Churchgoers know the experience of a sermon that just won’t end. We start leafing through the hymnal or examining the weekly bulletin for the basement supper menu. (“Who’s making the Jell-O?”) Finally, the closing hymn begins, but we’re not quite sure what we’ve heard.
There’s a similar experience in reading Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals, a sincere attempt to detail 200 years of America’s religious history, focusing on the white Christians who for many years dominated the nation. Much of the book is a slog through hundreds of details that make it hard to concentrate. FitzGerald’s list of figures in the movement reads almost like an Old Testament genealogy of “begats.”
Evangelical Christianity is still a broad revival tent, today sheltering about a quarter of America’s population, from mainline Protestants to Roman Catholics, with a long list of other labels in between.
FitzGerald, a writer whose reach is almost as wide — from the Vietnam War (Fire in the Lake) to Star Wars (Way Out There in the Blue) — ambitiously tries to capture this essential part of American history, but the essence of evangelicalism eludes her. Even though she limited her subject to white people, the topic appears too complex and fragmented to encompass all its parts.
The Evangelicals starts with a definition: They are believers who call themselves “born again” in Jesus Christ and have a duty to spread the “good news” of the Gospel around the world.
FitzGerald says that the definition is little changed from the 19th century, when a series of “great awakenings,” or revivals, erupted around the country. “For most of the 19th century almost all Protestants would have called themselves evangelicals,” she writes.
When FitzGerald finally reaches the 20th century, the shape of modern evangelicalism is in place, but in essentially one place, the South. That region set itself apart from the country, first in its espousal of slavery, then after the Civil War, in segregation.
The book gains focus as the evangelicals gradually make their way into politics, which they had avoided in the 1800s. In the present century, conservative and moderate evangelicals make up a large part of the Republican Party, were a majority of the so-called tea party movement and support politicians who oppose same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform, programs for the poor, access to abortion and curbs on religious expression. They tend to be white, middle-aged men with a comfortable income, many living in the South.
FitzGerald delves into the various groups known as the “Christian Right,” including Focus on the Family, which flourished in the 1990s, fueled by disgust with President Bill Clinton, and worked to influence legislation. She chronicles what she sees as the decline of that influence, quoting the moderate evangelical Rev. Rick Warren, who declared that the “Christian Right is dead” and delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama’s first inaugural.