Once again, Americans are given to Great Awakenings. As in the middle of the 18th century and again in the first half of the 19th, surging religious revivals are the rituals wherein vast numbers affirm in unison that something binds them above and beyond the almighty self. To the jaundiced Manhattanite, nothing could be more pitiable, more fatuous, more primitive than a “boy scout,” yet it is precisely would-be boy and girl scouts who are on the march, offending sophisticates. They have no faith in government. They have faith in faith. They hug.
The Million Man March, the Promise Keepers’ “Stand in the Gap,” the Million Woman March-it will not do to derogate their numbers. Demonstrators always claim higher numbers than the press and the police allow. Themes matter more than numbers. For the men, the common element is: We shall redeem ourselves, sinners, standing together among our own kind, demanding little or nothing of the powers that be, asking forgiveness of those we have failed.
The black women’s Philadelphia march of Oct. 25 came with a Web site deploring “disconnection.… we no longer bond as a family unit, we no longer teach and prepare our children in the way we wish for them to go.… The Million Woman March will revive life as we once exemplified it: Great Grandmother taught Grandmother, Grandmother taught Mother, Mother taught Me, I will teach You. We will no longer tolerate disrespect, lack of communication, negative interaction, antisocial and dysfunctional behavior, and the denial that problems such as these affect our ability to progressively and productively move forward.”
Three weeks earlier, the same words, polished up, could have been used by the Promise Keepers. In an effort to grasp what this spirit is about, I spoke with George Packer, a fine Boston writer who flew down for their Washington rally Oct. 4. Mr. Packer is writing a book to understand American politics through the prism of his family history; his maternal grandfather was a populist Congressman from Alabama who turned against the New Deal. A cousin of his in Birmingham holds profoundly right-wing views but is nevertheless immersed, through her evangelical church, in interracial activities.
On the plane down to Washington, Mr. Packer sat next to two men from New Hampshire, blue-collar entrepreneurs, one of whom told him, “My marriage was going downhill, I was spending no time with my children, I was working too hard, drinking too much.” The Promise Keepers, he said, put him in touch with other men to whom he could feel accountable. They invented a community of salvation.
Down the Washington Mall, the spectacle of the speakers repeated on giant screens. “Why are we here?” asked one leader, responding to criticism from the National Organization for Women. “Is it to demonstrate political might? No. Is it to demonstrate masculine strength? No. Is it to take back the nation for our faith? No. We have come to demonstrate spiritual poverty, that Almighty God might influence us. We come not as protesters to this city to declare our rights. We come as sinners to declare our wrongs.”
Along the mall, men reached for their wallets, took out pictures of their wives and kids, and kneeling, thought of the insults and the abuse they’d meted out. “They were deep, deep in themselves,” Mr. Packer said. “Deep, intense self-scrutiny.”
Then came the hour of racial reconciliation. “Multiculturalism in a Christian context,” Mr. Packer calls it. A black minister spoke of wrongs endured and the resulting sin of bitterness: “Many of us, like Cain, could not handle rejection, and turned against our brothers.” A white man declared, “We are an arrogant people.” He spoke of “our greed,” of “our broken treaties with American Indians.” Standing around Mr. Packer, white Alabamians wept. A Latino man deplored “a religion more cultural than spiritual.” An Asian confessed “sins of aloofness.” Each was accorded tumultuous applause. The community they invoked was a community of sinners, not victims.
At the end of the hour, the call went out for unity. “We are nothing and God is everything,” one said, and other speakers agreed: “There is no other way than Christ.” “They have a universal,” Mr. Packer said. “It’s not humanism. It’s the opposite of humanism. That’s when I felt left out.” Chief Promise Keeper Bill McCartney of Denver and football had said on Nightline the night before that unless you were a born-again Christian, you would not feel comfortable at the rally. Indeed.
“I have mixed feelings,” Mr. Packer (like me, a member of the editorial board of the left quarterly Dissent) summed up. “A good deal of time I was bored from the repetitions. Part of the time I was a little nervous. I thought of this mass of Christian influence. What are they going to do with all this power? But I have to say that a good deal of the time I was moved. The sight of a white male crowd according such respect and attention to minority speakers-where else are you going to find that? Maybe a labor union …” But his voice trails off. Intellectuals of the left, excluded or offended by identity politics, tend to wait for Lefty in overalls these days. “I went home with this odd mix of elation and depression,” Mr. Packer said. “I distrust the leadership. I distrust McCartney. But the mood, the openness, the decency of the handful of people I talked to, this was amazing.” I heard black men report the same feeling at the Million Man March two years ago, despite their lack of fascination with the number 19.
In recent weeks, in northern Alabama, there is a student movement, all right. High school students there have been praying-in and boycotting classes, weeping and wailing in protest against a Federal court decision that public schools may not officially organize prayers or other religious expressions. Not for them the niceties of separation of church and state. Their republic is Christian, period. There are more of them than are picketing these days for the rights of chimpanzees at New York University.
Something is happening out there, and hip New Yorkers are Mr. and Ms. Jones-myself not excluded-who don’t know what it is. Great Awakening? Dogmatic sleepwalk? Rough beasts abasing themselves along Desolation Row? The eclipse of liberalism? All of the above? Whatever it is, it’s huge, and all the sensibilities present among the current upheavals are not going away.