New Books Explore How a Faith Changed the World

Understanding the mechanisms that shift evangelical ideas into secular politics sheds insight beyond the church

But it’s not until the turn of the 20th century, as evangelicals make a concerted effort to apply their specifically American faith to the reform of a secular country, that things heat up. If you remember the Scopes monkey trial from high school and are tempted to skim FitzGerald’s bit on that 1920s dispute, don’t. It was never as simple as how or whether to teach evolution in public schools, and FitzGerald’s examination of why is a highlight.

 

It’s a lesson apt for a book about faith: Things happen for a reason. The waves of conservative Protestant influence that have swept American life at various points in history have often seemed to come out of nowhere. The emergence of the Christian right’s political influence in the 1970s, for example, just as experts said religion was losing its place in U.S. culture, was shocking. But in her new major work on the subject, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, historian Frances FitzGerald (who won a Pulitzer in 1973 for Fire in the Lake) shows how the origins of these booms are discernible from afar. Her book makes the case so well, it leaves readers with the feeling that we should all be paying closer attention.

The Evangelicals, as zippy as a 752-page history can be, starts in the 18th century with a new style of worship spreading in a new nation. But it’s not until the turn of the 20th century, as evangelicals make a concerted effort to apply their specifically American faith to the reform of a secular country, that things heat up. If you remember the Scopes monkey trial from high school and are tempted to skim FitzGerald’s bit on that 1920s dispute, don’t. It was never as simple as how or whether to teach evolution in public schools, and FitzGerald’s examination of why is a highlight.

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