Frances FitzGerald, a dogged chronicler of the American moral imagination, has taken on a forbiddingly large subject for her most recent study, and it’s no surprise that The Evangelicals is, in every sense, a forbiddingly large book. Clocking in at over 700 pages, it aims to deliver an authoritative account of the restive spirits of American Protestantism and to produce a last-word consensus of the sort achieved in Sydney Ahlstrom’s two-volume 1973 classic, A Religious History of the American People.
Viewed in this light, FitzGerald’s tome possesses many virtues. She has always been a nimble and gifted interpreter of historical ironies and unintended outcomes, going back to her classic study of the American misadventure in Vietnam, Fire in the Lake (1972). And the story of American Protestantism is nothing if not a sustained study in irony. The breakaway sectarians who first settled colonial New England were theological communitarians who brooked no dissent, social or religious, and who envisaged the ideal Christian order as a theocratic network of “little commonwealths” (to borrow the title of John Demos’s social history of colonial New England family life). But what they ended up with was an unprecedented republic of disestablished worship, a religious polity that is far more pluralistic and robustly competitive than any other in the Western world.
FitzGerald narrates the broad outlines of this familiar story with verve. She begins with the revivalist crusades of the 18th century’s First Great Awakening under the direction of the theologian Jonathan Edwards and the preacher George Whitefield, and she concludes with the rise of a conservative religious right that reached the summit of executive power during the two-term presidency of George W. Bush.
In between these historical bookends, FitzGerald also examines the 19th century’s Second Great Awakening and the schism between liberal modernists and evangelical fundamentalists in the early 20th century. A story of social reform and mounting spiritual distress, The Evangelicals captures how the religious revival of the early 19th century moved in concert with the broader “populist” stirrings of Jacksonian democracy along the young republic’s southern interior and western frontier. FitzGerald then zooms in on the primary subject of her book: the events that rent Protestantism into two halves and helped establish Evangelicalism as a distinct religious identity.
In FitzGerald’s narrative, the Second Great Awakening and the rise of the evangelicals are linked by a mounting preoccupation with visiting the wonders of individual redemption on the American polity as a whole. Charles Grandison Finney, the signature revivalist of the Second Great Awakening, became an apostle of “spiritual democracy”: the notion that converted souls can take an active part in their own redemption—and then channel their energies into the pious work of social reform. Finney’s own sprawling empire of reform, which ran the gamut from abolitionism to temperance to support (at least rhetorical) for women’s equality, became a template of sorts for Evangelicalism’s activist impulses—particularly those of a more liberal-leaning hue.
All of this is engaging reading. But the religious enthusiasm of the United States can be a funny, multivalent thing, and the stoutly Whiggish cast of FitzGerald’s American Protestant origin story doesn’t wear well over the course of The Evangelicals’ epic narrative sweep. For one thing, Protestant leaders, schismatic souls as they always are, began breaking away from the Finneyite message of spiritually minded reform almost from the word go. Most of the items on the Second Great Awakening’s reform agenda—with the possible exception of temperance—were nonstarters in the slaveholding South.
More than that, the Finneyite gospel’s core message of salvation through self-control wasn’t nearly the font of social improvement that FitzGerald takes it to be. Though it inarguably stood at the headwaters of Protestant social reform, Finney’s perfectionist spiritual vision was also ideally suited to the consolidation of the “self-made” ethos of the 19th century’s capitalist market revolution. (This point is underscored in Charles G. Sellers’s 1991 history of this chapter of our religious past, titled—yes—The Market Revolution.) And it laid the groundwork not only for the more progressive wing of evangelical social reform, but also for its more regressive counterpart—the wing that has come to dominate much of Christianity in the United States since the onset of the 20th century.
FitzGerald begins, as most histories of American Protestantism do, with the First Great Awakening, which convulsed the American colonies from the 1730s through the 1760s. This was the country’s initial saga of revivalism, an uprising that in many ways prefigured the revolutionary break from the Crown. And like the American Revolution, it was largely a cultural mobilization of the disaffected middle class. “The converts to evangelism were not by and large the aristocrats or the very poor,” FitzGerald writes. “Rather they were hardworking farmers and tradesmen battling a class system and the lawless, socially chaotic world at its margins. To such people, the evangelical churches offered fellowship and help in achieving orderly, disciplined lives.” A telltale sign of this shift in sensibility, FitzGerald notes, is that “the word ‘respectable’ lost its connotation of social rank and came to mean ‘pious’ or ‘moral.’”
This sense of piety was soon followed by an untrammeled spiritual individualism, as Finney and his revival-minded brethren in the Second Great Awakening overthrew the last vestiges of a fatalistic Calvinism in favor of a market-friendly gospel of free will and redemption. While FitzGerald deftly captures the ebbs and flows of America’s first and second waves of spiritual revivalism, she also dispenses with them in a remarkably streamlined manner: Just 95 pages into The Evangelicals, readers have already landed firmly in the 20th century. For the purposes of FitzGerald’s larger argument, this is entirely apt, since American Protestantism’s cultural and political life is set on its fateful course, in her account, not by what happened in its 18th- or 19th-century legacy, but by the modernist/fundamentalist schism that split Protestant denominations at the start of the 20th century.
For Baptists and Presbyterians, the two major denominations most dramatically riven by the controversies over biblical higher criticism and the spread of Darwinian thought into the cultural mainstream, this modernist/fundamentalist schism was a near-death experience. Insurgent fundamentalists pressed hard for the expulsion of religious liberals—a maneuver that brought already-warring camps to the brink of mutually assured cultural destruction. It was only thanks to the intervention of leaders in the Baptist and Presbyterian hierarchies that the denominations weathered this high-pitched strife intact.
But the wounds of the fight never quite healed, and in its wake, what emerged was an unholy union of fundamentalists with a jingoistic Americanism that was stoked by the cultural panics and red scares of the First World War.
This robust spirit of cultural self-assertion directly fed the bitter denominational feuds over such marquee questions as the teaching of evolution in public schools and the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, the idea that the Bible represents the unanswerable—and, more to the point, never-to-be-questioned—Word of God. On the one side was a new generation of theological liberals, schooled in the German “higher criticism” of Scripture that saw the Bible as a historically conditioned expression of faith, who were comfortable with the Protestant assimilation of Darwinian evolution. On the other side were fundamentalist foes of cultural and spiritual modernity, who felt conscripted by the rapid pace of historical change to face down the threat of historicist biblical criticism that they believed was infecting the country from the Old World citadels of learning. The First World War “had turned [fundamentalists] into activists,” FitzGerald writes, “and the political alarms of its aftermath persuaded them that a crisis was at hand.”
This “perception of a nation in crisis,” in FitzGerald’s view, is what helped spark “a new sense of urgency” and a politicized fundamentalist Protestantism. Having waged war within its own denominations, the fundamentalist camp now turned its energy toward a broader cultural mission. American Protestantism was to evangelize a particular reactionary view of secular modernity; indeed, in the hyper-Americanist mood of the 1920s, this program was linked to American nationalism, and “many fundamentalists believed they could win” this cultural struggle.
But they didn’t—at least not in the short term. The debacle of the Scopes “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee, seemed to betoken a long term of exile for the fundamentalist faithful. Although they prevailed as a matter of law—schoolteacher John Scopes was in fact convicted for teaching evolution in Tennessee’s public schools—they lost badly in the court of public opinion. Repairing to their separatist congregations and to biblical prophecy for comfort, fundamentalists spent the next two decades glumly shunning any turn in the mainstream cultural spotlight.
Meanwhile, liberal Protestants mounted a corresponding sort of retreat. Many liberal theological warriors withdrew to the cultural echo chambers of the professoriat and the ecumenicalism of the mainline churches. As FitzGerald correctly notes, “Most in the new centers of cultural power, principally the press and the universities, believed that fundamentalism had become irrelevant and would eventually fade away.”
By the time Billy Graham relaunched conservative Evangelicalism on the national scene with his fire-breathing 1949 revival crusade in Los Angeles, much of the northern Protestant establishment had grown too respectably removed to understand just what was going on. Though a new round of revivalism was on the horizon, mainstream Protestant leaders were ill-equipped to wage another battle over the political and theological makeup of their religion. Coupled with the upwelling of panicked anticommunist worship—not unlike the red scare of the 1920s—this new Evangelicalism began to gain in popularity, even if in the postwar world it “was not well understood at the time,” FitzGerald writes:
The outcome of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy had, after all, been interpreted as a victory for modernism, and since then the liberals, in control of the seminaries, had taken the leadership roles in the major northern denominations, and some had become a part of the intellectual establishment. In the 1950s the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich riveted the attention of liberal American intellectuals generally. Forgotten was the fact that in the fundamentalist-modernist conflict the liberals had narrowly won their right to exist in the northern Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. The fundamentalists had lost, but the winners had been the inclusivist conservatives, and they represented those many in the pews who paid no attention to the doctrinal disputes of their leadership.
This would not be the last time in the decades ahead that liberal divines—and liberals generally—would misread the basic spiritual temper of the country. Indeed, this pews-and-pulpits disconnect would prove one of the main flash points in the coming age of cultural warfare in the United States. As liberal Protestants of the Niebuhr and Tillich brand soaked up the lion’s share of respectable cultural attention, the restless fundamentalist camp was using its time in the wilderness to bolster all the features of a separatist institutional life, from fundamentalist colleges to Bible camps and radio franchises. For a movement supposedly prone to an abiding despair over the project of social and cultural reform, premillennial Christians sure had a hard time abjuring the key instruments of cultural programming.
Around this same time, FitzGerald notes, the term “evangelical” gradually came to displace the far more pejoratively charged “fundamentalist.” Indeed, conservative Christians eager to differentiate themselves from their own movement’s militant fringe self-consciously adopted the term “in order to escape associations of bigotry and narrowness” attached to the hard-core fundamentalist right.
It’s important to fix this point clearly, because it drives home something that many secular liberals never seem to consider: that Protestant believers are keenly attuned to the same sort of cultural distinctions that secularists, atheists, and “nones” (individuals who continue to profess a basic belief in God but shun the denominational tumult of organized Protestant worship) observe in their own boundary-policing lives. Evangelical Protestants, from the start, were sensitive to how their religiosity was perceived in the public sphere and have been sharply focused on the challenges of repackaging the old Gospel message in crowd-pleasing new wineskins ever since. There’s a reason, after all, that the signature platforms of evangelical preaching today are the media-savvy mega-church and the televangelist’s podium.
The self-conscious character of the modern evangelical movement is also important to underline because the basic modernist/fundamentalist schism that serves as the interpretive template for the rest of FitzGerald’s history is badly overstrained. Rather than being stalwart antimodernists calling for modern society’s regress, evangelicals have found that much of their recent success stems from their movement’s deep and incorrigible roots in modernity. For all of their conservative cultural associations, fundamentalism and biblical literalism are profoundly modern approaches to interpreting Scripture. The famous Scofield Bible, to take just one example, freely intersperses ideologically charged textual commentary with an English translation of the Bible’s text. As a result, many readers of this most popular “literalist” rendering of the Bible commonly mistake fundamentalist hermeneutics for the Word of God. It’s the sort of textual-interventionist strategy that would give Roland Barthes a long series of migraines.
There are also the vast commercial and communications empires, built on the engines of capitalism and modern technology, that have developed on the evangelical right. The God-fearing, right-leaning faithful have been pioneering early adopters in the world of direct-mail political fund-raising, the technologies of radio and television, and the careful tailoring of Christianity so that it is in accord with free enterprise, from the Pentecostal Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International to the sacralized aisles of Walmart. The evangelical movement, in other words, may oppose certain aspects of modernity—such as Darwinian evolution and moral and cultural relativism—but it has come to rely on many others.
Yet as FitzGerald’s long narrative unspools, she doesn’t often pause on this hidden modernism that can be found under the surface of Evangelicalism’s reaction. And that’s largely because she never relinquishes the misleading modernist/fundamentalist template. There are countless foreshortening effects that flow from this narrative choice. For instance, readers are given an extensive recap of the legal controversy surrounding Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore’s public display of stone replicas of the Ten Commandments, without any corresponding recognition that the appearance of such culture-war props was engineered by the business leaders of postwar America—in this case, via a nationwide church-sanctioned effort to promote Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 sword-and-sandal epic The Ten Commandments, as Kevin Kruse documents in his revealing 2015 history, One Nation Under God.
FitzGerald is so inured to traditional modernist/fundamentalist theological disputes that, as the cultural modernism of the fundamentalist movement gained deeper traction in our recent past, she simply writes past it. For example, instead of apprehending the many ways that evangelicals customized their message of cultural redemption to an anxious but upward-striving modern mass audience, FitzGerald persistently reads their deepest motivations as simply a matter of cultural reaction. Specifically, the religious right’s sudden storming of the political mainstream with Reagan’s election in the 1980s stems, in her view, from a protracted, if largely sub rosa, movement of religious resistance to a never-specified body of liberal cultural triumphs that FitzGerald dubs “the Long Sixties.”
The problem here, of course, is that even on their own terms, the New Left and hippie versions of the 1960s weren’t all that long. The antiwar left at a minimum accelerated the cultural contradictions that produced Richard Nixon’s successful “law and order” backlash candidacy of 1968. And long after the Weathermen and Students for a Democratic Society had collapsed into their own states of sectarian dysfunction, the Goldwaterite youth group Young Americans for Freedom, along with kindred evangelical-right formations like Bill Bright’s enormously influential Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru), long outlasted the Woodstock heyday of the more mediagenic hippie set.
Despite this fact, FitzGerald spins the trench-warfare conflict between fundamentalists and liberals across the vast bulk of The Evangelicals, while neglecting the Christian right’s many canny appropriations of, and adaptations to, the countercultural ethos of the age, from the “Jesus People” movement of the 1970s to the boom in evangelical self-help manuals and sexuality primers. And because the latter stage of FitzGerald’s narrative is so narrowly focused on the shifting political alliances and culture-war crusading of the fundamentalist right, the movement’s theological components get short shrift. The popular works of conservative religious writing that did so much to launch the movement into the cultural mainstream get virtually no mention here, from Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s, to the mega-best-selling Left Behind series of end-times thrillers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
What FitzGerald does focus on are the evangelicals’ organizational intrigues and professional rivalries, so much so that the narrative at times comes to resemble a recitation of the minutes at the start of a Bible-study conference—or at one of Grover Norquist’s Wednesday strategy meetings for Capitol Hill conservatives. Here, for example, is an account of the initial mobilization of evangelical support for Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel nominated for the Supreme Court by George W. Bush:
Throughout the day White House representatives made calls and held teleconferences with [James] Dobson, [Richard] Land, [Charles] Colson, [Paul] Weyrich, [John M.] Perkins, [Gary] Bauer, [Jerry] Falwell, [Pat] Robertson, and others. In one teleconference with thirteen members of the Arlington Group’s executive committee, Justice Nathan Hecht, a conservative on the Texas Supreme Court and an old friend of Miers’s, said that the nominee attended a very conservative evangelical church in Dallas and that he knew she was personally opposed to abortion because she had attended pro-life events with him.
Not only does this level of administrative detail bog down FitzGerald’s narrative; it also creates the misleading impression that the religious right’s main activity over the past 40 years has been primarily behind-the-scenes lobbying and organizational coordination. This has, of course, been a considerable focus of the movement, but the roll call of official leadership initiatives shows mainly how conservative evangelicals have expended their financial and political capital, not how they’ve altered the terms of spiritual-cum-political engagement at the grassroots level.
It’s undeniably true that episodes like the failed Miers nomination and the push to have Congress intervene in the Terri Schiavo case—which involved the opportunistic and grotesque enlistment of a comatose Florida woman on life support as a poster child for a theatrical pro-life legal challenge—demonstrated the myopic hubris of many of the religious right’s leaders. But they never dampened the deeper appeal of Protestant culture-war rhetoric among the movement’s base.
Indeed, The Evangelicals ends with a prolonged (and premature) obituary for the religious right, on the grounds that the movement’s leaders have begun to die off or otherwise forfeit their political clout, while a new subset of evangelical leaders have sought to advance a more progressive program of reform. These “new evangelicals”—people like Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, and (more equivocally) Rick Warren, the Baptist pastor of California’s Saddleback mega-church—have spooked the power brokers of the religious right because, FitzGerald argues, they “posed a direct threat to their power.”
If only. After lavishing so much of her book’s narrative on the rise of the religious right and the internecine power struggles among its leaders, FitzGerald is surprisingly quick to write off the movement’s present-day clout. In the wake of the “death or retirement of the old leaders,” she optimistically writes, the new evangelicals “in a sense came full circle with a return to the reformist imperatives of the antebellum evangelicals, such as Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney.”
Surveying the present American scene, there’s precious little evidence to support the idea that American Protestantism is on the brink of a liberal-leaning reformist phase. Almost 81 percent of white evangelical voters turned out for Donald Trump in last year’s presidential election—a higher proportion than George W. Bush managed to net in either of his presidential runs. And a recent poll conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that 57 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe that God had a direct hand in elevating Trump to the presidency.
While it’s true that evangelical opinion—like American opinion generally—has shifted away from the old warhorse fund-raising causes like the proscription of gay marriage, the religious right’s agenda remains, in other respects, front and center for the ruling Republican Party—from the selection of Betsy DeVos, a second-generation religious-right funder, as education secretary, to the militant anti-abortion record of Vice President Mike Pence, a self-styled “evangelical Catholic” who is fully aligned with the religious right’s policy agenda. The “populist” spiritual outlook undergirding the Trump phenomenon, meanwhile, can be found everywhere in the White House, from the high-octane Kulturkampf reveries of top White House adviser Steve Bannon to the demented Islamophobic fancies of (now former) national-security adviser Michael Flynn.
It was not for nothing, after all, that Trump issued a presidential proclamation designating the date of his inauguration as a “national patriotic day of devotion”—or that, a little more than a week into Trump’s presidency, Mike Pence delivered the keynote address at the anti-abortion March for Life on the National Mall. Yes, evangelical leaders were divided over Trump’s candidacy, particularly during the primaries. But the broad Trumpian vow to “Make America Great Again” chimed in near-perfect unison with the cultural offensives that the Christian right has mounted with unyielding persistence over the last 40 years.
The rank-and-file members of the Christian right are not suffering from a lack of institutional leadership; rather, they have aligned themselves with a far more powerful breed of leader. Unlike the evangelicals of old, they no longer need to be led to the promised land, believing instead that they have finally arrived. They know just what they want—and they’ve been delivered into the prophetic conviction that they will get it.