Book Review: The Evangelicals, By Frances Fitzgerald

Review
02.13.2020

Frances FitzGerald. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. 740 pages. $35.00

Depending on the survey, evangelical Christians represent something like 15 to 25 percent of the American population, no small portion (albeit one in decline). Even so, as Rick Warren noted in 2005, every five years journalists feel the need to reintroduce evangelicals to the American public.

A recent contribution to this enterprise is The Evangelicals, a weighty volume from the political journalist and popular historian Frances FitzGerald, winner of the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes for her prior work on the Vietnam War.

THE STORY OF EVANGELICALISM

Writing from a secular, liberal perspective, FitzGerald offers what appears to be a history of American evangelicalism but really amounts to a telescoped effort to understand the rise and impact of the “Christian Right” of the late 1970s and beyond. This leaves out many self-identified evangelicals, among them African Americans, Anabaptists, Latinos and Asian Americans, as well as Anglicans and others from more traditionally mainline churches. FitzGerald’s goal is to make sense of the right-wing Christian political and social activism of recent decades, so she focuses on a limited segment of the broad evangelical world, politically charged and largely southern, white fundamentalists.

FitzGerald is a skilled narrator who draws upon the copious scholarship of American evangelicalism to tell an accessible story. She begins with the First Great Awakening of the 1740s, covering figures ranging from the stalwart Jonathan Edwards to the erratic James Davenport. More telling in her account is the reformist energy unleashed by the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, which gave evangelicalism an activist cast and helped it become culturally dominant.

Evangelicalism splintered along theological lines in the postbellum era and into the twentieth century, a bifurcation symbolized by the famous Scopes Trial of 1925. Thereafter, FitzGerald charts the rise of the neo-evangelical movement of the 1940s and beyond. Mid-century intellectuals like Harold Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry played an important role in this development, though FitzGerald emphasizes Billy Graham as a central figure and a bridge to later developments.

EVANGELICALS IN THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION

The story finds its focus with the conservative Christian reaction to the social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, and particularly with the emergence of the politically engaged fundamentalism of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, established in 1979. Falwell sought to mobilize Christians and other concerned Americans against secular humanism and sexual libertinism, promising a holy war against abortion, heterosexual promiscuity and homosexuality, and public schools stripped of prayer and infused with secular sex education.

The Christian Right enjoyed some measure of prominence in the early Reagan years, but it was hurt by televangelist scandals involving Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. By the 1990s, the movement gained new financial backing and political influence through the leadership of figures like Pat Robertson and James Dobson. By this time, the evangelical connection to the Republican Party was cemented, with strong majorities of evangelicals (and certainly their more strident fundamentalist cousins) functioning as a reliable voting bloc for the GOP, which courted them with moral pronouncements and vague promises.

From its highpoint in the 1980s and 1990s, the narrative of the Christian Right has been one of declension, though one could cite a period of rejuvenation during the George W. Bush presidency, enough to generate paranoid claims of imminent theocracy from several more excitable members of the chattering classes. Prominent evangelicals such as Rick Warren disavowed the quest for political power and the compromises it entailed, turning instead to issues like global poverty. Meanwhile, younger evangelicals found the militant metaphors and shrill tone of Christian Right leaders less to their liking in a culture where the assumptions of the secular Left were increasingly taken for granted and enforced by law.

While evangelicals struggle with next steps in a culture grown hostile—Faithful separatism? Cultural accommodation? Renewed political engagement?—FitzGerald worries about evangelical revanchism. This anxiety, combined with a clear antipathy for the moral claims of evangelicals—regarding abortion and sexuality, for instance—animates her more contemporary analysis. She is fine with evangelicals as long as they keep their retrograde religiosity private, but holding traditional Christian convictions in the public square is out of bounds.

By the 1980s, FitzGerald suggests, the U.S. was becoming more secular, but the Christian Right “reintroduced religion into public discourse [and] polarized the nation” (2). This is an odd claim, to say the least. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was led by ministers like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy, who did not hesitate to use the words of Scripture or the oratory of the pulpit as they preached to a nation. Financed by currency imprinted with “In God We Trust,” the Vietnam War elicited sustained protest in the late 1960s and early 1970s from clergy like the Catholic priests (and brothers) Philip and Daniel Berrigan and James Carroll, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, and MLK, many of whom joined forces in Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1976 with frank talk about his “born again” experience and evangelical religiosity, sparking the initial quinquennial spasm of journalistic inquiry to which Warren referred. Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988, and Rev. Al Sharpton came to national attention in the 1980s for his racial activism. And it bears saying that religion has had a critical role in the leadership, grounding, and specific claims of historical developments that FitzGerald would no doubt applaud, such as the nineteenth-century abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a decade of American history in which religion was not a vital part of public discourse.

Except perhaps today, in certain elite liberal enclaves where people know better than to speak of such things. Harvard now celebrates “winter break”; mention of Christmas is verboten. Our cultural arbiters denude the public square and punish recalcitrant bigots who refuse to succumb to progress. The secularism FitzGerald seeks to safeguard has grown into a powerful and exclusive orthodoxy that brooks no heresy. We are a nation polarized. Thus FitzGerald’s use of scare quotes for what conservative evangelicals and other religious critics of our nation’s trends seek today: “religious liberty” (621-22). Whether bakers, florists, or campus fellowship groups, her implication is clear: you’re welcome to your views, as long as you don’t live them out in public, for religion (of the wrong sort) is a contagion against which the body politic should be inoculated. So much for our first freedom.

On the other hand, progressive evangelicals are adapting their understanding of sexuality and family to fit society’s changing mores and turning their attention to global warming and poverty, so they are free to articulate in public discourse their religious rationales for left-wing policies.

The Evangelicals should prompt American Christians to consider afresh our relationship to our nation, our understanding of its religious history, and our aspirations for its public life.

By:
Jonathan Baer

Jonathan Baer is associate professor of religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana.