For three decades and change, we’ve grown accustomed to the quadrennial display of Republican presidential candidates genuflecting before the devout, whispering in code or pandering in plain sight. Democrats have scarcely escaped their pull, taking pains to at least avoid actively alienating them. If it’s resulted in surprisingly little by way of legislation, the ascendancy of the Christian right has shunted the nation’s political axis rightward, driven a reductive fixation on a narrow set of “moral” issues, affected the outcome of at least one general election and remade one of the two parties of state in the image of the religious movement comprising one in four Americans that dominates its ranks.
A Gutenbergian slab, Frances FitzGerald’s “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America” is a meticulous history of this movement — retrograde and atavistic, ridiculed by secular elites, yet protean, hardy as a virus and, imbued with “the spirit of Jacksonian democracy,” all-American.
It’s a story that traces the trajectory of the nation. In the 18th century, the descendants of the Puritan settlers found their austere Calvinism outflanked by a new brand of faith that proclaimed the sovereignty of subjective personal religious experience. Religious authorities were aghast at the vulgar theatrics of personal conversion and bowdlerized theology peddled by its preachers, but the barriers for entry to salvation had been collapsed. Evangelicalism found followers among non-Puritan immigrants and resonated with the frontier’s ethos of “individualism,” writes FitzGerald. Division of church and state acted as an accelerant; inaugurating a “marketplace of religion” in which “spiritual entrepreneurs” proselytized to grow their flocks. Later, Northern evangelicals led abolitionism, declaring slavery an affront to their faith. Their co-religionists in the South adduced the same faith to “sanctify” slavery.
Yet change was at the door. Darwinian evolution challenged biblical creationism, and academicians objectified the good book as just another historical text to be parsed with the tools of modern scholarship. Confronting modernism, evangelicalism split. Liberal sects elaborated a creed that could co-exist with it; conservative “fundamentalist” denominations, from which most of today’s evangelicals are descended, quarantined themselves — preserving their biblical literalist beliefs “as if in amber,” writes FitzGerald, but ceding their cultural relevance. By 1925, H.L. Mencken, reporting on the rabble at the Tennessee trial of John Scopes for teaching evolution in contravention of fundamentalist state law, beheld what he took to be a vestigial rump of a religion populated by rubes.
But fundamentalism flourished outside polite society and amid a postwar resurgence in religiosity produced evangelicalism’s first rock star. Preaching to packed auditoriums, Billy Graham ditched harsh fundamentalist fulminations for a redemptive message of God’s saving grace. At a time of maximum Cold War peril, President Eisenhower extolled religion as a means of instilling “greater mass discipline” in the populace, elevating Graham to the status of “pastor of the national civil religion,” FitzGerald writes.
Graham’s “big tent” evangelicalism didn’t survive the ’60s, but he brought the movement into the political fray, demonstrating its expedience to those in power. Meantime, evangelicalism found itself “renewed” by the rise of Pentecostalism. Offering the spectacle of the holy spirit at large, inducing writhing in the aisles, jabbering in tongues and other wanton ecstasies, it was “made for TV,” writes FitzGerald, and broadcasts by Pentecostalist preacher Oral Roberts in the late ’50s ushered in the televangelism age.
Several forces now converged to thrust evangelicalism onto the political stage. Still healing after Watergate, America experienced an evangelical moment in 1976. Incoming President Carter was a staunch evangelical; outgoing President Ford identified as “born-again” — a designation one-third of Americans gave themselves in a poll. Newsweek hailed evangelicalism as “the most significant — and overlooked — religious phenomenon of the ’70s.” If evangelicals felt emboldened, the way was finally open for the more strident among them to find an outlet for this in politics. By making support for segregation untenable, the civil rights movement had the perverse effect of politically enfranchising white Southern fundamentalists, FitzGerald notes. Forcing them to abandon a stance that precluded political activism “removed the obstacle that would have prevented … fundamentalist leaders from assuming a role in national politics.” The immediate catalyst though — a reminder to follow the money — was an IRS move to rescind the tax-free status of Christian academies. Notably absent as factors were Roe vs. Wade or the school prayer ban. Indignation over these came later.
The first avatar of the Christian right was Jerry Falwell, self-mythologizing pastor of a Virginia megachurch who in 1979 founded the Moral Majority as an umbrella group for conservative Christians, throwing its support behind a presidential hopeful from California in need of a “Southern strategy.” During the Reagan years, Falwell honed the battle cry of a nation mired in moral turpitude requiring Christian restoration, but it took a more adroit operator to cement the Christian right as a political force. Pat Robertson stands as perhaps the most fascinating figure in evangelicalism’s annals, writes FitzGerald, certainly its most chameleon-like: the Yale-educated son of a congressman-turned-senator, he embraced Pentecostalism’s “folk religion;” folksy and avuncular, he retailed lurid conspiracy theories; and, deploring debt, he built a media empire on leveraged buyouts. Characteristically, Robertson claimed his 1988 presidential bid was divinely ordained, then cast himself during the campaign as a “conservative businessman.” His candidacy fizzled, but it was only the opening salvo.
“This campaign is not a one-shot attempt to win one office,” a functionary said. “It is designed to start a permanent restructuring of American politics, particularly Republican politics.” Robertson subsequently co-founded the Christian Coalition to give evangelicals a voice in government through activism from the grassroots up.
George W. Bush’s presidency marked peak evangelicalism, politically at least. Finally, a president who appreciated evangelicals’ electoral clout and, born-again himself, felt a personal affinity. Bush funneled millions in grants to church groups to perform social services and hired dozens of evangelicals to staff his administration. Post-9/11 he won plaudits for his moral framing of the War on Terror. In 2003, he enacted a ban on partial-birth abortion. The period coincided with the emergence of a new harder-bitten Christian right leader, starchy Victorian dad James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.
“The Evangelicals” explodes any notion of evangelicalism as a monolithic movement. FitzGerald also deftly captures the “exotic cast” of this pure product of America, comparing the “transgressive” PTL ministry of Jim and Tammy Bakker — televangelism’s Lilliputian first couple before Jim was defrocked for embezzlement and sexual impropriety — with its gaudy prosperity gospel, to a Warholian art project.
Whither the true believers in the age of Trump and the irreligious right? FitzGerald makes no predictions. The movement is “splintering,” she notes. Evangelicals formed a constituency within the Tea Party; in 2016, many voted for Trump. But others reclaimed evangelicalism’s progressive tradition, staking out positions on social justice matters and the environment. “They not only understood they lived in a pluralist society,” writes FitzGerald, “… more important … they recognized moral ambiguities and were less … doctrinaire.”
Stephen Phillips’ writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times and South China Morning Post, among other publications. Email: email@example.com
The Struggle to Shape America
By Frances FitzGerald
(Simon & Schuster; 740 pages; $35)