The Evangelicals

The Struggle to Shape America

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Frances FitzGerald
  • New York, NY: 
    Simon & Shuster
    , April
     2017.
     752 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781439131336.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book is also being reviewed in JAAR by John Fea.

In her latest work, The Evangelicals, Pulitzer Prize winning author Frances FitzGerald charts the history and influence of that “most American of religious groups” (2). Signified by a belief in the concept of spiritual rebirth, or being “born-again” and a priority to “spread the gospel” FitzGerald’s shares her definition with faith leaders such as Billy Graham and religious historians such as George Marsden. Published in April of 2017, this work begins in the fervent American religious revivals of the First and Second Great Awakening and closes in the myopic 2016 presidential election. FitzGerald’s work seeks to be the definitive historical work on evangelicals, a group that continues to shock, confuse, and rankle outsiders, political observers, and journalists.

Interestingly, FitzGerald describes her work as the history of white evangelical movements (3), and begins this history with the First Great Awakening. Following the first, the Second Great Awakening, according to FitzGerald “made evangelical Protestantism the dominant religious force in the country for most of the nineteenth century” (13). Moving on from these revival movements, FitzGerald shows the changes in evangelical identities in influence in the years preceding and during the American civil war. Her text highlights the importance of the issue of slavery in molding distinct strains in evangelicalism and more broadly in American Christianity as northern and southern adherents drew away from each other, eventually resulting in the rupture of existing church structures (51). In light of this rupture, northern and southern evangelicals responded quite differently to modernist influences, German biblical criticism, discussions of evolution, the work of Charles Darwin, and the Social Gospel (56).

At the turn of the twentieth century, FitzGerald shifts to the rise of the fundamentalists, who she distinguishes from evangelicals. While consistent in her terminology, FitzGerald’s use of the term evangelical as distinct from the Christian right, fundamentalism, and later Pentecostalism is sometimes confusing. In each instance, evangelicals are both within and without these other groups. It was fundamentalists-turned-evangelicals like Billy Graham who shifted focus from protecting the fundamentals of Christian faith to conversion and transformation and re-energized the evangelical movement (147). Graham serves as the focal point for what FitzGerald calls the modern evangelical movement. FitzGerald notes again the importance of racial attitudes in delineating between mainline and liberal Protestant expressions and the neo-evangelical movement: “those who espoused direct action for social reform, and those who espoused conversion as the remedy for all ills.” Graham typified this distinction by personally supporting leaders like Martin Luther King Jr, but characterizing civil rights demonstrations as confrontational (205-206).

The divisions between northern and southern Protestants would recede in the years following the 1960s, and both this re-integration of mainline denominations and the trans-denominational spread of Pentecostalism would shape the evangelical movement framed by Graham and his contemporaries. Evangelicalism, as defined in this work, remained distinct from both northern and southern expressions of mainline Protestantism, though for very different reasons. It was only after the transcendence of Billy Graham as a national religious figure that southern mainline Protestants, particularly the southern Baptists, became more closely associated with what we now label evangelical (224).

FitzGerald goes on to trace in detail the path of evangelical movements through the events of the 1960s and with respect to a new fundamentalism in the American south. The work then details the history of Christian figures closely associated with the Christian right, namely Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. In each case, FitzGerald argues that despite many linkages, evangelicals cannot be said to be synonymous with the Christian right, and that the evangelical movement was still characterized by relative diversity and a strong belief in social transformation and outreach over simple retrenchment (308). That many evangelicals would in fact vote with the Christian right does not limit their religious distinctiveness according to FitzGerald’s text, and this supposed bloc, though largely reliable for conservatives and Christian right leaders, also proved to be unwieldy and unpredictable.

Despite these limitations, evangelicals played a central role in the Republican realignment of the southern US, and even after the presidential victory of Bill Clinton, they were marshaled effectively to achieve the first Republican majority in the US House of Representatives in forty years. FitzGerald recounts these moments and traces the attempt to corral evangelical voters into the modern era, noting their importance in the election won by George W Bush in 2000 and 2004 and the confusion of the 2016 Republican primary. Evangelicals were fractured in an unprecedented fashion by the 2016 primary, and FitzGerald cites leaders like Albert Mohler and Russell Moore to note the moral uncertainty of votes in the general election for either major party candidate (627-28). While the leaders of the movement were uncertain, in the general election Donald Trump garnered the vote of 81% of evangelicals, a greater proportion than either Mitt Romney or George W. Bush (636).

The date of publication for the book, immediately after the election victory of Donald Trump makes the subject matter incredibly prescient, but also provides a venue for discussion of how these recent events fit with the historical arguments presented here. FitzGerald’s argument about the history of white evangelical movements is clear and well stated, though suffers from a definition of “evangelical” that is not sufficiently exclusive or falsifiable, a familiar struggle for scholars of religion. The Evangelicals is accessible, yet detailed, and seems to be in conversation with many scholarly works on the religious history of America. In relating evangelicals to their fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and more politically oriented co-religionists, FitzGerald meets the challenge of definitive categories with a detailed history and an embrace of nuance. This work serves not only as a history of a distinctively American religious identity, but also traces that identity through many of the watershed events of American political and cultural history. FitzGerald’s text is both critical in its responses to internal histories of the evangelical movement and in portraying evangelicals, and is carefully authentic, in contrast to many journalistic efforts to understand American evangelicalism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Patterson is a doctoral student in religion in higher education at the Institute of Higher Learning, University of Georgia-Athens.

Date of Review: 
October 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frances FitzGerald is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Bancroft Prize, and a prize from the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is the author of The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America; Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam; America Revised: History School Books in the Twentieth Century; Cities on a Hill: A Journey through Contemporary American Cultures; Way Out in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War; and Vietnam: Spirits of the Earth. She has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, Rolling Stone, and Esquire.

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