The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

“A page turner…We have long needed a fair-minded overview of this vitally important religious sensibility, and FitzGerald has now provided it.” —The New York Times Book Review“FitzGerald’s brilliant book could not have been more timely, more well-researched, more well-written, or more necessary.” —The American ScholarThis groundbreaking book from Pulitzer Prize–winning his...

Title:The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
Author:
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ISBN:1439131333
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:752 pages

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America Reviews

  • Anna
    Dec 25, 2016

    Review forthcoming in Publishers Weekly. This title was both painful and heartening to read in this historical moment as the bulk of its 700+ pages focus on the twentieth century and evangelical conservatism and fundamentalism ... strains of Christianity that have been an abiding political force in our recent history. Painful because many of the fears and anxieties expressed by the white Protestants that FitzGerald focuses on were made manifest in the 2016 presidential election; heartening becau

    Review forthcoming in Publishers Weekly. This title was both painful and heartening to read in this historical moment as the bulk of its 700+ pages focus on the twentieth century and evangelical conservatism and fundamentalism ... strains of Christianity that have been an abiding political force in our recent history. Painful because many of the fears and anxieties expressed by the white Protestants that FitzGerald focuses on were made manifest in the 2016 presidential election; heartening because this work reminds us that many of the political struggles that have defined this election cycle stretch back into the 19th century if not earlier. We have historical examples for addressing and containing white Christian America's ability to harm itself and others. Another hopeful aspect of this work is the potential for evangelical Christian America to turn their energy and organization towards addressing the most pressing issues of our time: care for the environment, poverty, racism, and other social justice concerns. The Evangelical left and even many conservatives share an interest in these issues and could be key comrades in the struggle to come.

  • Michael Perkins
    Apr 08, 2017

    I was familiar with the bulk of what is covered in this new book. But I give it props for being a thoroughly researched, balanced treatment of the subject. The writing is also quite fluid for a subject that could easily be a textbook instead.

    Back in the 70's, I recall author and evangelist Francis Schaeffer being popular in Christian circles at colleges. (I was surprised the author did not talk about his popular early works such as "Escape from Reason"). What I hadn't realized until recent years

    I was familiar with the bulk of what is covered in this new book. But I give it props for being a thoroughly researched, balanced treatment of the subject. The writing is also quite fluid for a subject that could easily be a textbook instead.

    Back in the 70's, I recall author and evangelist Francis Schaeffer being popular in Christian circles at colleges. (I was surprised the author did not talk about his popular early works such as "Escape from Reason"). What I hadn't realized until recent years is that Schaeffer went on to join the Moral Majority in its political program. His son, Franky (or Frank) was supposed to be his successor, but rebelled. He has written a gently chiding memoir of his parents (linked below) with a sensationalist title.

    What has also come out is that Francis Schaeffer was something of pseudo-intellectual who was not nearly as well-versed in the historical figures and movements he included in his speeches. The Schaeffers had a kind of commune in Switzerland, called L'Abri ,where young people, in particular, were welcome to come talk about Christianity and western civilization, although substantial discussion of science seemed to be missing. But some who abided there reported that he got his knowledge from magazines including about Existentialism from reading a cover story in Time Magazine and that no one actually saw him read a book other than the Bible.

    What I had not realized was the pervasive influence Francis Schaeffer had on political thinkers of the Right outside church circles.

    The book by his son....

  • Christopher
    May 29, 2017

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    If you ask your average American what an Evangelical is, they will probably identify them as a Christian, but will probably also mention negatives terms such as bigot and homophobe. This is a sad fact that has its roots in the politics of the Christian Right during the 2000s, but it i

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    If you ask your average American what an Evangelical is, they will probably identify them as a Christian, but will probably also mention negatives terms such as bigot and homophobe. This is a sad fact that has its roots in the politics of the Christian Right during the 2000s, but it ignores the extraordinary impact evangelical Christianity has had on the history of the country. This book examines that history and reminds us of how evangelistic Christianity has made its mark on the individualistic character of America.

    Starting with the First Great Awakening and running through to the recent election of Donald Trump, Ms. Fitzgerald traces the evolution of evangelical Christianity through all of its tumultuous ups and downs. Throughout it all she shows how this movement has made its mark on American history. Several charitable societies in the 19th century were started by evangelical Christians. However, she does not ignore the bad history either. Southern evangelical Christians used their faith to justify slavery and then, after the Civil War, justify Jim Crow laws. Ms. Fitzgerald also gives details about the most important figures in the history of the movement, from Jonathan Edwards through Charles Finney and Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Rick Warren.

    What most readers will be interested in though is the rise and the decline of the Christian Right starting in the late 1970s. Indeed, half of this book covers that part of the tale alone. It is very interesting indeed as it shows how the evangelical movement shifted its focus away from doctrinal issues within the movement (the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the crucifixion, etc.) to political issues and elections. She spends an especially long time telling the story of the Christian Right during the George W. Bush administration and the backlash their support and identification with President Bush caused.

    As fascinating as this book is, there are some problems with it that make it difficult to enjoy. The first is the length of the chapters and the lack of organization within each chapter. At the beginning, the chapters are relatively manageable with subheadings throughout. However, as the book gets closer to the present, the chapters get longer and the subheadings are few and far between. Ms. Fitzgerald's chapter on the George W. Bush years was over 100 pages long and is so detailed that I felt like her editor should have told her to pare it down to the most essential tales. Also, there are a ton of missing the's and a's throughout the book, especially after the first few chapters. In fact, by the end of the book, there is hardly a page that goes by that isn't missing an important the or a. Both of seem to suggest that this book start of well, but after the election of Donald Trump was rushed to publication. This book could have benefited from more time to edit and pare down some of the bloat. One other problem this book has in the beginning is that, before the 197s, Ms. Fitzgerald uses theological terms to note the controversies of the age. For non-christians and even some lay Christians, it may be difficult to figure out what she is talking about. However, there is a glossary in the back and I would recommend people use it.

    As the movement loses its influence on politics and many of its members vote for Donald Trump, the book ends with evangelical Christians in a tough spot. Church attendance and baptism numbers are down and few millennials identify themselves as Christians. Whatsmore, many millennials identify evangelicalism with Republican politics, bigotry and homophobia. As an evangelical myself, this breaks my heart. Perhaps by reading books on our history we can humbly admit our mistakes and rededicate ourselves to living out the teachings of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in our daily lives.

  • Austin
    May 01, 2017

    Finally I made myself take on a book that I didn't expect to enjoy (I am challenging myself to read 5, so had to get into it). And I took it on by the horns, in the topic I find perhaps the most obnoxious and perplexing in alternation: American Evangelicalism. This movement, or philosophy, is here defined by: "An evangelist is one who disseminates the gospels by zealous preaching... Evangelicalism is the religion."

    I don't dislike evangelicals as a whole, because they are people, and I don't disl

    Finally I made myself take on a book that I didn't expect to enjoy (I am challenging myself to read 5, so had to get into it). And I took it on by the horns, in the topic I find perhaps the most obnoxious and perplexing in alternation: American Evangelicalism. This movement, or philosophy, is here defined by: "An evangelist is one who disseminates the gospels by zealous preaching... Evangelicalism is the religion."

    I don't dislike evangelicals as a whole, because they are people, and I don't dislike people as a group. But I do dislike evangelicalism as a world view. What I dislike most about the philosophy is that zealous preaching. So much yelling and certainty. So little room for dissenting thought, pluralism, and all the things I find valuable. I also object to their almost universal idea that America used to be a "good" (read: christian) nation, and now is in decay. There is something wrong with the human brain in general (not just among evangelicals) that makes people believe everything is going to hell in a handbasket, even when we can see we're making real progress. But evangelicals take this to an extreme, and that seems to have lead them to be on the wrong side of basically every issues (see slavery and homophobia).

    Reading into the history, it is easy to see anti-intellectualism in the basic roots of the movement. The origin of evangelicalism was a reaction against the control of religious teaching by the educated, and their upstart versions of Christianity could spread faster without an educated clergy. You can find positivity in fighting against the distinction between gentleman and peasant. But this anti-intellectualism has huge consequences when it's a real bloc but the still can only generate a few crazies who claim to be the "thinkers" of the church. There are only a few authors who try to steer the movement with rational argument, and they are really whacky and out there and don't generate the same sturm and drang of the charismatic leaders, who don't bother with an argument other than they think that's what is in the bible.

    Early on, and for a surprising majority of their history, the evangelicals mostly argued with other christians about things that only matter to christians. They were not the furthest right in plenty of topics, and weren't actively engaged in a lot of the politics we now associate them with. There was a hard turn after billy graham with the modern firebrands such as Falwell that we associate with real hate.

    One comfort to me that I hadn't really ever fully appreciated: they're not really getting what they want. Republicans have given them lip service for decades now but actually have never pushed for their agenda (because their ideas are craaaaazy and unpopular).

    I hadn't realized just how much evangelical leaders despise "secular humanism" (the term comes up over and over as blame-worth for all supposed ills). This makes me proud to be a secular humanist, but they aren't many of us really and we're nothing like a bloc so I'm a bit perplexed at how we have allegedly made so much impact.

    Many specific cases gave me chilling echos. Pat Robertson ran for President under the slogan 'restore the greatness of America through moral strength' - sound familiar? According to FitzGerald, he was also used to 'doing a tv show where nobody challenged what he said... he used to get on his program and make statements and maybe they were true, maybe they weren't, but nobody challenged him.' Perhaps he was ahead of his time...

    One topic that seemed incredibly thin here was the personal wealth accumulation involved. FitzGerald does cover the financial booms and busts of the radio and tv megachurches, but doesn't explore how the garden variety demagogue has or has not lined their own pockets. I have seen enough individual coverage of embezzlement and lavish pastor lifestyles to really want to see this taken on. Was it the exception or the rule? Either way, the personal finances only come up a handful of times in the text.

    The history does remind us that not all white evangelicals are of the Christian right - there are diversity of views. Especially in recent years, it seems like evangelicals are splitting from the decades of single-issue hardline and caring about more diverse topics that shape our country. As a pluralist at heart, this gives me some hope that even the movement I see as having done so much harm could turn to a force for good. But I won't hold my breath.

    FitzGerald also identifies a recent trend that the evangelical leadership seems to have largely lost control over their own consituency. Much of this was on social issues, but then it came right back around to bite the rational world when the leadership roundly rejected trump on moral grounds, but an astonishing number of the 'flock' voted for him anyways. Be careful what you wish for.

    So what did I get out of it? It was a tough read, not because of the writing but because it is to me pretty much a book without any protagonist, there's the ones who hate everything I believe in and think my friends and I are going to hell, and the ones that are more polity but still think we're going to hell. But, despite the slog, I did gain a major appreciation of:

    1) the movement hasn't always been so negative or so political

    2) there are some signs it might take on more positive aspects in the future

    3) they're just people like anyone else, however misguided, and they want a better life for themselves and their family. We just disagree pretty dramatically about what that looks like.

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    52 books in 52 weeks update:

    book number: 16 / 52

    scorecard (see below):

    W: 9/26

    NW: 6/26

    NA: 7/20

    D: 1/5

    F: 6

    NF: 9

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    Notes: I'm trying to read 52 books this year. To make sure I'm getting a broad range, I'm tracking some metrics. Open to more if folks have suggestions. My goal is to read books that are:

    at least half by women

    at least half not by white people

    at least 20 by non-americans

    at least 5 that I don't think I'll like or agree with going in

    I'll also go for about half fiction and half non-fiction

  • Kate
    Jun 10, 2017

    Fascinating.

  • Megan
    Jun 14, 2017

    Apparently Fitzgerald has been working on this book for years, but it happened to be released only months after 81% of evangelicals supported as president a man who shares neither their traditions nor religious values. This book helps explain why a religious tradition with its roots in individual transformation and social reform should blossom, over the course of 200 years, into a political movement with a reputation for a total lack of social concern.

    I was raised in the evangelical tradition, a

    Apparently Fitzgerald has been working on this book for years, but it happened to be released only months after 81% of evangelicals supported as president a man who shares neither their traditions nor religious values. This book helps explain why a religious tradition with its roots in individual transformation and social reform should blossom, over the course of 200 years, into a political movement with a reputation for a total lack of social concern.

    I was raised in the evangelical tradition, and yet so much of the history here (the racist and exclusionary intellectual traditions of Rushdooney, the increasingly hardline and conservative positions on abortion, the origins of televangelism in the Pentecostal traditions) was new to me; and even that which was familiar, such as Dobson's growing political role and the evangelical support for Bush, was cast in a new light, described from someone outside that tradition. Some chapters in Fitzgerald's work, especially the ones detailing the growing cronyism between evangelical leaders such as Falwell and politicians, the posturing of WJ Bryan, and the theocratic underpinnings of Rushdooney's work, made me ashamed to be evangelical. Other chapters, especially the ones on early leaders such as Finney, were fascinating portrayals of much worthier men. Fitzgerald's work is excellent and does a lot to undermine faulty assumptions that believers make about religion in the United States.

    That said, I did have a few concerns with the book. At times Fitzgerald's writing has a whiff of disdain for her subjects; their doctrinal commitments are represented as power plays, for instance. Sometimes this is completely merited, as in the case of Robertson and Falwell. Others, however, are less deserved; John Greshman Machen, for instance, is portrayed as unreasonably fundamentalist, despite the fact that his strong character earned him the respect even of agnostics such as H.L. Mencken.

    While the first half of the book is largely about the development of the churches, seminaries, and speakers, the second half deals mostly with politics. And yes, evangelical church life was to a significant degree absorbed by politics in last twenty years or so, but there were still interesting theological and sociological trends. To these, Fitzgerald gives much shorter shrift. And because I was evangelical and alive during this time, much of the political machinations are familiar to me; it was "old hat".

    And finally, it's worth noting that it's hard to keep track of who's who. Evangelicals tends to be white men with biblical names and they all blur together! This isn't a complaint so much as an observation;

    .

    I know I'm not the only one considering whether I should call myself an

    , or what exactly in church history led us to this particular place in American politics & religion; Fitzgerald's book goes aways towards answering both these questions.

    Highly recommended.

  • Steve Matlak
    May 28, 2017

    Evangelical reviewer here. A riveting overview of the major ideas and figures in Evangelical history from 1740 to present. The author is not an evangelical, but gives a comprehensive and factually accurate description of us, the good and the bad.

    A couple criticisms. First, the latter half of the book focuses almost exclusively on evangelical engagement with politics. This is certainly a part of the story--and the most controversial and interesting, even amongst ourselves. But she mostly missed

    Evangelical reviewer here. A riveting overview of the major ideas and figures in Evangelical history from 1740 to present. The author is not an evangelical, but gives a comprehensive and factually accurate description of us, the good and the bad.

    A couple criticisms. First, the latter half of the book focuses almost exclusively on evangelical engagement with politics. This is certainly a part of the story--and the most controversial and interesting, even amongst ourselves. But she mostly missed describing evangelical engagement with the broader world. We are everywhere on the front lines doing development and relief and missionary work (World Relief, World Vision, Compassion Intl, International Justice Mission, etc.) Most of our focus is trying to improve ourselves and families and making the world a better place. Politics are not much discussed as congregations are too politically diverse.

    Second criticism: the author tends to focus too much on fringe/freak elements of the Charismatic movement, especially the televangelists. These are rejected as loons and thieves by Evangelicals. The author notes they are not Evangelicals, but I guess because they make for interesting reading, she gives them chapters of coverage.

    Overall though, the book is a fantastic and accurate portrayal of our history and nuances. It's a page turner, and I learned a great deal.

  • Jared Wilson
    Jun 21, 2017

    The first half is a really great book, the second half bogs down. This is not so much due to Fitzgerald's writing, however, as it is to the historical narrative shift of evangelicalism as revivalistic and culturally responsive movement to evangelicalism as political reactionary and morally compromised movement. The second half history is largely about the machinations of the Republican Party from 1970's onward, which for a book written about "The Evangelicals," tells you what you ought to know a

    The first half is a really great book, the second half bogs down. This is not so much due to Fitzgerald's writing, however, as it is to the historical narrative shift of evangelicalism as revivalistic and culturally responsive movement to evangelicalism as political reactionary and morally compromised movement. The second half history is largely about the machinations of the Republican Party from 1970's onward, which for a book written about "The Evangelicals," tells you what you ought to know about the tribe.

    Beginning to end, however, the book is meticulously researched and nearly exhaustive in details. Could have used a better editor, however, not simply to pare down the length, but also to catch recurring errors -- eg. 1) repeatedly referring to the premillennialist belief in "The Tribulations," when nearly all spokespeople call it "The Tribulation" singular; 2) constantly re-introducing figures, like referring to Rick Warren as megachurch pastor and bestelling author of The Purpose-Driven Life numerous times within a few pages (You already told us who he was!); and 3) simple textual errors like typos that I'm sure the sheer bulk created more opportunity for. At one point Gregory Boyd is referred to as "Gerald Boyd" within a page of his name being listed correctly. Sloppy.

    All in all, a pretty good book, if you've got the stuff to slog through it. First half is better. Pack 8 lunches to get through the whole thing.

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