Speaking at the National Religious Liberties Conference in Iowa in November 2015, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told a packed house that in his opinion, “any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander in chief of this nation.” The comment was elicited by a question from Orthodox Presbyterian minister Kevin Swanson, who shortly before had told the same packed house that the penalty for homosexuality should be death. Both Swanson and Cruz drew applause.
Some political commentators found the whole display – both the Islamic State-style call for executing gay people and the suggestion that only a religious person could be a worthy US president – disturbing, but it was also irrelevant. The following November, Donald Trump – a man married to his third wife and openly ignorant of even the simplest Sunday school basics of Christianity – won the Oval Office with 81 percent of the evangelical vote.
The American Evangelicals of the 21st century elected a transparently nonreligious president for what would seem to be purely tactical reasons: They liked his promises – to cut federal regulations, to purge the country of unauthorized immigrants, to halt the immigration of Muslims – enough to overlook questions about his faith and character.
In many ways, the successive waves of evangelicalism that have done as much as any other movement to create and shape American society have always been this puzzling, which is all the more reason to hail the appearance of Frances FitzGerald’s massively learned and electrifying new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.
Here is the long, contradictory, and compelling history of American Evangelicals and the world they made. In the telling of this story, FitzGerald pulls off an admirable feat. She writes compassionately about generations of deeply held faith without seeming naive, even as she resists cynicism while noting the psychotics, charlatans, and con artists who have sometimes arisen to "deceive the very elect." The result is a quiet marvel of a book, well deserving of winning its author her second Pulitzer (after her 1973 win for “Fire in the Lake”).
The book follows those successive waves with magisterial readability, moving briskly from Jonathan Edwards to the Second Great Awakening to the Scopes “monkey trial” and finally settling on its true subject, the rise of the modern politically active evangelicalism of groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition of America – and the rise of the modern revivalist preacher, men like William Branham, controversial faith healer A.A. Allen, Oral Roberts, pugnacious preacher Jerry Falwell (“He took to evangelism as if he had been born to it”), and most of all, in many ways the real star of FitzGerald’s book, Billy Graham, whose “Youth for Christ” rallies drew hundreds of thousands and whose political influence at its peak was immense.
“Graham liked the company of powerful men,” FitzGerald tells her readers, “and throughout his career many politicians courted him because of the large constituency he represented, or in the hope that his blindingly righteous presence might envelope them.”
“The Evangelicals” tracks the shifting position of the movement on a wide array of key American issues, from slavery to public morals to the civil rights movement to modern social causes such as gay rights. FitzGerald is adroit and gentle in noting how often America’s religious right wing seems to have been fighting rearguard actions. The book is full of rival sects and denominations – Methodists, Pentecostals, conservative Baptists, Lutherans, Swedish Baptists, members of the Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, and half a dozen others (and in many ways, their combination runs deeper than a standard history of America) – and this feels more like listening to an entire country’s long and complicated confession.
Her subject is the American version, but as FitzGerald makes clear, the phenomenon of evangelicalism is probably as old as religion itself. “The classic jeremiad is this: The people have fallen into evil ways and committed sins that jeopardize their covenant with God and risk His judgment upon them,” she writes. “But His wrath may be stayed if there is a spiritual revival and the people repent and return to God.”
Throughout American history, charismatic preachers, speakers, and faith healers have cropped up, gained massive followings, raked in mountains of money, garnered considerable political clout, founded churches and universities, and inspired both rage and adoration. The Founding Fathers, who went to such great lengths to separate church from state, might be appalled at the picture described in “The Evangelicals,” but the book is a distinct blessing for the rest of us.
Steve Donoghue regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.