The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America Frances FitzGerald (2017)
The cover of this social history gives readers an idea of the content. An American flag is hanging upside down, the universal signal for national distress, and twenty of the stars are replaced with Christian crosses. Translation: Christian evangelicals in the United States have long sought to remake what they see as a distressed nation in accordance with their religious beliefs. And they have indeed shaped American culture and political life.
This heavily annotated 740-page book is not for the faint hearted. Frances FitzGerald, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, creates distinct portraits of dozens of Christian evangelical leaders and provides details of numerous associations and dissociations of the movement over the centuries. If you’re drawn to discussions of religious doctrinal differences and of the personalities that championed them, you’ll want to read the entire volume. Or you could read the introduction and then sample a few of the seventeen chapters that grab you, whether it’s “Liberals and Conservatives in the Post-Civil War North” or “Evangelicals in the 1960s” or “The Christian Right and George W. Bush.”
In any case, turn first to the handy Glossary on pages 637-639, where you’ll learn that “evangelicalism” is a belief system that relies on the authority of the Bible, centers on redemption by Jesus Christ, emphasizes individual conversion, and seeks to spread this faith to others. It is not the same as “fundamentalism,” a more militant segment of evangelicalism that, according to FitzGerald, is “bent on combating Protestant liberalism and secularism.” Several other variants within evangelicalism are described in the Glossary and throughout the book, including dispensationalism, pentacostalism, and pre/postmillennialism. Note that FitzGerald consciously limits her study to white evangelicals in the United States; African American churches have very different history and trajectory.
FitzGerald takes the story all the way back to 1734, tracing the rise of evangelicalism in the United States to the revival meetings of the First Great Awakening, a populist uprising against established Protestant churches. Later, during the Civil War era, northern evangelicals were abolitionists and southern evangelicals were pro-slavery; the split in the evangelical movement caused by this issue has never healed. New sects also arose among those who thought that the church should pursue social justice (the “social gospel”) and those who expected the imminent return of Jesus to judge a hopelessly fallen world. In the early twentieth century, fundamentalists and modernists came into conflict over scientific discoveries and textual criticism of the Bible.
After World War II, Billy Graham reignited evangelicalism with his powerful preaching at revival meetings all around the country, attended by millions of people and broadcast on television. Clashes between evangelicals and more liberal Christians led to culture wars in the late twentieth century. This period also saw the rise of evangelicals as a political force, particularly in the South, which—thanks to leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson—became a stronghold of the Republican Party. FitzGerald ends her study with an Epilogue analyzing evangelical support for Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency.
The Evangelicals disentangles the many strands of a movement that now includes about 25% of the population of the United States. I was occasionally distracted by typos, but these do not diminish the authority of the text. FitzGerald ranges wide and also nails the details, writing with clarity and avoiding bias. She pulls data from the histories of religion, culture, and politics with ease, showing how evangelicals developed their stances on issues such as slavery, segregation, labor unions, the Vietnam War, communism, abortion, immigration, and gay rights. If you are bemused by the phenomenon of evangelicalism in America, or if you just want some background on a powerful segment of our society, this is the book to read.