Book Review: The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

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For humanists, dedicated to critical thinking, reason, and firmly opposed to supernatural beliefs, there may be no group in the United States more directly opposed to our worldview than the evangelicals. And yet many of us have only a vague understanding of evangelical thought and history, or even how evangelicals view themselves. In her fascinating new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Pulitzer Prize winner Frances FitzGerald gives a broad overview of the history of American evangelicalism, but more importantly focuses on how, in the last fifty years, evangelicalism has once again reasserted itself into the American mainstream.

FitzGerald begins her book with a brief history of the First Great Awakening in 1735 and quickly moves on to the second in the early 1800’s. She continues through the struggles of the Civil War and explores the split that occurred in evangelicalism between fundamentalists and modernists in the late 1800s. These two groups, although greatly overlapping and often conflated by outsiders, created a tension that still plays out today. FitzGerald then outlines how the movement separated itself and went nearly hidden from view for a generation, after the Scopes trial in 1925. She does all this in the first quarter of the book, and she does it with clarity and efficiency.

The book carefully draws out distinctions between evangelicalism and fundamentalism, which many outsiders (myself included) often think of as interchangeable. In fact, many fundamentalists also consider the two terms to be equivalent, whereas some evangelicals consciously use the term to distinguish themselves from the bigotry and narrowness they see in fundamentalism. The terms “fundamentalists,” ”evangelicals,” and “Christian right” are used throughout the book to talk about the same groups.

The meat of The Evangelicals begins with the chapter on Billy Graham and the reassertion of evangelical thought into the broader American culture. It was Graham and his crusades, both live and televised, that brought evangelicalism back into the culture, and to a lesser extent into politics, in the 1950s and 1960s.

FitzGerald is excellent at portraying how controversial even this minimal re-entry into the political world was in the fundamentalist/evangelical world. So-called godless Communism was a common enemy for all, and served as a way of bringing the different strains of fundamentalism and evangelicalism together. It played into both their religious fervor, and also into an American nationalist strain of fundamentalism that had been strong but largely quiet for nearly a century.

As their assertion of more political engagement became accepted within the fundamentalist/evangelical culture, it coincided with the explosion of liberal cultural values that came out of the 1960s and early ‘70s, and with that came the next step in political involvement, the formation of the Moral Majority. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Ralph Reed jumped into the spotlight, bringing on a whole new era of political engagement, one that soon became firmly aligned with the Republican Party.

Here was the true re-entry of fundamentalism into the political and cultural stage of America.  And with it came a very different view of just what America represented, and what it should be. It is a view that sees America primarily as a Christian nation that has strayed from its roots. It is an America that values obedience to authority and to its biblical ideals, with no room for questioning that authority. It is a view that is generally antagonistic toward public education because it has gotten away from obedience and a firm reliance on Christian values, and “did not protect children from information that might call their beliefs into question.”

Fortunately to the outsider, one of the real weaknesses of this view turns out to be its very insistence on obedience and inerrancy. The variety of fundamentalist belief (within its narrow, conservative slant) is astonishingly varied, and what appear to be minimal differences on points of belief are magnified by the fundamentalist insistence on inerrancy into major conflicts that regularly split them apart. After all, when you believe there is only one unalterable truth that must be obeyed, it is hard to work with someone who believes in one, unalterable truth that differs from yours, no matter how slight those differences are.

For humanists, one of the more interesting points to note is how long and how often the generic “secular humanist” was a primary target of fundamentalist/evangelical attacks. For years, it was cited regularly, along with “godless Communism,” as an enemy on which all could agree. After the fall of the Soviet Union, secular humanism began to take center stage as the enemy on which all could still agree and unite against.

FitzGerald traces the ups and downs of the political side of the evangelical movement through political triumphs and setbacks, Reagan and the Bushes, their unexpected alliance with Catholic conservatives over abortion, as well as cultural setbacks (think Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart).

The election and re-election of Barack Obama saw the fundamentalist/evangelical movement really began to fall to pieces, with many questioning whether their entry into politics had actually had the reverse effect of driving more people away. Younger members within the movement wanted to again push evangelicalism towards care for the poor and the environment. It appeared once again the political movement was losing steam.

And then came Trump. While his election happened just as FitzGerald was finishing her book, she does touch upon this unexpected victory and its possible ramifications in the form of an epilogue. “The victory of Donald Trump with 81 percent of the evangelical vote, and a Republican Congress, might mean the Christian right would come to power in Washington and nominate a new and sympathetic Supreme Court,” She notes. For secular humanists it is an ominous tide shift.

FitzGerald’s writing is clear and engaging. Her views are well-balanced, her research thorough, her insights are both illustrative and revealing. The Evangelicals is an excellent read, and an important one for humanists in understanding the mindset and worldview of this important group.