Why does the US have "Great Awakenings"?

Why does the US appear to undergo bouts of religious awakenings? I’m vaguely familiar with the influx of Scottish Kirk members triggering the first one, but it seems that every so often a broad upsurge in religious fervor sweeps through American society. Is it simply a matter of multiple non mainstream religions competing for followers or is it something else?

In their books Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (William Morrow, 1992), and The Fourth Turning (Broadway, 1997), William Strauss and Neil Howe expounded a theory that it’s all about generational-culture cycles: Generations sort themselves out into cohorts. Each generation’s character is formed by the social environment of its childhood and youth, and by the character of the generation that raises it. There are four types of generational cohorts:

  1. Hero: A Hero generation lives (in broad terms) an outer-directed life of bold achievement, without much introspection. 20th-Century American example: The GI Generation, which won World War II. And the generation now in high school are a new Hero generation, the Millennials.

  2. Artist: Live relatively tame, sheltered lives; dedicated to justice and reform, but only to the extent of tidying up around the edges. E.g., the “Silent Generation,” which gave us the Americans with Disabilities Act but probably will never give America a president.

  3. Prophet: Focus on the inner life and produce a spiritual awakening, which includes denouncing the hypocrisy and wickedness of their Hero elders. But of course, the Baby Boomers (Strauss and Howe’s generation).

  4. Nomad: Live catch-as-catch-can lives in the wreckage of a society disrupted by the disturbances caused by the Prophet generation. Currently represented by my own generation, the post-Boomers – “Generation X” or, as Strauss & Howe call us, “13th Gen” (i.e., the thirteenth generation raised under the American flag). Achievers in our own way – WWII was won by Hero troops led by Nomad officers.

In this analysis, the political and social upheavals of the 1960s and '70s were the same kind of social-spiritual “Awakening” that took place in America in the 1740s and the 1830s – even though the '60s Awakening was, unlike its predecessors, not expressly Christian in content and in many respects flatly opposed to Christianity.

You can read more (and join in on-line discussion boards, but those things are for pathetic nerds, aren’t they) at Strauss and Howe’s website, http://www.fourthturning.com.

They’ve extended this cycles-of-history analysis all the way back to Elizabethan England. Of course, the whole thing is non-falsifiable, which makes it unscientific, and it’s not quite as neat and deterministic as it seems. The Civil War cycle, in S&H’s view, was a three-generation cycle that produced no Hero generation because the war, owing to the chances of politics, came too soon in the cycle and disrupted it. I wonder if that’s the kind of truncated cycle we’re living through now . . .

I suppose I was referring specifically to religious awakenings, more in line with repeated emergence of fundamentalist/doctrinally pure revival movements. Though I can see how spirituality vs. religion (the 60s) could be fit in there too. But wouldn’t generational theories have problems with the following point?

  1. Population growth fed by immigration
  2. Lack of similar emergences across nationalities (i.e. where is the religious revival in the UK and Canada?)

It seems that abundance of religious freedoms in the US allows for many smaller non mainstream groups to attract followers by setting up the established churches groups as members of the “mushy middle”.