“She begins the story, appropriately, with the 18th-century revivals of the First Great Awakening, the birthplace of American evangelicalism. She demonstrates that from the beginning the movement was primarily religious and theological, with political overtones, and quite diverse.”
I first encountered Frances FitzGerald in the 1970s when I read her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, to which I still refer when I lecture on the war. In addition to the Pulitzer, the book also won the Bancroft Prize for best historical work as well as the National Book Award. Its immense success catapulted FitzGerald to the top level of journalist-historians, where she has remained ever since.
In the 1980s, she became interested in the Christian Right. Among other types of research, she spent time at Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. I suspect that interest launched her latest book, because it seems her animating research question is something like: Where did the fundamentalists and evangelicals of the Christian Right come from? The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America is her answer.
Exhaustive History of the Christian Right
FitzGerald has read most of the scholarship on evangelicals and synthesized it into a masterful narrative. Her bibliography of more than 250 books would make a good preliminary reading list in the PhD program here at Baylor University. Paragraph by paragraph I could say to myself, There’s Marsden, McLoughlin, Kidd, Dochuk, Hatch, Marsden again, me, Diamond, Carpenter, Green, Noll, and so on.
She begins the story, appropriately, with the 18th-century revivals of the First Great Awakening, the birthplace of American evangelicalism. She demonstrates that from the beginning the movement was primarily religious and theological, with political overtones, and quite diverse. But FitzGerald wants to move quickly to more recent times and so reaches “Liberals and Conservatives in the Post-Civil War North” by page 56 and “The Fundamentalist-Modernist Conflict” of the early 20th century by page 95.
Throughout this sometimes riveting narrative, FitzGerald demonstrates a keen grasp of evangelicalism’s intricacies. By way of just two examples, she outlines the nuanced differences between separatist fundamentalists and more broadly evangelical believers in the early 20th century. Even more impressive, when she gets to “the thinkers” of the Christian Right—Rousas Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer—she explains the subtle differences between J. Gresham Machen and Cornelius Van Til in order to show the influences in Rushdoony’s thought. Moreover, she’s careful to point out that while many in the Christian Right were influenced by Rushdoony, few adopted his central argument that America’s destination will be, and should be, the institutionalization of Old Testament law. Instead, the Christian Right went with Schaeffer’s Christian Manifesto rhetoric of attempting to restore America’s “Christian base”—but no theocracy.
FitzGerald’s chapter on Falwell and the Moral Majority starts on page 291, and so for the final 344 pages of narrative the book becomes the most exhaustive history of the Christian Right since William Martin’s With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (1996). But FitzGerald has the advantage of another two decades of history to cover since Martin’s book first appeared. Her argument in brief is that the Christian Right, having started in the Reagan era, declined in the 1990s, then took off again and peaked during its all-too-close alliance with George W. Bush. The precipitous decline in Bush’s fortunes during his second term—caused by the debacle in Iraq, the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, and, finally, the economic crash of 2008—dragged the Christian Right down with the president. In short, the alliance that seemed so beneficial and brought such hope for a restored Christian America ended in disaster for the Christian Right. As FitzGerald aptly puts it,
To many Democrats and moderate Republicans, the White House and the Republican leadership had seemed to have become a captive of the Christian right. To many evangelicals, the opposite seemed to be the case: the Christian right had become a function of Republican politics. (534)
The hope that Barack Obama would be a one-term interlude came crashing down with his unexpected re-election in 2012, after which Christian Right leaders spoke in both apoplectic and apocalyptic terms.
The years since Bush left office, especially Obama’s second term, have seen the rise of the “new evangelicals” (not to be confused with the Neo-evangelicals of the 1950s), who are skeptical of the old Christian Right’s approach to politics and especially wary of the degree to which the Falwell-Robertson-Dobson generation aligned evangelicalism with the Republican Party. Chief among the new evangelicals is Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
It seems to be part of FitzGerald’s subtle thesis that the Christian Right transformed evangelicalism from a religious to a political movement—and that this was not a good thing. There is something to this, but we need to keep in mind, as she acknowledges, that even at its height only about 20 percent of evangelicals identified with the Christian Right. When evangelicals think and talk about politics, and especially when they vote, the vast majority sound and act like the Christian Right, from which they take their political cues.
But I’ve always maintained that the typical evangelical isn’t all that political. Rather, the important things for most evangelicals are: (1) living godly lives; (2) raising their children to be committed, evangelical Christians; (3) being active in their local churches; and (4) evangelizing their neighbors. They talk about issues like abortion and gay marriage in Sunday school, and on Election Day about 75 percent to 80 percent of them dutifully vote Republican, even if a pagan like Donald Trump is at the head of the ticket. They may even put a sign in their yard for the Republican congressman in their district. But the vast majority of evangelicals don’t march in the street, write letters to their congressmen and senators, run for the local school board, or attend Christian Right rallies. They’re too busy being Christians, so they leave that to the Falwells, Roberstons, and Dobsons of the world.
This is where FitzGerald’s book falls down a bit. In covering the Christian Right so thoroughly, The Evangelicals perpetuates the myth that evangelicalism and the Christian Right became synonymous. In part, FitzGerald seems to want to show that this was the case and that it was an unfortunate aberration, given the nearly three centuries of rich and robust evangelicalism that predated the Christian Right. On the other hand, however, part of the reason we need good history is to show that perceptions, especially those perpetuated by the media, need correction—that there’s more to a movement than its most visible, loud, and sometimes outrageous public figures.