Frances FitzGerald on how evangelicals lost their way

(RNS) When religious folk get entangled with secular politicians in the political arena, the politicians always win.

Evangelist Billy Graham, center, is flanked by GOP Presidential candidate Richard Nixon, right, and Gov. Spiro T. Agnew, the vice-presidential choice, left, as he delivers the benediction at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach in 1968. Mr. Graham prayed for the unity and welfare of the nation. Religion News Service file photo.

Evangelist Billy Graham, center, is flanked by GOP presidential candidate Richard Nixon, right, and Gov. Spiro T. Agnew, the GOP vice presidential choice, left, as he delivers the benediction at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Fla. Mr. Graham prayed for the unity and welfare of the nation. Religion News Service file photo

(RNS) The most important new book on evangelicals in many years has been released just in time for Easter. Frances FitzGerald’s massive new tome is called “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.” Everyone who cares about religion in America must read it. I will be moderating a conversation with the author on Wednesday night (April 12) at the Atlanta History Center.

Reading this book during the Lenten season, and completing it during Holy Week, may be contributing to my primary take on the book: Evangelicals very badly lost their way. And they did so because their gospel stopped being about the love of God in Jesus Christ, demonstrated most profoundly at the cross, and instead became a reactionary jeremiad about saving America by electing Republican politicians and fighting culture wars.

The author is not an evangelical insider and does not make that claim. But she offers all the evidence necessary for me to make it, aided by nearly 40 years as a participant in American evangelical Christianity.

That’s not all the book is about, of course. FitzGerald offers a comprehensive history of American evangelicals that traces their story all the way back to the 18th century. With considerable though not flawless grasp of detail, the book tells the American evangelical story with remarkable comprehensiveness. I was especially struck by her tracing of distinctive northern and southern evangelicalisms, her description of the explosive growth of Pentecostalism and her elegiac take on the arc of Billy Graham’s career, whose entanglement with Richard Nixon ended up foreshadowing the later course of politicized evangelicalism.

“The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America” by Frances FitzGerald. Image courtesy of Simon and Schuster

The last half of the book slows down, covering only the period since the rise of Jerry Falwell and the Christian right in the 1970s. FitzGerald has reported directly on conservative evangelicalism since that period, and that reporting shows up in these lengthy chapters. Pretty much everything there is to be said about Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Richard Land, James Dobson and a cast of thousands of earnest (and sometimes clownish) Christian rightists can be found here.

Perhaps newer to most readers will be FitzGerald’s discussion of the splintering of American evangelicalism in the aftermath of what she calls the “unfortunate George W. Bush.” As a participant in much of the history she recounts, I know most of the people she describes as “new evangelicals” (like Joel Hunter, Richard Cizik and Jim Wallis) as well as those in a still-conservative but less rigid group like Russell Moore. She tells this post-2006 story very well indeed.

FitzGerald concludes that the old angry white guy Christian right is slowly dying out, and shows that the political energy of the white conservative Christian right mainly moved to the Tea Party by 2010 and then to the Trumpistas in 2016. That still makes them a potent political force (for a while longer), but this version of “Christian” politics is even more morally compromised and less recognizably Christian than in the Falwell-Robertson days.

FitzGerald’s subtitle is “The Struggle to Shape America.” Therein lies the problem, not with the book, but with the movement. The Christian faith is not fundamentally about shaping America or any other country. It is fundamentally about nurturing a community of human beings who will faithfully follow Jesus. This is where American evangelicals went wrong.

FitzGerald knows that evangelicalism is a global community but shows that American evangelicalism is very deeply American. So even from the 19th century American evangelicals had a tendency to identify their own community and its concerns with that of America writ large.

She especially shows that after the massive social changes of the 1960s, evangelicalism became very deeply white-male-reactionary American. This evangelical white-male-reactionary-Americanism came to override the Christian gospel or even to define it. The gospel was not about Jesus, but about nostalgia for a lost America where our guys, and our values, were unquestioned.

In the end, the result was an unholy marriage of top evangelical leaders to the Republican Party and conservative lobbyists and operatives. In reaction, a smaller group of evangelical progressives also became involved in similar conjugal relations with the Democrats and their lobbyists and operatives.

When religious folk get entangled with secular politicians in the political arena, the politicians always win. They have home field advantage. The earnest religious types get played. And the people in the pews start heading for the exits.

Faithful Christian discipleship does involve bearing witness to Christian convictions in public. But drawing the line between this dimension of Christian proclamation, on the one hand, and getting used by politicians, on the other, has proved very difficult for evangelical Christians since at least Billy Graham. It’s a sordid story, and it has shaped American religion and public life for more than a generation.

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