There’s a familiar story about evangelical political activism that begins with the 1960s. The country’s mores were changing rapidly, and evangelicals, alarmed by a retreat from traditional values, awoke from decades of political slumber and charged back into the arena, launching the Christian Right movement that rippled through American society. Or so the story goes.
But for Frances FitzGerald—a journalist, historian, and author of books on the Vietnam War, the Reagan era, and other major chapters of American history—the real story begins at least a century earlier. Her latest book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (Simon & Schuster) hearkens back to the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries to find the reforming impulse that drew conservative Christians (and their progressive brethren) into the public square. Heath W. Carter, author of Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago and the coeditor of Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism, spoke with FitzGerald about her observations on evangelicals and American politics.
How did you become interested in evangelicalism?
It was partly by accident. I was teaching in Lynchburg, Virginia, when a professor pointed me toward Jerry Falwell’s church. He was, at that time, starting the Moral Majority, so I stayed and wrote a piece about him for The New Yorker. I’ve been writing about evangelicals, off and on, ever since—to a greater extent during the administration of George W. Bush, when they came to the fore.
After all that reporting, I felt there was no way for non-evangelicals or secular people to understand evangelicals without understanding their history and without ...1