Review and Response to “The Evangelicals” by Frances Fitzgerald, part 2

Last week I wrote part 1 of my review for this book and you can read it here.

Today I pick up with a new section starting in 1900. The author starts to make the shift to the underlying conflict that will plague the Evangelical movement going forward – the conflict between fundamentalist and modernist ways of seeing the world. Fundamentalism will have a significant impact on evangelicalism. While the two are closely related and often appear indistinguishable to the untrained eye, there are key differences. Having said that, it can not be denied that fundamentalism has left its mark on evangelicalism.

As a really quick history, fundamentalism arose in response to a more liberal theology that was taking hold of most major seminaries and divinity schools in the US (pg. 95). Much of this conflict is centered on the idea of biblical infallibility – the inability of Scripture to be wrong and that it should be interpreted literally. The Scopes trial would come about during this period.

If you want a summation of what the rise of fundamentalism means, along with it’s views of biblical inerrancy, here’s what Fitzgerald writes, “In a movement that depended on absolute certainty about biblical dates and the identity of such figures as Gog and Magog, there could be no compromise and, as the Byzantine disputes of old, the quarrel turned ugly.” (pg. 99)

And ugly it would remain to the very present. This would be the time in which the Rapture theology would gain popularity with its wrath and destruction of the earth. This would be the foundation for seeking easy, certain answers to questions while ignoring the complexities of the world and people. This would be the time that a strand of Christianity would turn against science.

It was during this period that the ugliness extended beyond theology. “Zeal for war and zeal for the Gospel, [Billy Sunday] preached, were much the same thing. ‘Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms,’ he declared, ‘and hell and traitors are synonymous.'” (pg. 106). This is the rise of Christian Nationalism.

So much of the orientation of fundamentalism was not towards a hope-filled future, but in returning to an idealized past. It’s core belief being that the best days are in the past, so let’s try to restore them. “We” were in control then. This is the same conflict that has a grip on the Christianity in America today – a conflict that has been raging for over a century.

“Fundamentalist ministers were, after all, men of strong egos. Those who had built up their own churches or Bible schools were rulers of their own fiefdoms, and, as believers in absolute standards of right and wrong, they tended to be authoritarian of temperament.” (pg. 116). This is no different today. It comes down to control – who has it, and who wields it, and how it is used.

Control comes through in other ways that still carry on today – like in education. “Along with [William Jennings] Bryan’s populism came a distrust of experts and bureaucrats, and the view that democrat meant popular sovereignty and the absolute right of the majority to rule. Teachers, he told the West Virginia legislature, have the liberty to say what they please as individuals, but ‘they have no right to demand pay for teaching that which parents and the taxpayers do not want taught. The hand that writes the paycheck runs the school.” (pg. 127). Sound like a familiar argument in 2021 around how history is taught? This is not a new argument. It’s just another chapter in century long battle that fundamentalism has been waging against modern society for control.

While so many think that what we have is a conflict of left versus right in America, it really would be more accurate to say that the fundamentalist-modernist conflict is ongoing. It permeates so many of the conflicts that happen in our society. So much of the remainder of the book is about control – who has it? Control of churches. And gaining political power and influence in order to exert control over others through policy to implement a worldview.

When the focus is on fundamentalist right/wrong ways of thinking, ideological and doctrinal purity are the main foci. This is why we see so many break offs happen – fights over who is right. And when there is no room for compromise, people take their ball and go home, starting something new. But here’s the thing – the more purer you want to get, then you have to be comfortable with the reality that you will have a small number of pure adherents. This is still the case today. Fundamentalism has no tolerance for ecumenical relationships because when the focus is on being right without compromise, how can you be in the same room with people that you see as being wrong. When being right is most important, it makes relationships difficult. It makes working together difficult.

As the book continues, the author moves the reader to the mid-point in the century, after WWII. It is during this time that there is a huge surge in worship attendance. People were impacted by the World War and faith is often a comfort in times of distress. This the time in which people like Billy Graham comes on the scene. His story is interesting and Fitzgerald gives a lengthy portion to Graham and his impact on evangelicalism.

Along with this Fitzgerald goes to great lengths to talk about the meshing of faith messages with patriotism. Eisenhower was big on doing this. “In his speeches Eisenhower used religious rhetoric more than most other presidents and repeatedly called for a spiritual revival. he institutionalized national prayer breakfasts, and during his presidency the Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and had “In God we Trust” engraved on the currency and adopted as the national motto over “E Pluribus Unum.'” (Pg. 184-5). “Religion and patriotism thus became inextricably linked.” (Pg. 185).

Remember, this was the time in which the Cold War was getting started. It was in the national interest to rally the country and have something to unite under. This was the advent of civil religion. It was a way of going to an ancient idea in many respects – a nation and their god were intimately linked. For the US, that god was God. And for the Russians, it was Communism. Faith and politics were meshed together for the epic battle and clash of civilizations.

During this period, evangelicalism also had another conflict going on – economics. There was a view that was catching on: “[J. Howard] Pew was an ardent political conservative who believed the Scriptures endorsed his own version of laissez-faire capitalism and thought the church shouldn’t concern itself with social reform.” (Pg. 188). The key question was exactly that – is faith merely a private matter that has no say in public affairs, or is faith about having an impact on society?

Fitzgerald also gives significant attention to evangelicalism in different parts of the country – particularly different ways in which race is viewed in relation to faith. Race relations, desegregation, civil rights – all of these things had an impact. Or rather, the evangelical view on these varied. This shouldn’t be surprising given the preference for individualism in faith.

This was also the time of anti-war protests and many evangelical preachers “expressed horror at the antiwar protests.” (pg. 246). Combine this with the focus on law and order what you see is “Evangelicals…had a particular respect for authority and a particular fear of disorder.” (pg. 247). “For over a century white southerners had looked to government as the guarantor of white rule, preferring order to democracy, and living in constant anxiety about a black rebellion.” (pg. 247).

As I look back through my notes in the book, there is one word that I wrote more often in the margins than any other. It’s the summation of what evangelicalism became – Control. And here’s one of the best examples of how that was applied: “For Thomas Road people (Jerry Falwell’s church), education – in the broad sense of the word – was not a moral or intellectual quest that involved struggle or uncertainty. It was simply the process of learning the right answers. The idea that individuals should collect evidence and decide for themselves was out of the question.” (Pg. 282). And that right there is the reason why I’ll never be an evangelical.

It was during the rise of Jerry Falwell that there is shift that takes place in evangelicalism – a shift to direct political engagement. As a result of this, evangelicals turned to more controlling methods. Throughout this section, the author uses words like “theological war” (pg. 340), a focus on Old Testament law (pg. 343), “victory” and “Ministry of conquest” (pg. 344), “Supplying the ammo” and “the knife at the throat of monopolistic humanistic schools” (pg. 345). Ideology was taking the place of theology in many cases with political victory becoming more important than anything else.

There were some Evangelicals who were concerned about this shift. Frank Schaeffer wrote: “We should not wrap Christianity in our national flag.” (Pg. 358). Although he would also write “that the Constitution was not a secular document,” (Pg. 358). Kind of hard to have it both ways don’t you think Mr. Schaeffer?

As the book continues towards our current time, Fitzgerald lays out the history of the Evangelical influence and exertion of power over the Republican Party. Here’s a summary sentence, thus sparing you the details: “Kevin Phillips, the former Republican strategist who had once triumphantly announced the emergence of a Republican majority with its base in the South, titled his new book American Theocracy, writing that ‘the substantial portion of Christian America committed to theories of Armageddon and the inerrancy of the Bible has already made the GOP into America’s first religious party’ and is creating ‘a gathering threat to America’s future.'” (pg. 535).

There are a few bright spots though in Evangelicalism – the Rev. Gregory Boyd being one of them. In 2005 he published his book The Myth of a Christian Nation, in which he argues that “to identity the Kingdom of God with that of any version of the kingdom of the world is, he wrote, to engage in idolatry. The myth of a Christian nation, he continued, has led to the misconception that the American civil religion is the real Christianity.” (Pg. 540). Truer words have not been written more powerfully.

Fitzgerald goes on to finish the book in 2016, showing how Evangelicalism cemented its hold on the Republican Party, was very much opposed to science, and more concerned with winning elections in order to advance it’s preferred policy preferences, than anything else.

The book is powerful. Not because it left me hopeful. But rather because it is important to understand the history of a movement that still has a great deal of influence on society. And even though the sheer number of self-identified Evangelicals is diminishing, the impact and influence they have had on the nation will have long lasting impacts.

There are many other portions of this book that I didn’t highlight in this review mostly due to space that are well worth looking into. There was the rise of Evangelicals who come from a more progressive approach. There’s discussion the link to the Confederacy. There’s the ties to capitalism and individualism. There’s personalities that have had great influence. And so much more.

I highly recommend this book. But again, be warned – it’s a big book at over 600 pages. It will take you some time to get through. And there will be times when you just need to put it down because it will feel crushing to you, often reading sections saying to yourself some variation of “you’ve got to be kidding!”

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