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 seeing the importance of religion in 19th-century America. This comes through clearly in the way that people of that era communicated. Beyond their desire for heaven, they had profound desires for reforming the world.
Evangelicalism is notoriously difficult to define. The title of your book is The Evangelicals, but as you say in the introduction, you’re mostly interested in telling the story of the Christian Right. To what extent, in your view, are “the evangelicals” and “the Christian Right” overlapping categories?
They’re not. As a movement, the Christian Right was mainly evangelical, but it also included some conservative Catholics. Evangelicals make up more than 20 percent of this country, and certainly not all of them belong to the Christian Right. There are many differences among evangelicals, both denominational and ideological.
Most of your book is about the post–World War II era, but you begin with the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. How does knowing about a Jonathan Edwards or a Charles Finney help us to understand the Christian Right?
I don’t think all of this history is pointing solely toward the emergence of the Christian Right. It seems to me that Charles Finney, for example, foreshadows the more progressive part of today’s evangelical world. The evangelical left has always looked back to evangelicals before the fundamentalist-modernist crisis of the early 20th century, when they were, to a large extent, focused on social issues as well as personal conversion.
The first part of the book makes the point that evangelicalism started as a revolutionary movement against the established churches and social hierarchies. It did so during Jeffersonian times, when this pattern was playing out all across the society. The United States was expanding and changing in nature, and evangelicals were adapting their religion to the nation’s expanding frontiers.
In recent years, historians have debated what animated the Christian Right. Some have stressed a backlash to the civil rights movement. Others have focused on the culture wars: battles over school prayer, abortion, gay marriage, and so on. Still others have highlighted opposition to the New Deal and support for free enterprise. What would you say was the driving force?
I tend to think that “culture war” social issues played the largest role. Certainly, those are what Jerry Falwell and his companions emphasized. They began to enter the political arena largely because they feared the breakdown of the traditional or Victorian family.
Still, I don’t think there’s one single reason behind the emergence of the Christian Right. It wasn’t just anxiety about certain aspects of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t just a reaction to feminism. Ultimately, it was a combination of all of the extraordinary revolutions that began in the colleges during the 1960s, plus government encroachment on churches by forbidding them to have tax breaks unless they desegregated. That was an important point for Falwell, and for more inward-looking groups like Bob Jones University.
Some scholars, including Randall Balmer, have argued that we often overrate abortion in explaining the rise of the Christian Right.
I think that’s right. In the 1960s, abortion was not a significant issue for evangelicals. Many of them thought of it as a Catholic issue. Evangelicals didn’t raise much protest against what they called therapeutic abortions, which included situations where the pregnancy might cause either physical or even psychological harm to the mother. They were never for what they call “abortion on demand,” which is how they understood the impact of Roe v. Wade.
Evangelicals would eventually become more resolutely pro-life, of course, but it didn’t happen overnight. If you look at the polling done by University of Akron political scientist John Green and others, it took a while for the evangelical laity to think of abortion as the great sin, as murder. But then they became more Catholic than the Catholics, in the sense that abortion was not just the murder of the fetus but also part of what they saw as an assault on the traditional family.
In recent years, a number of books have described evangelical support for free enterprise and the centrality of free-market ideas to the Christian Right. What do you make of this line of argument?
It’s absolutely true. If you read Falwell’s jeremiads, and if you look at what Pat Robertson was talking about, they were quite interested in matters of economic philosophy. In their thinking, the health of the American economy was connected with the country’s moral and social fabric. They had a sense that economic and social change creates religious change, and vice-versa. For Christian Right leaders, it was all of a piece.
As you’ve said, Charles Finney and other evangelical social reformers of the 19th century have a story that might motivate progressive activism. And yet by the 1960s, evangelicals were coming together behind the political right. What do you see as the central factor in that historical shift? Was it early 20th-century theological battles over orthodoxy that functioned as the key turning point?
The fundamentalist-modernist conflict was certainly a major turning point, but there were plenty of others. The modernists accepted Darwinism and modern science, as well as the emerging forms of higher biblical criticism, but they were also interested in trying to tame unbridled capitalism in the late 19th century. In reaction, the fundamentalists, who were first and foremost engaged in religious disputes, sought to downplay their own history of social involvement and to insist that societal improvement could only come about through the conversion of individuals one by one. They were very individualistic, in the sense that it was always about the relationship between God and the individual, as opposed to any more communitarian idea.
You write at length about Billy Graham. But as you point out, he would dip into conservative politics but then back off. Is he still a central character in this story?
Billy Graham had his own politics, but he wasn’t trying to sell them. Falwell and his allies, by contrast, were trying to create a movement to preserve the traditional family and to counter secular humanism—along with many other changes that arose during the 1960s.
You focus on prominent male ministers who led their flocks into Christian Right political engagement. Would you say this was a top-down movement, or was there a bottom-up component as well?
There was very much a bottom-up component. Falwell, in his sermons and in his speeches, was gathering up the feelings of resentment that existed at the grassroots, from issues of textbooks that people deemed unpatriotic to pornography and gay rights. Often, pressure groups were local, whether in Southern California or West Virginia or elsewhere. But Falwell put them all together. He would have these lists of American sins, and his lists were always changing, depending on his audience. Abortion didn’t hit the head of the list until much later on.
If you look at the last presidential election, you see many leaders of institutions historically affiliated with the Christian Right who denounced Donald Trump in no uncertain terms. But when it came time to vote, their followers—or people we assumed to be their followers—supported Trump by wide margins. How do you account for that gap between leaders and laity?
I think Christian Right leaders have been losing their cultural power ever since the start of George W. Bush’s second term. There were a lot of people who hived off at that point, including a progressive movement within evangelicalism.
But it’s also the case that a lot of prominent Christian Right figures died or retired, and a new generation of preachers took over, a group that includes figures like Russell Moore. They did not have the same kind of bullhorn as the Christian Right did in the 1980s and 1990s, when the shock of cultural change was much fresher.
You close the book with reflections on the “splintering” of evangelicalism in the current moment. People have predicted the end of the Christian Right for some time, but it always seems to find new sources of energy. Recently, Pew Research Center released data showing that 78 percent of white evangelicals approve of the Trump administration. How do you reconcile your account of “splintering” with that level of support?
The splintering has not quite come to the surface yet. That has to do in part with the growing number of immigrants—Latino immigrants, in particular— coming into evangelical churches. That’s made a big difference, as well as this generational change, but things happen slowly. I think that the large segment of evangelicals that voted for Trump doesn’t reflect where things are going. The younger generation is going to be quite different, partly because of its ethnic diversity and partly because of its different views about social justice issues.
In the book, you describe the evangelical left that emerges in the 1960s and ’70s—and picks back up during the George W. Bush years. Historians never want to predict the future, but looking ahead, do you anticipate the evangelical left becoming a more significant cultural force?
I wouldn’t really say that there’s an organized evangelical left right now. There was a definite evangelical left in the 1970s, albeit a very small one. Right now, the people I think of as progressives certainly haven’t changed their minds about abortion or same-sex marriage. Rather, their concerns are larger than what people used to call the “below the belt” issues of the Christian Right.
The millennial generation tends to pick things up from their peers more than past generations. They tend to be environmentalists. They tend to be more tolerant of other religions and believe that you can be moral without being a Christian.
It’s not as clear-cut as “left” versus “right.” There’s a whole spectrum in the evangelical community. Rick Warren is a good example of this. He really did change his mind around 2005, in that instead of concentrating mainly on the “below the belt” issues, suddenly he was talking about solving global hunger, promoting education, and making progress against disease.
Rick Warren is not of the millennial generation. Do you see him as representative of larger trends?
Not necessarily. I have a hard time saying anyone is representative of an entire movement. But he’s one example of someone you might have thought would maintain his Christian Right credentials but who really has opened himself up to many other things, including relationships with Muslims in this country.
What else do you want readers to take away from the book?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but evangelicals have been changing over two centuries. It’s not as though they are a solid immovable block. And there are great differences among them. There are probably more differences among them today than there were 20 years ago.
Learn something new from this interview? Did we miss something? Let us know here.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.