The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

When I first saw this book by journalist Frances Fitzgerald, I was both curious and uneasy. Curious because I’d like to see a clear-headed examination of the Evangelical Christian movement that I spent most of my young adulthood in, and uneasy because so much of the conversation about Evangelicalism is based on stereotypes that lump all Evangelicals together, usually focusing on the worst within the movement. But, thanks to Liz’s positive comments on the book, I decided to give it a try. Although I might have some quibbles and questions, it’s as strong an examination of the movement as I could expect.

First, Fitzgerald, a journalist, makes it clear from the start that her focus is white American Evangelicalism. And given how large and sprawling the Evangelical church is, that’s a big enough topic. The Evangelical church in America is made up of many different churches, each with its own history, and Fitzgerald takes the time to look at the theological underpinnings of each, from Calvinists to Methodists to Baptists to Pentecostals and so on. Because each of these movements has its own history, the first 100 pages or so of the book feel like table-setting, without one single guiding narrative. It’s only after she gets to the 20th century, and Billy Graham, that the book really starts to come together. However, I’m glad she took the time and effort to dig into the history and theology. I think it’s important to understand that the Evangelical movement as it exists today is a combination of many different movements that happened to find common cause together in the latter half of the 20th century—it remains to be seen whether the union they formed will hold for the long term.

I was already familiar with a lot of the history Fitzgerald recounts, but not to the level of detail that she offers. And I was interested to see how different movements dovetailed and informed each other. For instance, the Fundamentalist movement, which focuses on such doctrines as biblical inerrency and literal interpretation of the Bible, first sprang to life in the Northern U.S. in response to modernism. It was only later that it took hold in the South, where it grew in power. It took longer to emerge there largely because, as a response to modernism, it’s unlikely to grow in places that do not feel under threat from modernist ideas. The Fundamentalists set themselves apart from larger society, with some taking an attitude of needing to convert and/or conquer, and others choosing to ride it out in their separate communities that exist in varying degrees of isolation from the wider community. Either way, the general idea is that the church is in a state of conflict with the world.

In Fitzgerald’s telling, Evangelicalism as we now it today then came into its own with Billy Graham, who saw the relationship between the church and the world differently. His thinking was to communicate a message of love to the wider world, rather than one of separation and conflict. The chapters on Graham’s ministry and his growing influence show that his thinking evolved and shifted over time, especially as regards race. She does not present Graham as a paragon, but she doesn’t hold him up for overt criticism. She just simply presents the information, and I suspect different readers will come away from the book with different ideas about Graham.

Fitzgerald’s even-handedness is one of the book’s strengths. Rarely does she editorialize, although her choice of facts sends a clear message about where Evangelicals both took over, and let themselves get taken over by, the Republican party. James Dobson in particular comes off badly. Dobson gets a decent amount of credit for my own decision to move away from conservative Evangelicalism. Years of listening to Focus on the Family turned my slight unease with elements of the movement into full-on righteous fury, and I eventually retreated to a more progressive Baptist church for relief. (My move to the Episcopal church was more about getting away from sermon-centered worship.) Even when my personal views were more conservative than they are today, the laser focus on abortion, homosexuality, and sexual morality among Evangelicals seemed off the mark when there’s so much poverty in the world that rarely got talked about.

Interestingly, the final chapters of the book show Evangelicalism in retreat, which may surprise some readers—it did me—but her conclusions make sense. More progressive Evangelicals, such as Jim Wallis and Jonathan Merritt, have become more visible in recent years. And even conservatives, such as Russell Moore and Richard Cizik, have expressed a desire for the church to respond to climate change and racism and other significant issues.

But what of the election of Trump and his support among Evangelicals? Fitzgerald notes that Evangelical leaders were divided on Trump, and some never supported him. But the people in the pews, many having fallen into the Tea Party movement, gave their votes to the Republican, no matter what they thought of him personally. I wish there had been a way to get more insight into the thoughts of on-the-ground Evangelicals and not just their leaders. But the book, quite understandably, focuses largely on leaders in the movement, and there’s no single leader that everyone looks to these days.

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6 Responses to The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

  1. Nice review, Teresa! I read The Evangelicals back in November and very much appreciated it. The subject was simply one which interested me and I read Fitzgerald’s book Fire in the Lake many years ago and really admired it on many levels. This is equally good. Yes, I did write a review – I gave it a 9.25/ 10. – One of the best nonfiction books I read last year.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks! I wasn’t familiar with Fitzgerald’s work before reading this, and now I realize she’s been doing good, thoughtful, thorough journalism for decades.

  2. Swistle says:

    I saw this on the library’s new-books shelf and had a similar reaction. Partly I didn’t want to work myself up into a rage against evangelicals, considering how many of them I’m related to. But your review makes me think I should reconsider and at least TRY it.

    • Teresa says:

      I can’t promise you won’t feel rage at this–I had gotten past a lot of my Dobson rage until reading this brought it all back up.

  3. Thanks for the review, Teresa. I had seen this book and was considering it, but I was wary for many of the reasons you mention. It’s such a large topic and a long history so I’m glad Fitzgerald carefully presents a story that could easily turn into an impassioned rant.

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