American history is evangelical history and this is their moment.
Evangelical Christians have been the boogeymen of the political landscape for as long as I can remember. Graying White men clad in expensive suits, they would appear regularly on the television, espousing opinions shrouded in a “biblical” worldview. Silent majority, moral majority—the monikers have evolved over time, especially after their religiosity became synonymous with their notions of patriotism. Continually courted by conservatives until they formed the base of the Republican Party, evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts and Ralph Reed entrenched their followers in the culture wars.
Their agenda is pro-heteronormativity seen through the lens of literalist biblical interpretation. Despite the many contradictions that fill the testaments New and Old, gays are considered outside the norm, women are to be subjugated and the gift of being reborn in the grace of Jesus Christ is one for a White male to bestow on other races. Evangelizing is part of their calling, after all. Changing hearts and minds and bringing people home is in their name.
Because their views on marriage equality, abortion, women’s rights, gay rights and social progress are out of the mainstream, evangelicals can be mistakenly considered a fringe group, but a fringe group wouldn’t be courted by national politicians looking to sway an election. In reality, they comprise 25% of the population of the United States. While evangelicals consider themselves keepers of morality and the traditional family, 81% of them voted for Donald Trump, a man of many wives and loose morals.
While this is hardly the first instance of hypocrisy on the part of the evangelical community in my lifetime, the results of the election forced me to reconsider my own prejudices. They are fellow human beings, and yet they feel as distant and other to me as I, a coastal liberal, must feel to them. The idea that I had been living in a media bubble plagued me after the election, and I had to burst it. Understanding should be a mutual occupation, but the woman I voted for didn’t win, making the first steps to learning mine to take.
Fortunately, the process of education was made easier by the publication of The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. Frances FitzGerald, a Pulitzer Prize winner and recipient of the National Book Award for her previous work, details the history of the evangelical movement from the two Great Awakenings of the 18th century to the election of 2016. She notes that it is important to establish terms to distinguish evangelicals from what we typically think of as a fundamentalist or the overarching term “Christian Right.” She defines evangelicals as Christians who believe in the ultimate authority of the Bible, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the redemption of mankind, that they have been born again through the grace and power of Jesus Christ and are meant to spread the Gospel throughout the world. It is a religious term, not a political one, which Christians of different denominations use to identify their core beliefs.
The revival is the mark of the evangelical movement. In the 18th century, Protestant preachers would move from town to town and hold revivals for weeks or months at a time, spreading the Gospel and offering salvation. Because they crossed state lines, these early evangelicals presented a threat to the established and state funded Congregationalists—the primary religion throughout the 13 colonies. This challenge led to a crisis of religious authority and a “marketplace of religion.” All denominations sought to increase their flocks, but the evangelicals learned to simplify their message and thrived.
This battle between state-sponsored religions and populist movements led the evangelicals to fight for the separation of church and state after the revolution. In the 19th century, evangelicals would fracture over the issue of slavery along geographical lines. In the early 20th century, a more liberal New Theology took hold of the movement. The clergy took up social issues like worker’s rights, child labor and public education. This led to a new fracture between these modernists and the fundamentalists who called for a return to the infallibility of biblical teachings after World War I and the rise of Communism. It was at this time that evangelicalism became the reactionary force we know it today.
Evangelical Christians have always been a political force. The history of their movement is clearly the history of America, yet FitzGerald’s main contention is that when politicians began courting the evangelical vote, the movement became corrupted. This commenced with Jerry Falwell and the election of Ronald Reagan, metastasized with the elections of George W. Bush and culminated with the inexplicable historical moment we find ourselves in now.
As the book winds down with the aftermath of the 2016 election, Fitzgerald offers what are meant to be some hopeful assertions. The evangelical movement is shifting once again. Its old leaders are dead like Falwell, retired like James Dobson or withering like Pat Robertson. Like the modernist of the early 20th century, the next generation of evangelicals is more concerned about issues of social justice than the sort of cultural wedge issues that held Falwell’s Moral Majority together for decades. FitzGerald says that this new generation cares little about gay marriage and more about reforming the criminal justice system and stemming the effects of climate change. She posits that they are more respectful and tolerant of the differing views of their fellow Americans.
I confess to distrusting this conclusion. The marvelous intentions of the next generation is the premise of a thousand essays a day online, yet here we are at the mercy of old men with amoral intentions transforming our country into something unrecognizable. While The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America is an excellent and well-researched history, it is a dry one. Admittedly I read it wrong. I came looking for something—a figure or moment—to empathize with, but I am left with only cold facts as fodder for my anger. American history is evangelical history and this is their moment.