The Origin Story of the Evangelical Mindset: A Conversation with Frances FitzGerald

Photo: Mark McFadden via flickr courtesy Creative Commons

For anyone who thought they could safely ignore the role of white evangelicals in American politics, Trump’s victory offered an ice-bucket of a wake-up call.  Frances FitzGerald’s newest book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, is this renowned journalist’s tour of the history of the movement from the 18th century to the present.

RD’s Eric C. Miller spoke with FitzGerald about her the past and future of evangelicalism as a religious and political force in American life.


Eric C. Miller: Let’s start with some basics. What is evangelicalism, who are the evangelicals, and why commit yourself to documenting their entire history in the United States?

Frances FitzGerald: Evangelicals are a product of the two Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries that turned virtually all American Protestants into evangelicals—people who believe in a high view of the Bible, salvation coming from Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the need to be born again in Christ. They also believed in spreading the good news of the gospel.

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
Frances FitzGerald
Simon and Schuster
April 4, 2017

I began doing journalism on fundamentalists and evangelicals some time ago—in fact, somewhat by accident. I ran into Jerry Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1979 and was fascinated by what I found. I’m a New Yorker and a born Episcopalian, and I had never met a fundamentalist before. The community seemed very exotic to me, from the way people dressed to the way it organized its social life. And it turned out that Jerry Falwell was, at that point, organizing the Moral Majority and planning to fight the 1980 election.

I did a piece for The New Yorker then, and [since then] I’ve done pieces on evangelicals, particularly in the last years of the second Bush administration. That naturally led to a book. It is really impossible to understand evangelicals—particularly the Christian Right and fundamentalists—without understanding their history. This was my effort to do that.

Is it fair to say that early evangelicalism was mostly defined by denominational infighting, but that it has become increasingly public and political over time?

No, I would say that during the Great Awakenings, denominations didn’t play much of a part. It’s true that they were led by Methodists and Baptists, who were essentially rebelling against the established churches. In the late 19th century, when the liberals and conservatives began to divide, there was a series of intra-denominational conflicts, but these were not political but religious.

Christianity has a long tradition, with a wide array of themes that range from the inclusive, compassionate, and forgiving to the exclusive, condemning, and punitive. The Social Gospel, for instance, represented the leftward side of the scale. But evangelicals have always preferred to emphasize the harsher elements on the right. Why?

Until the fight between the fundamentalists and the modernists, this wasn’t true. The Social Gospel began before that, and some of the conservatives certainly believed in it. But right around the time of World War I, the tears that already existed in the fabric—at least in the north—began to open as the war created a climate of anxiety and heightened national consciousness.

At that point, the fundamentalist groups battled the liberals in their denominations over religious doctrines. At the same time, they rejected the Social Gospel and continued to believe that society could not be improved except by the conversion of one individual after another. And that continues to be the issue between the Christian Right and the more progressive evangelicals. 

Randall Balmer has famously argued that the early Christian Right was far more committed to defending segregation than to fighting abortion. You seem to agree. Could you say a bit about the significance of southern culture to modern evangelicalism?

There was a major split in evangelicalism before the Civil War, between abolitionists—who were all northerners, of course—and southern evangelicals who had come to support slavery. So this was nothing new, but it was also true that the South remained rather isolated intellectually for a long period of time—really, until the 20th century. It was in the North that new liberal and conservative ideas were taking hold, whereas the South, evangelical and not, remained traditionalist and for the status quo.

Later, in the 1960s and ’70s, there was an upsurge of fundamentalism in the South in reaction to the industrialization and urbanization that brought new ideas. The Christian Right that began with Falwell in 1980 was mostly southern, and though the pastors did not openly endorse segregation, they refused to integrate their church schools until the IRS forced them to.

According to those who helped create the Christian Right, it was the IRS that determined they would go into politics. However, their rebellion was also about the social upsets of the ‘60s from feminism to gay rights, and conservative northern evangelicals also objected to these things.

Do you think the election of George W. Bush marked the culmination of evangelical political influence?

Yes I do. I think that, had he not been born again, they probably would have had much less interest in him. Their large organizations, such as the Christian Coalition, had begun to disintegrate toward the end of the Clinton administration, in part because of their inability to get rid of this very popular president, and partly because the generational change had already started.

When Falwell began to make his speeches and jeremiads in the 1970s, it was quite directly a response to the ‘60s—meaning against feminism, gay rights, student protests against the Vietnam War, and indeed, the Civil Rights Movement. But this wore off with evangelicals, and the one issue that became paramount for evangelicals was abortion.

This was odd because Protestants and evangelicals had always favored what they called “therapeutic abortions,” which were acceptable in cases of incest or rape or harm to the mother. They interpreted “harm to the mother” to be psychological as well as physical. This left a lot of room for abortions because the mother simply had  to say that having a baby would be driving her into poverty or just wasn’t the plan for her family and that would be okay.

But there was a major turnaround in this evangelical view. Before that, evangelicals saw abortion as a Catholic issue, and it took quite a while—into the mid-80s—for the Christian Right to convince them that abortion was murder. Because they were also convinced that abortion played a part in the destruction of the traditional, patriarchal family, they became more Catholic than the Catholics on this issue. 

In the last election, 81 percent of white evangelical voters went for Donald Trump, which indicates a high degree of unity. But you suggest that this figure obscures some fundamental splintering. How so?

A change is taking place in evangelicalism, and the change is generational.

The young tend to be much more social justice-minded than their elders. They care about abortion, but they don’t care about gay marriage or a lot of the other national sins that Jerry Falwell mentioned. They tend to be more tolerant, more outgoing, more receptive to the ideas of their own peers. But the young don’t vote as much as their elders.

At the same time, immigration has changed the character of many churches, including the Catholic Church, which I think is now about one-third Latino. It has also changed the character of evangelicalism, because Latino evangelicals are essentially socially conservative people who vote Democratic because of economics and because of the refusal of Republicans to create a fairer immigration system. But there too, Latinos don’t vote as consistently as white evangelicals do. I think the change is hiding in the wings, but will come forth gradually.

You could also say that evangelicals respond to economic and national security issues as much as anything else—at least lay evangelicals do. Many of them had joined the Tea Party. The vote for Donald Trump was therefore in part an economic one, and evangelicals voted for him the same way that others did who simply wanted to restrict immigration and have their jobs back.