Once again FitzGerald plums the depths of a fascinating but highly complex subject, this time the Christian Evangelicals of the US. In using that term, the the author means the “Christian Right” in politics, but the progressives are also mentioned along with other kinds of Christian evangelicals.
The basic material covers the individuals of the movement from the time of Jonathan Edwards, before the American Revolution, to those involved in the Tea Party and the primary elections of 2016 with, in an epilogue, the election of Donald Trump. Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Baptists and the Pentecostals are the focus with some space given to Catholics and a few independents. The ideas of the fundamentalists as well as the more mainstream evangelists within those denominations are observed. .
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
by Frances Fitzgerald
2017 / 740 pages
rating: 9 / general nonfiction
Frances FitzGerald, whose Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and other prizes back in 1979, does an admirable job of addressing the subject. The book is thorough, well organized and deeply researched, The writing is clear and reads smoothly. For the most part it’s a joy to read even if it is long, although it does seem to get a bit bogged down during the time of the G. W. Bush administration when there were so many names and groups and activities involved. Other than that it’s a highly engaging and very informative read. From her own site: http://www.francesfitzgerald.net
The point of the book is basically to provide a framework of understanding how this group developed, what it’s about, and how it is split in some ways. Today it includes close to a quarter of the US population – but it’s changing in composition.
Going by her prior books and her articles for the New Yorker, Fitzgerald is generally a political liberal, but certainly not anti-Christian or anti-church. It feels there is some sympathy for the progressive element. (And I totally get this!)
Again, what FitzGerald means by “evangelicals” is the political Christian Right. Most Protestant churches claim to be evangelical in some sense – a huge part of their mission is to spread the gospel – the “good news” and to make converts. But some denominations are more evangelical and/or hold more conservative political views than others. Furthermore, some Catholics are quite conservative. Fitzgerald, like the mainstream press, determines the evangelical Christian churches as being the Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and some other smaller groups. She doesn’t address the Black churches either because their whole history has been different.
Within those denominations there have been movements to and away from the “fundamentalism” we know today – the inerrancy of the Bible, dispensationalism, anti-modernism, premillenialism, the ministry of healing and so on. The denominations and sects of the various churches have had schisms and splits then rejoined and split again based on the beliefs at the time or a powerful leader.
Also there has been movement to and away from the “progressive” stands and attitudes these churches and their leaders have taken in the past.
The Evangelicals tells that story from the First Great Awakening of pre-Revolutionary America (1740s) to the election of Donald Trump (in the Epilogue). . It’s a long and complex tale with many characters and ideas which are profoundly interwoven in US history but seem to, once again, have burst on the scene.
One point is that the early evangelicals have changed enormously from their beginnings when they thought of themselves as being revolutionary – against the establishment churches and in the 19th century many of them became “progressive” when they were working for the betterment of society. Today they are more of a backlash to the culture wars of the 1960s and 70s.
Fitzgerald keeps what could have been a dry tome fascinatingly readable by avoiding in-depth explanations of the theology and detailed biographies of the major players although plenty of each is provided. Also the generally chronological structure with appropriate breaks in subject works to keep the narrative flowing.
The first 230 years, from 1740 or so until 1970 are covered in the first third of the book and make for fascinating history. Jerry Falwell leads up to the half-way point, Reagan’s first inauguration, in the narrative. After that point there is not so much attention to linear history (although it’s there) as there is to topical issues, like intellectual backup, and biographies like Pat Robertson.
For what it’s worth – the “Christian Right” actually began in the very early 1970s – midpoint in the book.
Here in the midsection of the book FitzGerald pretty well covers it all – from the uneducated Latinos in LA to the upscale ivory tower intellectuals like Francis Schaeffer, from the relatively sedate Billy Graham to the many bombastic small town southern preachers, from the old school revivals to the Prayer Breakfasts of Reagan and the organizers like Jerry Falwell and finally, from the big shots we’ve heard about in the media to a lot of people we’ve never heard of bulking up the various agencies and committees and foundations and other formal and informal groups and associations all struggling to get the agenda of the Christian Right, in its many facets, into action.
1 The Great Awakenings and the Evangelical Empire
2 Evangelicals North and South
3 Liberals and Conservatives in the Post–Civil War North
4 The Fundamentalist-Modernist Conflict
5 The Separatists
6 Billy Graham and Modern Evangelicalism
7 Pentecostals and Southern Baptists
8 Evangelicals in the 1960s
9 The Fundamentalist Uprising in the South
10 Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority
11 The Political Realignment of the South
12 The Thinkers of the Christian Right
13 Pat Robertson: Politics and Miracles
14 The Christian Coalition and the Republican Party
15 The Christian Right and George W. Bush
16 The New Evangelicals
17 The Transformation of the Christian Right
FitzGerald was interviewed about The Evangelicals by Christianity Today .
Fitzgerald: “Rewriting American History” https://aplangrocksthefreeworld.wikispaces.com/file/view/11.3.14RAH.FitzGerald.pdf