FitzGerald’s Cast of Evangelicals Falls Flat

Curtis J. Evans

In Review | Books The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, by Frances FitzGerald. Simon & Schuster, 752 pages, $20 paper.

1980 anti-music demonstrators

Christian demonstrators protest outside a punk rock show at the Starwood, Los Angeles, 1980. Photo by Gary Leonard / Corbis via Getty Images

 

Evangelical Protestants are very much in the news today and a frequent topic of conversation, with commentators and others asking: How is it that Christians who have been clamoring for decades about the decline of American culture and the necessity for personal integrity in our leaders could elect a figure like Donald Trump? The recent death of prominent evangelist and preacher Billy Graham has also inspired a flurry of articles and essays reflecting on his place in the evolution and politicization of evangelicalism in the last half of the twentieth century. Unlike in 1980, when historians were lamenting the dearth of scholarly work on evangelical Protestantism, the scholarship in recent years has not only matured but feels as though the market is glutted with books, such that one wants to demand that any newer books justify their existence.

Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, published in 2017, is one recent work, written by a renowned journalist, that tries to take a long historical view of evangelical attempts to shape and direct the nation through political activism and a politics of Christian values. As I try to identify the central thesis of FitzGerald’s book, I’d like to elaborate on two areas of the book that require further analysis and that will support my contention that the book’s aims are vague and that it does not effectively add to our understanding of evangelical Protestantism (in view of the massive previous scholarship). Those two areas are periodization and the cast of characters. But first, I must turn to the definitional problem. Who are evangelicals for FitzGerald? And why does that matter for the argument in the book?

FitzGerald opens her work by arguing that: “today white evangelicals are a very diverse group that includes, among others, Southern Baptists, Mennonites, Holiness groups, Pentecostals, Dutch Reformed groups, and a number who belong to nondenominational churches” (2). She maintains that they “have little in common” beyond the “essentials of their faith.” She cites with approval historian George Marsden’s definition that contemporary evangelicals are those Protestant Christians “traditional enough to affirm the basic beliefs of the old nineteenth-century evangelical consensus: the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of the Bible, the real historical character of God’s saving work” as recorded in the Christian scriptures of the Old and New Testament, salvation through “the redemptive work of Christ,” evangelism and missions as crucial priorities of the Christian life, and the significance of “a spiritually transformed life” (2).1 No further discussion is given to the doctrinal definition or how this might be complicated by other factors, such as social location, geography, gender (which I will address later in this review), and race, though, in the body of the text, the first of these two issues is addressed. A more extended explanation in the introduction would have helped.

In a cursory way, FitzGerald alerts the reader that she intentionally “omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story” and “their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals,” even though some blacks might identify as evangelicals (2). That is the extent of her discussion of black evangelicals, with the exception of a few comments about black Southern Baptists at the end of her long book. But if the particular beliefs that FitzGerald lists are markers of evangelicalism, why not include African Americans, given that many African American Protestants share these beliefs? Would this complicate the story of “evangelicalism in America,” or would the inclusion of blacks necessarily lead to highlighting a different set of criteria than theological beliefs and tenets as the defining feature of evangelicalism, even though the bulk of the book is about the relationship between theological beliefs and political and social activism? This makes the case for the inclusion of African Americans in the story all the more compelling.

While FitzGerald argues that the category of “evangelical” is a religious one and not a political designation, it is immediately evident that the primary purpose of the book is not to explore the religious dynamics and practices of evangelicals, but rather to show how a select number of elite white male leaders reshaped and reordered priorities and beliefs in their local churches, inspired and motivated their broader constituents to social activism, and incited involvement in local, state, and federal campaigns for political offices. FitzGerald begins by arguing that evangelicals compose nearly a quarter of the population. She argues that they are “the most American of religious groups,” without quite spelling out what that means (2). She states that evangelicals constituted a “dominant influence” on American culture, politics, and morals in the nineteenth century and that during the twentieth century, especially since 1980, “many evangelicals, led by the Christian right, have struggled to reverse” the secularizing of the American nation, and have “reintroduced religion in public discourse, polarized the nation, and profoundly changed American politics” (2).

Although the quotation above indicates that FitzGerald does make a slight distinction between evangelicals and the Christian right, most of the time the book loses sight of this distinction and never offers a compelling reason why over 50 percent of the book is about the Christian right. In fairness, the author states up front that the book’s aim is to offer a history of white evangelical movements that will help us to understand the Christian right and its opponents. Even so, it is curious she should choose as a title “The Evangelicals” for a book that is really about the Christian right since 1980 (in a book with 17 chapters, only the first few contain history prefatory to the 1980s). The book might have been more appropriately titled “The Emergence of the Christian Right and Its Quest for Political Power.” This is not merely a pedantic pet peeve, for I think the title is misleading and promises more than it delivers. It leads the reader to believe that this is a nuanced story about evangelical Protestantism and American culture, whereas most of the book is about why certain white male leaders became so adamant in their opposition to select aspects of American culture that they formed political organizations and interest groups to channel their strident critiques of American society.

A disproportionate discussion of the last five decades of the twentieth century shapes the book, with only cursory coverage devoted to the nineteenth century, which the author still maintains is crucial for grasping evangelical aspirations of cultural relevance and political power. The first chapter covers the First and Second Great Awakenings and the emergence of evangelical Protestantism as a notable and significant religious movement in America. The second chapter looks at divisions within evangelicalism over slavery and doctrinal disputes. The third chapter, “Liberals and Conservatives in the Post–Civil War North,” is mostly an attempt to tweak standard narratives about how historical critical scholarship on the Bible, Darwinian evolution, and social reform affected or led to a deep split within American Protestantism. Surprisingly, there is basically no discussion of race, reconstruction, and the implications for particular developments of evangelicalism. These first three chapters serve as the backdrop for the twentieth century. The remaining 14 chapters are about twentieth-century developments. In a book of almost 700 pages, less than 100 pages are devoted to pre-twentieth-century developments. So, it is obvious where the primary issues begin and the action takes place for FitzGerald when she begins her fourth chapter, on the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. This section constitutes the real beginning of the book and signals that it is a work on the emergence of a militant and selectively antimodernist (more George Marsden’s emphasis than the author’s) evangelical Protestantism that wants to enforce doctrinal purity and reverse larger cultural changes in the nation.

Yet, there is no shortage of recent books that situate the Christian right in the broader history of evangelical Protestantism. Two of most relevance for FitzGerald’s narrative are Daniel K. Williams’s God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (Oxford University Press, 2010) and Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014). It is clear from her footnotes that FitzGerald is conversant with Williams’s work, yet nowhere does she offer a direct refutation of or engagement with his claim that, rather than focusing on the cultural changes of the 1960s (the sexual revolution, the ending of school prayer and Bible reading in schools, feminism, civil rights) as the primary impetus for the emergence of the Christian right, we should look to a longer history of activism going back to the 1920s. Much of FitzGerald’s work points to the 1960s as the key and historically salient moment for a massive reaction and realignment among conservative Protestants in both the North and the South. Although, as noted above, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s does serve as a backdrop to her more detailed work on the Christian right in the 1980s, a great deal of that section is about doctrinal disputes and internal conflicts within the Protestant denominations. It is not clear, with the exception of the attempts to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools, what these seemingly insular internal denominational debates tell us about the longer political activation of conservative Protestants. Granted, their separatism and their building of networks outside the denominations express their dissatisfaction with liberal Protestant conceptions of Christianity, but it is not always evident what all these detailed internal disputes reveal about the author’s thesis.

As far as I can tell, FitzGerald shows no familiarity with Sutton’s book. It is not cited in the footnotes and it is not listed in her final bibliography. I think Sutton’s larger argument is especially relevant to her attempt to provide a long view of conservative Protestant political activism. He builds on and challenges George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1980; 2nd ed., 2006), and Joel A. Carpenter’s Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (Oxford University Press, 1997), two works that are important conversation partners for FitzGerald. Sutton takes a long view of fundamentalism, from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. Unlike FitzGerald’s use of Jerry Falwell, for example, as a catalytic figure who convinces previously apolitical Christians to engage their world, Sutton argues that cultural engagement and activism was a priority for evangelicals throughout the twentieth century. Sutton rejects narratives that portray the Scopes Trial and the debate over evolution in the 1920s as watershed moments that supposedly forced a major retreat of fundamentalists from activism (a framework that still shapes FitzGerald’s book). Dispensational premillennialism, while it appears only here and there in FitzGerald’s book, is also crucial to Sutton’s argument. Rather than leading to an apolitical stance, he argues, this prophetic schema led to a black and white, us versus them, and Manichaean view of the world. Prophetic interpretation is what drove the activism of conservative Protestants, in Sutton’s reckoning. This approach seems a much more compelling way of thinking about evangelicals: not as merely reactive spectators, but rather as responding to and helping to shape modern America. There is a way in which, despite all the masculine preening of leaders of the Christian right, they come across in FitzGerald’s narrative as reactive and responding to larger events rather than as active participants in co-constructing contemporary America.

The cast of characters in this book consists almost exclusively of white males, with a few notable exceptions (for example, Phyllis Schlafly, a Catholic antifeminist and activist). The list runs long: William Bell Riley, Billy James Hargis, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Francis Schaeffer, R. J. Rushdoony, and so many others. These men preach, denounce, form organizations, serve as the sources of political activism, cajole and urge fellow Christians to vote and become politically active, and—seemingly single-handedly—create a politicized Christian movement that transforms America. Women have hardly any place in this narrative, whether as organization builders, speakers, writers, educators, or political activists. There is virtually no discussion of gender or how it might have shaped and framed evangelical styles of preaching and activism. Laypeople are either passive or play no role in FitzGerald’s work. Perhaps some might facetiously assert these are merciful omissions in a book of this length, but these important topics cannot be bypassed, even on those grounds. Obviously, a richer and more inclusive narrative would mean much less coverage of Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, the three figures who get more attention than any others in the book. FitzGerald’s book is the “great leader” history writ large, applied to evangelicals in this instance.

One cannot help but raise the question of audience. What is clear is that, as a journalist, FitzGerald has spent considerable time, for example, talking to and interviewing people in Jerry Falwell’s church (probably as fieldwork and reporting for some of her earlier books on cultural change in the United States). The book feels different in certain sections, especially when the almost ethnographic style is used to tell of the rise of Falwell and his relationship to members of his church. While a strength in some ways, it makes the book feel a bit uneven. We get an intimate portrait of a few figures, while most feel like detached thinkers, known only from a distance, and that despite the fact that the book really is a collection of mini-biographies. If the original impetus of the book, based on previous of FitzGerald’s books, was to explain the seemingly sudden emergence of the Christian right in the 1980s by focusing a great deal of attention on several of its most vocal leaders, then it would make more sense to employ this style.

My sense is that the book seems intended to help curious journalists, interested political observers, and those concerned about the polarizing and polemical discourse of the Christian right get a better sense of how and why the Christian right emerged. But in focusing so much attention on individual leaders, the chapters often read as self-contained pieces that neglect a broader argument and therefore do not advance our understanding of the lived experience or the nature of political activism of conservative Christians, except to highlight how they were animated about particular social issues or how their leaders gathered around a presidential figure and tried to exert influence (mostly notable in Falwell’s relationship with President Ronald Reagan).

This explains why FitzGerald relies so heavily on secondary sources. The book is a work of synthesis that tries to bring together a lot of scholarship on evangelicals, but in so doing, it necessarily puts itself alongside these other works in a comparative way. That leads people like me (as one who has taught courses on evangelicalism in the twentieth century) to ask: What does this work add to previous scholarship? I could not find any significant original argument, and I saw no new perspective advanced in the book as a whole. I can see some value in having these compendiums about the Christian right readily available to those who have little understanding of it or of its religious activism, but, as an interpretive project, the book is seriously lacking in critical acumen.

In fact, where one might anticipate the book would be the most useful—namely, in illuminating our current context—it fails to live up to its stated aims. For, while the book ends with an epilogue that speculates why evangelicals in such high percentages supported a sordid and mendacious figure like Donald Trump for president, disappointingly, FitzGerald concludes with: “the simplest explanation was that those evangelicals who voted for Trump had affinities with the Tea Party” (629). That is hardly a compelling explanation for why they voted for Trump. She goes on to claim that people who rarely attended church and were least educated tended to support Trump.

Perhaps the timing and publication of the book did not allow for a fuller assessment and digesting of relevant data, thereby explaining this weak, flat, and inadequate explanation. What seems more plausible is FitzGerald’s argument that evangelicals were heartened by Trump’s assertions that he would stop illegal immigration, that he would make America great again, and that he would be the strong leader who would protect them from terrorists and the alleged destructive policies of liberals. Yet, this is a strange place for FitzGerald to end, given her broader narrative. Her previous discussion does not help us to understand precisely this phenomenon—especially her extended discussions of Falwell and others preaching against moral decay in high places, railing against sexual sins lurking in every corner, and urging the nation to repent of its many sins. We will need to turn to another book to have a better handle on this side of evangelicalism. Perhaps Allan J. Lichtman’s White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008), with its keen focus on ethnic and racial nationalism as formative in the development of Protestant Christian activism in the 1920s, would be a much more suitable work to help with this query. In the end, FitzGerald’s book is a disappointing one that suffers from too many omissions and a surplus of superfluous details on certain figures. One will have to look elsewhere to answer a number of salient questions about the longer history of evangelicalism and such burning questions as why evangelicals ended up voting for Donald Trump.

 

Notes:

  1. George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991), 4–5.
 

Curtis J. Evans is Associate Professor of American Religions and the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is currently working on A Theology of Brotherhood: The Federal Council of Churches and the Problem of Race (forthcoming from Oxford University Press), a historical evaluation of the FCC’s attempt at social and racial change from the 1920s to the 1940s.

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