With God on Their Side: How Evangelicals Entered American Politics

By Alan Wolfe | 28 March 2017
New York Times Book Review

Billy Graham preaching at Madison Square Garden, 1957. (Photo: Cornell Capa / International Center of Photograph)

The Struggle to Shape America
By Frances FitzGerald
Illustrated. 740 pp. Simon & Schuster. $35.

When Jimmy Carter described himself as “born again” in his 1976 run for president, most academics and journalists had a vague idea of what he meant, but few experts on religion could be found within their precincts. Back in those days presidential candidates kept their faith to themselves unless, like John F. Kennedy or George Romney, they were adherents to a religion historically disdained by the Protestant majority. Here’s a quiz: What is the faith of Carter’s running mate, Walter Mondale? (It is not Lutheranism, the dominant religion of his home state of Minnesota.) If Mondale were running today, you would know.

In the same year in which Carter ran for president, Jerry Falwell, then emerging as a leader of the religious right, claimed that the notion that religion and politics should be kept apart “was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country.” The Devil having been last seen on American shores conversing with Daniel Webster in Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1937 short story, Falwell was actually suggesting that modern American politics would be taking a radically new direction. He was correct: We now expect confessional declarations from our candidates, even if, as in Donald J. Trump’s case, they lack any shred of spiritual sensibility.

Frances FitzGerald’s “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America” is a 700-page historical overview of the conservative Protestantism that has become so omnipresent in our public life, including its offshoots in fundamentalism and Pentecostalism. It is, simply put, a page turner: FitzGerald is a great writer capable of keeping a sprawling narrative on point, even as it descends into discussions of Keswickian holiness, pretribunalist rapture and theonomic governance. (Don’t ask.) Anyone curious about the state of conservative American Protestantism will have a trusted guide in this Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize winner who has previously written about Vietnam, Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative and American textbook controversies. In addition, FitzGerald clearly took her time; she reports on a visit to an important religious site as early as September 1987. We have long needed a fair-minded overview of this vitally important religious sensibility, and FitzGerald has now provided it.

One major question dominates FitzGerald’s treatment, and it is suggested by her subtitle. Why should the faithful try to shape America at all? To a strong believer, God’s kingdom is the one that matters, and it is not of this world; America, from such a perspective, is just a tiny speck in a vast world unknowable to us. Get right with the Lord, not the Republican Party.

As if to demonstrate such a sentiment, separation from, not engagement with, the world around us was the major tendency in conservative American Protestantism during the first half of the 20th century. Baptists were strict adherents to the separation of church and state. Religious entrepreneurs like William B. Riley in the North and J. Frank Norris in the South concentrated on building fundamentalist fiefs rather than political movements. Another important separationist, according to FitzGerald, was J. Gresham Machen, expelled from the Presbyterian general assembly for his strict and sectarian screeds against both theological liberalism and spreading fundamentalism. Separationism, FitzGerald writes, “inspired conspiracy theories of the vilest sort, but it also fostered group solidarity and attracted Bible-believing Protestants alienated in the strange new world of global depression and global war.” Whatever you think of the separationists and their ideas, shaping America was not high on their list of priorities.

The same cannot be said of Billy Graham. “His lasting achievement,” FitzGerald says, “was to bring the great variety of conservative white Protestants, North and South, into his capacious revival tent under the name ‘evangelicals.’ ” Graham gave evangelicalism a more subdued tone, one not reflected in the harsher rhetoric of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Yet the difference between them was not over whether to shape America but how. The more explicitly right-wing fundamentalists thundered. Graham and his like-minded evangelicals taught. Robertson entered politics by running for president. Graham was more effective by gaining the attention of elected presidents, including Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But both Robertson and Graham shared a desire to reject separationism in favor of engagement.

 President Richard Nixon and the evangelist Billy Graham, 1970. (Photo: Bettmann / Corbis)
Billy Graham and Richard Nixon, Knoxville, Tenn., May 1970. (Photo: Bettmann / Corbis)

The merger between the Republican Party and the evangelical movement did not result in separationism’s total abolition. FitzGerald includes a fascinating chapter on conservative Christian intellectuals. One of them, R.J. Rushdoony, developed a complicated theological system he called Christian Reconstructionism; he taught that “with God on their side, Christians had no need for majoritarian politics, or for compromise and accommodation to reach their goal,” as FitzGerald puts it. The other prominent thinker within the movement was Francis Schaeffer, a prolific author and filmmaker who, again as FitzGerald characterizes his ideas, argued that “Christians had a duty to resist a government that acted against God’s law.” (One of Schaeffer’s funders was the father-in-law of our secretary of education, Betsy DeVos.) Schaeffer’s legacy lives on among those, like the former congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who believe that this country was founded by religious Christians.

Amazingly enough, “The Evangelicals,” for all its length, is not comprehensive. There is no discussion of church music here, even as the evangelicals led a move away from the organ to Christian rock and white gospel. Missing as well are Christian bookstores and the self-help therapies and guides to sexuality they can barely keep in stock. African-Americans are not included in FitzGerald’s story either, and while she justifies her choice on the grounds that their religious histories and traditions are different from those of whites in matters of worship style and, to a lesser degree, theology, they stem from very similar roots. (Pentecostalism, for example, began with blacks and whites worshiping together before splitting along racial lines.)

Although FitzGerald ends with Donald Trump’s presidential victory, her book helps us understand why separationism has become an all-but-forgotten aspect of the conservative Protestant religious experience. Despite Trump’s quite secular lifestyle and attitudes, evangelicals, more concerned with the Supreme Court than a Supreme Being, voted overwhelmingly for him, and he returned the favor by offering to “destroy” the Johnson amendment, which seeks to prevent the clergy from endorsing candidates by revoking their tax exemptions if they do. With Trump in power, an alliance between conservative Christians and conservative politicians seems as strong as it will ever be.

One should not, however, ignore the irony. Because they work so ceaselessly to shape America, it is fair to say that conservative Christian political activists, at least from the standpoint of the separationists, are doing the Devil’s work far more than the American Civil Liberties Union. The overweening pride, lust for power and idolatry of worshiping the state that characterizes so many of today’s conservative evangelicals will at some point probably doom them, but only when the criticism comes from within their own ranks. FitzGerald touches on this at the end of her book when she discusses the work of people like Russell Moore, who in 2013 replaced the culture warrior Richard Land as the president of the Ethics and Religious Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and worked to bring the S.B.C. back to its original religious roots. At the time of this writing, Moore seemed in danger of losing his job for aggressively opposing Trump. Watch to see if he does, and you get a glimpse of the future direction the evangelicals will take.

Alan Wolfe recently retired as director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

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  1. Anyone helping to wake people up to the insanity of fundamentalist evangelical christianity – or any abrahamic- is a hero. Thanks for this.


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