I’m pleased to publish this book review by my friend Kyle Williams.
Last year eighty-one percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump—a wider margin than in any previous election. These voters played no small role in tipping the scales in a contest that was decided by thin margins. But this statistic is controversial.
For some, it manifests the bankruptcy of evangelical ethical and political life. How could followers of Jesus desire power so much as to underwrite the campaign of a thrice-married, sexually predatory peddler of smut and vice? Others point to the fractures these figures represent. Upon further analysis, they indicate a divide not just between rank-and-file evangelicals and their large number of Never Trump leaders, but also between older white evangelicals and just about everybody else—young white, Latino, and African-American evangelicals.
Over at The Atlantic, Robert Jones has written about the isolation this electoral victory represents for white evangelicals and the likely demographic collapse that is coming. One of the surprising facts of the election was that white evangelicals—17 percent of the country, down from 21 percent eight years before—outvoted their peers, making up 26 percent of actual voters. Despite this remarkable electoral discipline, white Christians in general are on the decline, down sixteen percent from 2004. Jones demonstrates that we have been witnessing the end of white Christian America. Given that nothing is likely to arrest the increasing diversification of the United States, Jones’s thesis is sound.
The future of the Christian right is a big question for scholars, journalists, and interested evangelicals. Its numbers and morale have been declining for the last decade or so. Both academics and disaffected evangelicals have been making a habit of predicting the imminent collapse of the Christian right for a long time. It’s fair to say that the movement has continued to exert political power and maintain organizational discipline for much longer than critics have expected.
But there is reason to think that this is more of a dying gasp of a movement rather than a bellwether of its future. Sure, certain “court evangelicals” are currently enjoying a great deal of political favor and the usual suspects are reveling in pageantries of triumphalism, but these things pale in comparison to the serious problems the Christian right faces. It has failed to achieve most of its stated goals, its institutions and leaders are aging out, and it has alienated an entire generation of young people.
It is fitting, then, that the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Frances FitzGerald, whose interests are as wide-ranging as they are masterfully treated in her prose, offers a new volume this year, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. It is a distillation of decades of scholarship on evangelical history and conservative politics. And it is likely the single best one-volume introduction to the narrative that a certain part of one scholarly movement has helped to produce.
But it is also a book that tends to be conceptually limiting precisely because it is tied closely to a desire to understand the origins and contours of the Christian right, a movement that appears to be fragmenting, if not unravelling, before our eyes today. The Evangelicals is a history that illuminates the past without making it useful for the pressing problems in Christian political life today. The story it tells does not contribute to our understanding of how evangelical political life might be reimagined for the future.
From Northampton to Colorado Springs
FitzGerald offers a sweeping story from the 1740s to the present, connecting the highlights of evangelical history from Jonathan Edwards’s parish in 1730s Massachusetts to the political machinations of Focus on the Family.
At times The Evangelicals moves at a rapid pace. The chapter on the First Great Awakening, for example, begins with an account of the young Edwards’s disappointment with the moral and religious laxity of his congregation and his attempts to rouse their spiritual lethargy most famously with his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon. Next we’re on the road with George Whitefield and find that evangelicalism was not only uniting the colonies but was fomenting radicalism.
The feverish Gilbert Tennent and the unconstrained James Davenport are soon lighting up the countryside, doing their best to undermine denominational authority and social decorum along with it. And the poor Virginia Baptists are eschewing their horseback-riding Anglican rivals for foxhunting, dancing, and dressing too finely. A page later the Old Side vs. New Side controversy has been resolved, Charles Chauncy of Boston and Jonathan Edwards have traded their barbs, and the supposed individualism of the First Great Awakening is somehow in some way still in the ether of the revolutionary generation a couple decades later.
FitzGerald gives a more thoroughgoing treatment of the Second Great Awakening, a time which is much more important for the story she wants to tell. It was in those early decades of the nineteenth century that the hothouse of American expansion and social dislocation produced varieties of religious experience that stamped the national religious life for decades to come. Francis Asbury, Charles Finney, Joseph Smith, Lyman Beecher, William Lloyd Garrison, Robert Matthews, Theodore Weld, and countless others created a world of American protestantism that was doctrinally unwieldy (and novel at times), less hierarchical, and productive of a wide range of social movements.
It was this world that produced American evangelicalism. Her argument is worth quoting:
During the ascendancy of the Christian right very few other Americans connected evangelicals to the nineteenth-century Protestants who, after the revivals of the Great Awakenings, exerted a dominant influence on American society. That is, the society that made its way across the continent, and some of whose characteristics, such as individualism, and the idea that one could change one’s life, seem typically American. Evangelicals, however, remained closer to that society and culture than anyone else. In fact, it’s impossible to understand the Christian right without realizing that most of its religious beliefs, preserved as if in amber by fundamentalists, originated in the nineteenth century. It’s that that gives its theology its exotic cast.
As many scholars have argued and as anyone who has been to church camp will know, there is something at the heart of evangelical spirituality that longs for rebirth, for a religious experience that will change, well, everything. Concomitant to longings for rebirth is that conviction that one’s life is capable of being remade and that this experience is an individual one, indeed, a direct experience with God.
The Second Great Awakening has long been considered a seminal moment in American religious life because it helped to make conventional these modes of spirituality and traditions of doctrine and church polity that continued well into the twentieth century. This experience of evangelicalism is so widespread and has contained so many multitudes that it defies precise definitions. It is something that can be claimed by Christians liberal and fundamentalist, in hierarchical and congregational and nondenominational ecclesial communities, of every ethnic and racial group.
This large world is uninteresting to Frances FitzGerald. The structure of her book explains its narrow focus. A large volume, hardback and heavy, The Evangelicals is about 750 pages in total length. The epilogue concludes on page 636 and the remainder is mostly filled with endnotes, glossary, bibliography, and the index. One would be forgiven coming to this book with an expectation that it is a synthesis of how evangelicals writ large have shaped America.
That would be a monumental task and would likely require even more space. Instead it is something simpler. By page 143, only about twenty percent of the way through the main text, we meet Billy Graham preaching a revival in Los Angeles in 1949. Not even halfway through the book, FitzGerald introduces her readers to Jerry Falwell and the creation of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s.
The Evangelicals is not about the evangelicals. It’s a story about the Christian right from the 1940s onward. And it’s mostly about a set of well-known actors and institutions—Falwell and the Moral Majority, but also Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, the Christian Broadcasting Network, and a range of subsequent movement leaders—that have played an important role in electoral politics from the 1970s to the present. What comes before is prologue. What doesn’t fit within that aperture is largely ignored.
Within that frame, FitzGerald does a lot of good work toward accessibly historicizing the seemingly-sudden eruption of the Christian right in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A proper perspective can only be gained by telling a much longer story going back decades that includes Billy Graham, yes, but also Carl McIntire, J. Frank Norris, Oral Roberts, Harold Ockenga, Bob Jones (both father and son), and a host of institutions like the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Council of Christian Churches, Christianity Today, patrons like J. Howard Pew and Robert LeTourneau, and mid-century religious broadcasters and direct-mailers. This is the world of the so-called “old Christian right” and it was powerful not just as a foundation for the new Christian right but as a political force in its own time.
The length of The Evangelicals is held together by two arguments. The first is that the fundamentalist and evangelical spiritual identity was forged in the democratizing experience of the early nineteenth religious awakenings. And the second is that late-nineteenth and twentieth century opposition to liberalism reinforced this identity at the same time that it called forth organizational, technological, and financial strategies for defending a small set of conservative convictions.
In framing the book this way, however, FitzGerald follows down a path well-trodden by journalists and scholars.
Who are evangelicals?
Despite the existence of a robust fundamentalist movement from the early 1900s onward, scholars rarely gave sympathetic or even serious attention to it. In the middle twentieth century, historians like Richard Hofstadter and sociologists like Seymour Martin Lipset tended to understand right-wing fundamentalists and evangelicals as part of a larger anti-modernity movement. Influenced by social psychological categories, they diagnosed reactionaries’ motivations in different ways, but pointed to anti-intellectualism, status anxiety, a paranoid style, or some combination of all three. Journalists, on the other hand, if they didn’t diagnose fundamentalists and evangelicals with a tangle of pathologies, often followed the tradition of H.L. Mencken’s biting wit and caustic humor. They were rural rubes, flat-earthers, the descendants of dirt farmers, and, at best, innocents.
It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s, with the election of the first “born again” president, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan, that scholars, journalists, and the reading public began to give serious attention to the movement on the right.
There was an outpouring of more popular work on religious conservatism possessing a wide range of attitudes toward the movement, from Garry Wills’s staid account in Under God, for example, and Peggy Shriver’s sympathetic The Bible Vote to Alan Crawford’s polemic, Thunder on the Right. But during the 1980s and early 1990s, the beginnings of a more long-lasting historiography on conservatism were founded—Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest (1982) is a good example, as is Leo Ribuffo’s The Old Christian Right (1983) and George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980).
This scholarship, along with Brinkley’s 1994 address to the American Historical Association, “The Problem of American Conservatism,” calling for a robust analysis of the history of conservatism, gave attention to the deep historical origins of a movement that went back before the Great Depression. In other words, they showed that conservatism was not abnew phenomenon and was a part of a broader and more unwieldy American political tradition.
This impulse to explain the origins and meaning of the Christian right emerged, then, as a part of a deeper desire to locate and narrate the fortunes of electoral politics. Journalists and scholars hoped to make some sense of the rise of Reagan conservatives along with meteoric ascendency of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, the Moral Majority, and a variety of religious networks and direct-mail campaigns. Such figures and institutions were suddenly and surprisingly mainstream and normalized (to use the neologism of today’s Trump resistance). They wielded power at the highest of levels, they were exceptionally organized, and they claimed to represent a wide swath of the electorate.
The Christian right has reiterated itself through a range of prominent institutions. Falwell’s Moral Majority was reimagined in the late 1980s in the work of Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. In the next decade and a half there was Focus on the Family, the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission under Richard Land, and the Home School Legal Defense Association. More recently it’s been the Family Research Council and Reed’s latest project, the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
These institutions became networks for organizing homeschool families, evangelical moms, and nondenominational churches around elections and legislative and judicial battles. And with each wave of action—the presidential campaign of Pat Robertson, say, or the defense of home schooling in the early 1990s, or the reelection of George W. Bush—a concomitant round of journalistic prose sought to explain the persistence and power of fundamentalists and evangelicals in American life. “It’s a funny thing to me,” said Rick Warren in 2005, “that every five years, American journalism reintroduces evangelicals to America. It’s like starting with Carter—you know there’s a headline, ‘Who are Evangelicals?’ Well, it’s not like they’re a fringe group.”
This imperative to explain the Christian right has frequently resulted in muckraking-style treatments. Particularly during the latter Bush years when James Dobson and Tony Perkins held their greatest power, journalists and activists narrated the supposed illiberalism and conspiracy at the secret heart of the movement.
Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy (2005) claimed to uncover a cabal of evangelicals and Pentecostals wrapped up in webs of destruction in the Republican Party, international petroleum production, and widespread consumer and national debt. Jeff Sharlet’s 2008 book, The Family, identified a fundamentalist group whose history went back to Eisenhower era anti-New Deal activism and that funneled millions of dollars of dark money into conservative causes and exerted power through congressional and presidential prayer breakfasts. And the typically histrionic Chris Hedges argued in American Fascists (2007) that there was little difference between the Christian right and 1930s German and Italian fascists.
The thread tying these books and others together was that the Christian right existed outside the bounds of American liberalism. It was not just threatening and powerful, it was an exception to the consensus of American political life. Intolerant, anti-modernist, anti-democratic, or nationalist, the movement wielded power in illegitimate ways toward un-American ends.
Historical scholarship of the movement has demonstrated more quotidian, and more historical, explanations. It typically has emphasized the longue durée of political activism and the manner in which grassroots organizing, for example, has been conducted.
Narratives and Futures
But that focus has its own problems. It gives at times unbalanced attention to electoral politics to the neglect of other important matters. This creates blind spots.
The failure to know and understand more thoroughly and carefully this much-obsessed-over demographic forces us to give attention to, on the one hand, polling data that simply show strong Republican loyalty and, on the other, figures and institutions that claim to speak for and lead evangelicals. We understand them, then, through the lens of one important feature of recent American history—the startling rise of political polarization since the 1980s.
This focus on the role that evangelicals and their self-appointed leaders have played in high politics has tended at once to simplify and lump together an extraordinarily amorphous group of voters. And the key category is, of course, voters. Such imprecision has led many Christian critics to argue that evangelicalism as such does not really exist. It’s a political science category at best.
More specifically, the tendency to focus on top-down institutions likely leads us to misunderstand what the future will be for politically-engaged evangelicals and other Christians. As Russell Moore put it in a recent essay: “If we define ‘the religious right’ in terms of professional political activist gatekeepers…there is a problem. The religious right establishment is one big Wittenberg door with an ever-expanding target where a nail should be.” This “increasingly exhausted” and “resentful” institutional movement is, Moore says, “at war with its own future.”
The Evangelicals, for its part, is a magisterial book. FitzGerald is a superlative writer of historical narrative and a master of the craft of distilling and making accessible generations of scholarship. For students of American religious history, The Evangelicals serves as an introduction and survey of major figures and institutions from the 1740s to the present. In many ways, it is a book that could only come at a mature point in the historical understanding of both evangelicalism and conservatism, a time when focused studies have given way to narrative syntheses.
Those good things being said, there are considerable problems with The Evangelicals that are worth considering. Its major failure is that it arrives at a time when it is unable to tell us anything new. It offers the reading public little that is useful or actionable from the past that might point toward a different way. Its narrative arc is as familiar as it is well told. Each turn in the story may be easily anticipated.
Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, and J. Gresham Machen are prefatory studies for the main acts—the odious figures of Pat Robertson, Carl McIntire, Jesse Helms, et al. Its structure is bent toward the explication of one movement between the late 1970s and the 2010s that was focused on electoral politics.
FitzGerald’s decision to ignore the wide-ranging cast of people and institutions that identify as evangelical in surprising and different ways is regrettable. From worldwide Anglicans, the continental and Anglo-American reformed, and Roman Catholics to Lutherans, Methodists, Anabaptists, and post-evangelicals, the discursive world of evangelicalism is deep and wide. But to leave aside the role of African-American, Latino, and Asian evangelicals as well as the conscientious objectors to the Christian right among conservative and liberal evangelicals undermines not just the usefulness but also the integrity of the book.
The Evangelicals offers no window into these alternative worlds, which is regrettable. It serves, rather, as a serious account of a political, social, and ethical world which is fading away and which leaves its remaining supporters and opponents wondering what might come next.
Kyle Williams writes about American history. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.