“Evangelical” Is Not a Political Term

For evangelicals, the real “struggle to shape America” takes place in their personal spiritual lives and cultural engagements, which is far beyond the how they vote in November.

The absence of Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason, easily one of the most important studies of American evangelicalism of the last decade, is probably the most surprising omission, but there are big gaps from the scholarly literature on topics like gender, race, and capitalism, to name just a few of the richest terrains historians of evangelicalism have explored of late. Still, FitzGerald captures the tensions, conflicts, and divisions that enlivened and reshaped conservative Protestantism, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century.

 

A Review: The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, By Frances FitzGerald. Simon & Schuster, 2017

In the hallway just outside the sanctuary of the midsize Southern Baptist church I grew up in hung a small cork board for posting announcements and other information. Every now and then, someone would pin a voter guide from the Moral Majority or, a few years later, a pamphlet from the Christian Coalition. But most of the time the board filled up with the more pressing concerns of a church body: sign-up sheets for the women’s retreat, the month’s deacon-on-call schedule, pictures from a youth group service project, prayer requests for missionaries in Kenya or the Philippines, an advertisement for a revivalist passing through town.

A hundred years in the future, a historian finding one of those boards preserved from the 1980s or 1990s might thrill at the rich religious lives she could reconstruct from such materials, envisioning more clearly what it meant to be an evangelical in the late twentieth century. Yet the temptation for those writing about evangelicals today is to allow the political part—like the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump—to stand in for the whole. It is to make the great mistake of reaching only for that Christian Coalition handout tucked into the corner of that cork board in order to account for all of the diversity and variety within a religious tradition to which one in four Americans belong.

That is the weakness at the heart of the journalist Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, a sprawling 700-plus page history of the nation’s most important and influential religious movement. FitzGerald, the author of equally massive books on the Vietnam War and the Cold War, has written about evangelicals since the start of the Reagan Administration, beginning with a lengthy New Yorker profile in 1981 of Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist pastor who became one of the architects of the Christian Right. That starting point has continued to shape FitzGerald’s understanding of American evangelicalism even as she reminds her readers in the opening pages of The Evangelicals that the “category ‘evangelical’ is, of course, not a political but a religious one.”

Yet FitzGerald begins her book, which she tellingly subtitles The Struggle to Shape America, with the story of how during his 1976 run for the presidency, Jimmy Carter, a self-described born-again Christian, sent journalists scrambling to figure out who these evangelicals—some 50 million Americans at the time—were. It was a task made all the more urgent four years later when the Christian Right emerged to lead Reagan to victory. She ends with white evangelicals’ surprising support in 2016 for Trump, the thrice-married casino magnate who ran roughshod over nearly every Christian virtue on his march to the presidency. Both events signaled important developments in American evangelicalism, no doubt. But bookending almost three centuries of evangelical history with two political moments from the last forty years reveals the persistent habit of secular journalists to see evangelicals chiefly as monolithic political actors who only become visible (and relevant) every election cycle.

That history begins with the First Great Awakening, a religious revival that started in Jonathan Edwards’ Northampton, Massachusetts, church in 1734 and spread across New England. As FitzGerald points out, Edwards’ message differed from Puritan leaders of the past and the Congregationalist ministers of his day who had stoked revivals by calling parishioners back to closer adherence to their ministerial authority. Edwards instead preached “the evangelical message that individuals could have a direct relationship with Christ,” a radical message of spiritual autonomy that threatened to topple the religious establishment and upend the social order (which, for most purposes, was the same thing in the 1730s).

The First Great Awakening was soon followed by the Second Great Awakening, a “more explosive” wave of revivals that ebbed and flowed from after the Revolutionary War up to the Civil War. Both revival movements established the evangelical theology of individual regeneration, unleashed ecstatic forms of worship, and imparted an anti-elite, anti-authoritarian ethos and culture among its adherents—all traits of American evangelicalism that have continued up to today. Those beliefs and practices fit well with a developing democracy and flourished particularly among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians on the expanding frontier of the Midwest and throughout the South.

FitzGerald moves through this history quickly. Less than one-hundred pages in, The Evangelicals arrives in the twentieth century where FitzGerald charts how the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Conflict” split American Protestantism in two. Modernists embraced non-literal interpretations of the Bible, accepted Darwinian evolutionary theory, and advocated a Social Gospel theology of collective reform over individual salvation. In response, fundamentalists drilled down to the essentials—or the fundamentals, in their words—of the faith, drawing up strict doctrinal declarations and redoubling their proselytizing efforts. This conflict played out within various Protestant denominations as both sides battled for control of their church bodies. Modernists ultimately retained their power and the prestigious pulpits, while the fundamentalists broke away to form their own denominations and independent churches. FitzGerald argues that after the embarrassment of the 1925 Scopes trial over the teaching of evolution, fundamentalists further withdrew from American public life, concentrating instead on building up a dense network of Bible colleges, retreat centers, interdenominational ministries, and religious newspapers, magazines, and radio programs. They would remain cloistered in their separate sphere—“strangers in a strange land,” FitzGerald writes—until they came roaring back in the 1970s to help form the Christian Right.

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