President Ronald Reagan delivered a monumental speech at the National Association of Evangelicals on March 3, 1983, excoriating the Soviet Union for being “the focus of evil in the world.” Democrats lashed out at Reagan for being a reckless Cold War hawk.
The real story, however, was largely missed by the national press. Reagan, hoping to conjure voter enthusiasm for his 1984 election bid, denounced “modern-day secularism” and “Washington-based bureaucrats and social engineers” in pulpit language that buoyed televangelists Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. By the time Reagan called for school prayer and reversing Roe v. Wade the crowd went wild. No longer were evangelicals outsiders from Podunk or Swamp Hollow — they were the new conservative Protestant and GOP establishment.
In Frances Fitzgerald’s “The Evangelicals’’ — an epic history of white American evangelical Protestantism from Plymouth Rock to Trump Tower — the enduring appeal of Jesus Christ looms large in our national culture. Fitzgerald, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for “Fire in the Lake,’’ an account of the Vietnam War, gracefully swoops over the decades of populist evangelicalism with Barbara Tuchman-like grace.
This is a comprehensive, heavily footnoted, yet readable study of how the evangelical tradition has become seared into the fabric of American life and the key figures who made it happen. Italso tracks the movement’s influence on the nation’s politics, including evidence from the last election of widening schisms that gave a lift to candidate Trump.
Fitzgerald, always judicious and unbiased, nobly succeeds in analyzing the nuanced differences between evangelicalism and fundamentalism, Calvinism and postmillennialism, charismatics and Pentecostals. Her intricate knowledge of Southern Baptists, Mennonites, holiness groups, Dutch Reformed groups, and other nondenominational churches is astonishing. “Many have little in common,” Fitzgerald writes of these evangelical outlets, “except for the essentials of their faith”
“The Evangelicals’’ begins with a fast-paced romp through the First Great Awakening in America (which reached its apogee in the 1740s but continued to rattle traditional Episcopalian and Presbyterian church windows in 1776). Enter theologians Jonathan Edwards of Connecticut and George Whitefield of Massachusetts who disrupted traditional Protestantism at its very foundation by shifting the emphasis from ritual and doctrine to personal faith. Revivals mushroomed across the land. Preachers sold a salvation-at-hand message that the faithful could bond directly with Christ-the-Savior and that Jesus “would save not just the apparently worthy” but even those sinners who “would receive His grace.”
That was a game changer for American Protestantism. By the time of the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1790–1850) intrepid preachers ballyhooed a zealous Christianity centered on religious conversion and rejection of Enlightenment deism in favor of a belief in a supreme being who is present in the world. A potent anti-intellectual viewpoint was baked into the movement. By the 19th century Puritanism wasn’t the dominant religious force in America anymore — evangelicalism was.
While some evangelicals of the antebellum era addressed education, health, temperance, and criminal justice from the pulpit — like northern abolitionist Charles Finney whose campaign against slavery led to the first feminist movement — the majority fixated on the Bible’s final authority. Essentially, evangelicalism was about being born again and then spreading the Gospels.
Following the Civil War the Northern faithful broke ranks with their Southern brethren. Out of this severing grew today’s evangelical vs. traditional Protestant square-off. Southern Baptist churches began redefining themselves as fundamentalists. The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, for example, was supposed to signal the death knell for the evangelical movement. Holy rollers seemed antiquated in the age of Edison and the Model T.
But evangelical churches adopted creationism to counter Darwin’s theory of evolution, and it took hold. “[Evangelicalism] grew mighty in the North,” Fitzgerald writes, “through the work of separatist pastors, radio preachers, and tent revivalists, who preached to rural Americans and to those who migrated to the fast-industrializing cities in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.”
One star in the 1940s was the Rev. Billy Graham, “a lanky figure in sherbet-colored suits with wide lapels and polychrome hand-painted ties.” His ministry hoped to unite Protestants under a gigantic Christ-loving tent. The charismatic Graham was born in Charlotte, N.C., in 1918. As an ordained Southern Baptist minister in the 1950s, his “crusades” were held in 185 countries.
By then, everyone from Dwight Eisenhower to Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to collaborate with him. Graham, the televangelist, was befriended by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. According to Fitzgerald, the genius of Graham was that he “spoke about the problems of the modern condition — emptiness, loneliness, guilt, nervous tension, and the fear of death — offering a decision for Christ as a cure for every benighted soul.”
Jerry Falwell also figures prominently. As founding Southern Baptist pastor of a megachurch in Lynchburg, Va., Falwell praised the New Testament one day and spewed racism the next. His gift involved linking Southern evangelicalism to GOP politics. Convinced that young minds were being poisoned by secularism, he established Liberty University in 1971. But it wasn’t until 1979 when Falwell launched his antiabortion Moral Majority organization that he grew in national stature. His hyperconservative “pro-family” views became a bread-and-butter staple of the modern GOP.
Fitzgerald also profiles Jimmy Carter, a devout Southern Baptist (like Graham), as a potent reminder that Southern evangelicals weren’t always politically far right. Carter’s “born-again” faith allowed him to win Bible Belt states like Georgia and Alabama in the 1976 presidential election. By then, evangelicalism in the South and Southwest was such a cresting demographic force that even Gerald Ford, an Episcopalian, described himself as “born-again.” That was smart politics in 1976 — one Gallup poll found that a third of Americans described themselves as born-again Christians.
Fitzgerald grapples with left-leaning figures like Ron Sider and James Wallis, but her last chapters ponder the ties between GOP conservatives and Southern evangelicals. (The Democratic Party, which inherited the black Southern evangelical tradition, exemplified by the civil rights movement, is omitted by Fitzgerald because “theirs is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation”).
Fitzgerald ends with the 2016 election. An astonishing 48 percent of Republican primary voters were white evangelicals. Fitzgerald attempts to analyze why so many born-again Christians supported Donald Trump, thrice-married libertine, over Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, whose father was an evangelical pastor.
Starting with Reagan’s presidency, the ideas of Graham, Falwell, and others became the heartbeat of the GOP. It was a full-bore rejection of the 1960s counterculture (especially on civil rights, abortion, and the women’s movement).
But over the years, rifts formed. The evangelical population was shrinking, and denominations disagreed over the acceptance of immigrants, particularly Latinos. Younger members took less hardline stances on issues like LGBT rights; many left the movement. Increasing numbers were more focused on economic nationalism and immigration restrictions than traditional cultural concerns.
They might still be voting Republican, but politics were winning out over theology. “In other words,” Fitzgerald writes, “the Christian right was no longer a movement but simply a faction within the Republican Party.” And, she speculates, this may only be the beginning as the aging top ranks give way to a more progressive, multicultural generation.
The Struggle to Shape America
By Frances Fitzgerald
Simon and Schuster, 740 pp., illustrated, $35
Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University and author of “Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.’’