Book Review: “The Evangelicals” by Frances Fitzgerald

Frances Fitzgerald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with a B.A. in Middle Eastern history. She has written numerous books. In 2018, she published The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (730 pgs). This book is particularly interesting for several reasons. First, Fitzgerald is a responsible journalist and historian. Second, she does not appear to be an evangelical insider, which means she may have a more objective viewpoint. Third, the issue of the “Christian right” has become very, very relevant since Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States in 2016.

So, I picked the book up at my local library. Fitzgerald explains:1

this book is not a taxonomy or attempt to describe the entirety of evangelical life, but rather a history of the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents that have emerged in recent years.

Fitzgerald begins with the first Great Awakening and moves rapidly through the American religious scene until arriving at Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority by page 291. The remainder of the book (340 pages of text) chronicles the Christian Right over the past 40 years.

Rather than offering a blow by blow account of the work, I’ll confine myself to some brief remarks.

Comments on the book

Fitzgerald’s survey from the Great Awakening to the mid-20th century is outstanding. Very helpful, relatively brief, but comprehensive.

It appears Fitzgerald relied heavily on secondary sources. Time and time again, I turned to the endnotes to trace a particular quote or fact, and saw a secondary source cited. For example, Fitzgerald even cited a secondary source when describing Calvinism (pg. 15)! Likewise, when I looked for primary sources for quotations from Billy Graham’s publications I found in her text, I also saw secondary sources. This is very disappointing. Fitzgerald knows better.

I found a few misspellings in the earlier part of the book. Fitzgerald also, for some bizarre reason, consistently misnamed the Southern Baptist Convention’s publisher as “Boardman & Holman” (it’s actually “Broadman and Holman”).

The chronicle of the modern Christian Right is encyclopedic. In fact, it’s rather overwhelming. Some readers might be fascinated with moment by moment accounts of James Dobson’s advocacy efforts in the 2004 election. I am not! Fitzgerald would likely have done better to survey the era with a lighter touch and save room for analysis. Robert Jones, in his The End of White Christian America, covered the same ground in a little over 30 pages.

Indeed, the book is very light on analysis. Fitzgerald has a meager 11-page epilogue where she tries to pull some threads together. Some of this analysis is very insightful. For example:2

The Christian right was an equally forceful reaction, not against liberal theology, but rather against the social revolution of the 1960s. Its dominant theme was nostalgia for some previous time in history – some quasi-mythological past – in which America was a (white) Christian nation. But which time exactly? Would its leaders have been content with reversing the Supreme Court decisions made since the 1960s? Or would they have insisted that America must be by law a Christian nation? Naturally there were differences among them, but by failing to specify how far they would go to reverse the process of separating church from state, men like Pat Robertson and James Dobson allowed their opponents to charge that they wanted a theocracy.

And this:3

In the 1990s the Christian right was a powerful movement, but mainly because of those who had lived through the Long Sixties. Later generations had absorbed some of the shocks of the women’s movement and the gay rights movement, and were less fearful and angry about them. After the turn of the century, the Christian right maintained its power largely because of the further shock of same-sex marriage. In other words, the decline of the Christian right began earlier than assumed. Then, by allying themselves with the unfortunate George W. Bush, they created a backlash among evangelicals as well as among others. Emboldened, the ‘new’ evangelicals broadened the agenda, and in a sense came full circle with a return to the reformist imperatives of the antebellum evangelicals, such as Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney. The Christian right tried to resist, but the younger generation was not with them except on abortion. the death or retirement of the older leaders was a sign of the changing regime

And this:4

Presidential election votes might seem to belie it, but evangelicals were splintering. For more than thirty years Christian right leaders had held evangelicals together in the dream of restoration and in voting for the Republican establishment and policies that favored the rich in exchange for opposition to abortion and gay rights. No more. Evangelicals no longer followed their leaders.

Fitzgerald would have immeasurably strengthened her book if she had gone lighter on the encyclopedic history, and heavier on the analysis. In that respect, she made the same error Larry Oats made in his otherwise outstanding The Church of the Fundamentalists. Lots of details, facts, names and dates. Little analysis to pull things together. The book just … ends.

The most enlightening chapter, for me, was entitled “Billy Graham and Modern Evangelicalism,” particularly Fitzgerald’s discussion of President Eisenhower’s attempts to use civil religion as a unifying force in the face of the Communist threat. I’d never heard this before. I wonder how much of the simplistic ‘Merica! rhetoric you see so much of in some evangelical circles stems from Eisenhower’s efforts?

Fitzgerald succeeded in deepening my disgust with the Christian Right as a political movement. I do not believe America is or was a “Christian nation,” though it was undoubtedly influenced by Christian thought (see Christian historian John Fea’s excellent Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?). I vehemently disagree with all flavors of American nationalism mixed with the church. I think Falwell, Dobson (et al) are kind, decent men who wasted their talents in the political realm.

The more I read about the history of Christian Right’s engagement in the public square, the better context I have to frame my heretofore unfocused distaste for political action in the name of Christ. Here, two mainline scholars have something to teach us:5

Whenever Christians think that we can support our ethic by simply pressuring Congress to pass laws or to spend tax money, we fail to do justice to the radically communal quality of Christian ethics. In fact, much of what passes for Christian social concern today, of the left or of the right, is the social concern of a church that seems to have despaired of being the church. Unable through our preaching, baptism, and witness to form a visible community of faith, we content ourselves with ersatz Christian ethical activity—lobbying Congress to support progressive strategies, asking the culture at large to be a little less racist, a little less promiscuous, a little less violent.

Falwell’s Moral Majority is little different from any mainline Protestant church that opposes him. Both groups imply that one can practice Christian ethics without being in the Christian community. Both begin with the Constantinian assumption that there is no way for the gospel to be present in our world without asking the world to support our convictions through its own social and political institutionalization. The result is the gospel transformed into civil religion.

Hauerwas and Willimon wrote their book nearly 30 years ago and explained it “could be read as an extended reflection on politics in the name of Jesus.”6 Falwell looms large in their discussion, and the book seems (in part) to be a reaction against the political activism of the Reagan years. Writing only three years ago, Robert Jones interpreted Resident Aliens (and Russell Moore’s own work Onward) as a recognition by Christians that they’d lost the culture and must re-frame expectations from “this is our world” to “we’re a people in exile.” Indeed, Jones likened Hauerwas to a “hospice chaplain, dispensing a critical palliative care theology for a mainline Protestant family struggling toward acceptance as WCA [white Christian America] faded from the scene.”7 My own thoughts are that Hauerwas and Willimon can teach evangelicals a thing or two about cultural engagement. Their vision of the church is deeper than a good deal of what I’ve read from the evangelical-fundamentalist tradition. It’s certainly a healthier alternative than the Falwell-Dobson-Robertson model.  

Fitzgerald views the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention as a “fundamentalist uprising” (see ch. 9). This will irritate my fundamentalist brothers and sisters who still insist on applying the old, tired appellation of “neo-evangelical” to the conservative evangelicals. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald is correct. John MacArthur, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, James White, Ligonier Ministries (et al) are fundamentalists. They might not identify themselves as such, but they are. Baptist fundamentalism, in contrast, is a small and struggling movement that hasn’t deserved the title of “fundamentalist” for a long while. The conservative evangelicals are the ones who engage the culture and confront apostasy, and Fitzgerald rightly recognizes them as “fundamentalists.”

Final thoughts

Fitzgerald wrote an outstanding book. I give it 4/5 stars. Essential reading for any evangelical pastors who want to understand where their movement came from and where it’s going. We need to know history. It helps us not make the same mistakes every generation. Read it!

Notes

1 Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 3.

2 Ibid, 626.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid, 635.

5 Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, revised ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 80-81.

6 Ibid, 7.

7 Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 214.