal that screwed every American.

    For these 5 reasons he has every right to contest the election. And the DNC and media has every right to shut up about trying to push him out and let it run it’s course instead of the crooked ways of US media with blackouts and dismissing him and direct political interference. The us media propaganda machine is over the top and we all know as the US media credibility drops to nothing. The media sold us the Iraq war and didn’t do their job. Now they do it again with Bernie. Indefensible and their will be long term blowback by an entire new and young generation not so easily led around by the nose and not subjected to decades of propaganda and dogma. There is no doubt about the media’s subversion of the democratic system, when you consider that republican frankenstein Trump who they have been shoving down our throats.

    Bernie only being responsible to his supporters and the DNC rules and the DNC party and the Democracy. He is the man of the year. The Media, the DNC party and Hillary are all part of a political system that is rigged. So he needs to fight and he should fight because this is not just about the presidency. It’s about smashing a system that puts in place one shtting president after another who tramples the people. It’s about a political system that has screwed blue the average person and made the government ineffective and unanswerable to the people and the media who sells us bullshit foreign wars while domestically the US circles the rim of the toilet. A media too eager to sell us down the toilet and ignore the real issues of the US entirely as if they live in another world.

    Everyone knows what’s wrong and how absolutely tired of the dysfunction media and government. THERE WILL BE ENDLESS BLOWBACK UNTIL THESE PEOPLE REMEMBER WHO THEY WORK FOR AND WHO THEIR AUDIENCE IS WHILE THEY STILL HAVE ONE. We will take note of the bad players, and our goals will be drive them from elected office and boycotts.. The broom is out, it’s not going away until the garbage is cleaned up!

    I expect Bernie to Rally in DC and at the convention and do 100’s of town halls across he land to explain the painful truths and proposed solutions. If Hillary wan’ts any benefit from that she better toughen up and come around to Bernie’s platform. He needs to speak through the land so all can here is message first had without the media spin and republican dogma that is inflicted on us.

    This battle might be lost but the war will continue and it will be loud and messy as Bernie drives home the unpleasant truth about the cabal who owns the US and their middle management the US government and corporate media. The truth is leaking out like a septic tank overfilled. And we all have to walk through sh*t to get at the problem. And if trump wins so be it, sometimes things have to get worse to get better.

  • Anyone who compares the Sanders campaign to the Great Awakening has a fundamental misunderstanding of both. Revivals have always been a call for self reflection, a time when we cast off vice and self indulgence and ask God for forgiveness. It’s a time when we turn away from sin and instead embrace a life of service to our fellow man. This is not a function of the State, it’s a transformation within ourselves as individuals.

    By promising to use the power of the State to redistribute wealth from recalcitrant sinners, Sanders is shamelessly and nakedly buying votes. Considering most of his donations came from the unemployed, this “act of love” was exposed as nothing more than the tried and true scam of promising a chicken in every pot.

    Only Trump honors the dignity of American citizens, not by promising them a handout, but a jobs, jobs that were stolen from the working class and sold to the lowest bidder, be that slave labor in China or sweatshop workers in Bangladesh. Trump has promised to shield the working class from the predatory multi-national’s who replace hard working Americans with cheap H1B visa workers (Disney). Trump realizes that government has a place, but it’s not legislating morality. A corrupt nation will fail, regardless how many laws are passed in an attempt to mitigate the cancer.

    America is in desperate need of another Great Awakening, but it won’t come from Washington.

  • You can’t blame the superdelegates for Bernie Sanders not winning the nomination. Clinton won more votes than Sanders, and has more pledged delegates heading into the convention; therefore, it is only right that she wins the Democratic nomination for President.

    Incidentally, I’m totally against the superdelegate system. I just don’t think that this election cycle is one where it tainted the election. Hopefully the DNC will remove this system before it becomes too late.

  • I totally agree with you he’s lost the Nomination for President, probably. The super delegate system which we both agree is stupid, work against Bernie all through the campaign. As did some oball rules in NY where over 3m independents were blocked through suppression. People aren’t stupid after all.

    In the case of the superdelegate rules, their vote is nothing till it is cast, it keeps Bernie in the forum. It’s a two way road. So he can and should challenge. I’m not interested in whose president I’m concerned with substantive policy directive.

    You accuse us of bashing but what we really want is a DNC that works for the people, Not a republican like DNC hillary queen bee kingdom. So the party must heal and its going to require a very big reach by the DNC. Minimally Bernie is going to need to have some serious power in the DNC to continue his policy of change. So forget the media narrative about winners and losers, the pony race. This is about substance and ideas and how to map the future of DNC policy and see it return to it core vales. And that is good for all and good for America. So Bernie needs to fight on and you should be happy, his franchise is powerful and the future of America. So stop thinking winner and loser, think good decisions and bad. As bernie has always said, decent and discussion of what makes the democracy strong. Bernie fight on – Good Decision. DNC making room and healing the breach – yet to be made good decision. We will see.

  • This is an outstanding article Mr. Gibson. The parallels you draw are on the button.

    “it’s a secular righteousness.” That’s such an apt descriptive phrase. Sometimes folks don’t understand that the two words, ‘secular’ and ‘righteous’, can fit together, but as Bernie has clearly shown, they do indeed.

  • It is not hard when you make promises that you know you cannot possibly keep. Is that not what politicians do. Is that not what some preachers do when they cry for you to sow a seat and reap 100 times what you sowed. There are good actors in every profession that is involved in selling something.

  • That’s a worthwhile point Tom. Time will tell how much Bernie has accomplished in his quixotic run.

    Hillary needs to make some move towards Bernie’s positions to bring his supporters, their energy and enthusiasm, into the national Democratic campaign. She might pick just one, like the $15 minimum wage, my personal favorite. If the Democratic platform includes that it could be a powerful momentum offer for the Bernistas.

  • I believe Bernie entering the race was the best thing that could happen for all Americans. She needed a challenger, Trump had 17. It gives Democracy a chance. I do not think his running was a waste of his time or ours. Now we must pray for guidance as to who is best Hillary/Trump. Both candidates certainly have short comings, unfortunately for me it is down to the lesser of two evils. I am a Republican, but I am for minimum wage increase. People deserve a livable wage regardless of what honest work they do. I am for some type of affordable medical care and believe those that cannot work should be provided health care. I am not for free tuition. I am sure that is largely due to the fact that I worked my way through college and grad school without any help from anyone, but God. My father died when I was in my early teens and my mother could barely support us on Social Security. I am for the elderly being taken care of fortunately God has blessed me with good investments that generate a comfortable income. My medicine bill along is 3/4 of my Social Security check. I came to the Philippines to do mission work and I stayed because I have no family still living and the cost of living is so much cheaper here. My Blue Cross went to nearly $800 a month and I dropped it. With co-pays etc., it was worthless. Out of pocket was cheaper in the Philippines.

    I am thankful I am turning 76 and do not have to face what our young people will face in future years.

  • Millions of voters in various states were disenfranchised. The idea that America is some shining city on a hill where powerful interests would never tamper with elections is the relgious delusion here. In a way I agree with this metaphor though. Americans seem to go through long periods where they ignore the bigger picture and focus on themselves, and then there are periods where they “awaken” to some great moral and political crusade. The moral standards in our government, society and economy have fallen so far and the nation is in such grave danger people are looking for some honesty and some justice, and they are tired of just sitting on the sidelines, they want to get informed and get engaged.

  • Daniel, apparently you don’t know where Donald Trump’s clothing lines are made. I respectfully suggest that you research this topic as well as Trump’s other empty promises.

  • I know exactly where Trump’s clothing line is made. I also know where he gets the steel to build his buildings. That America no longer has a manufacturing base or the ability to produce raw materials or a robust garment district to distribute goods to American stores isn’t Trumps fault. Look, if you’re happy with the way things are, by all means vote for Hillary, the rest of America is taking a different path.