“EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT?” I thought on the morning after the 2016 presidential election. “Are you freaking kidding me?” How could it be that more than eight out of 10 self-identified “evangelicals” were able to overlook Donald Trump’s explicit misogyny, racism, and anti-immigrant nationalism to support him for president? Something had to be wrong with that figure (from the Pew Research Center). I know these people. I’ve shared pews, classrooms, and friendships with them over the years. Was there something about my evangelical friends that I misunderstood?
Such misunderstandings are to be expected, since the relatively loosely affiliated group of Christians who call themselves “evangelical” have both a theological and political identity, which don’t always match perfectly. It is this distinctly American meeting of the religious and political that Frances FitzGerald ably dissects in her new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.
It is hard to understand the vast evangelical support for Donald Trump without considering the complex ways that evangelical politics were bound to political conservatism over a long and tumultuous history. This partnership artificially and yet enduringly fused evangelical social engagement with support for the Republican Party and sentiments of American exceptionalism. FitzGerald describes how, beginning in the early to mid-20th century, evangelical leaders (e.g., “neo-evangelical” leaders like Harold Ockenga and Billy Graham, or later figures of the Christian Right like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson) held tacit and yet politically conservative convictions that helped them forge friendships and alliances with the nation’s politically conservative elite.
This process culminated in the election of George W. Bush, one of the most sympathetic and dependable presidents the Christian right had ever had. Although Bush’s relationship with the Christian right was initially an uneasy one, over time the two became mutually dependent. By the 2004 election, evangelicals formed the basis of Bush’s base, giving him, FitzGerald says, 78 percent of their vote. By the end of his term(s), however, the evangelical marriage with Bush and the Republican Party was scuttled by the president’s perceived incompetence, exemplified by the failed nomination of the unqualified Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, and (of course) the enduring disaster of the Iraq War. All this, FitzGerald suggests, weakened evangelicals’ commitment to the Republican Party, perhaps splintering the evangelical vote. Perhaps.
This splintering, FitzGerald notes, resulted in the unprecedented unpredictability of evangelical politics in recent years. On one hand, for the first time in three decades an evangelical left-center garnered support. Historical evangelical progressives like Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo were joined by more traditional evangelicals like megachurch pastors Rick Warren and Greg Boyd. Other “new evangelicals” forged a politics in support of social, racial, and environmental justice.
On the other hand, however, an alliance between Christian conservatives with more secular Republican libertarians emerged, resulting in the Tea Party — or the “teavangelical” movement, if you will. FitzGerald contends that this fusion was not really an equal alliance: Tea Party principles reigned, and conservative evangelicals became more bound to the libertarian ideologies of small government fiscal conservativism than ever before. In contemporary rightist evangelical politics, the spiritual does not just become political, it often gives way to crass, bombastic, and even racial and misogynist sentiment and rhetoric. So while the evangelical left is stronger today than in the past, the “teavangelicals” still dominate the public perception of, as well as (remember that 81 percent) the political impact of the evangelicals as a whole.
How did evangelical politics get here? In one sense, it was a 20th-century history, but FitzGerald also exposes its roots at the core of evangelicalism. From the Great Awakenings of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Charles Finney, evangelicalism was spirituality suited to the American frontier, and especially to the rural South. By focusing on the salvation of souls, the liberty of individual conscience, and the need for repentance in light of God’s imminent judgment, evangelicalism fashioned a theological identity for white settlers.
While it is true that some revivalism sought social transformation — consider, for instance, the abolition and social reform movements that emerged from Charles Finney’s revivals — FitzGerald suggests that it quickly gave rise to a fundamentalism rooted in a simple theological truth: human beings have turned away from God and must repent in order to be spared from judgment. And so the United States itself — especially its sinful cities — was a lapsed Christian nation in need of redemption. This formulation, in FitzGerald’s view, is a central feature of conservative, rural evangelical politics in the United States.
There is a difference, of course, between fundamentalism and other forms of evangelicalism that sought more positive relationships with modern culture. The “neo-evangelical” movement, broadly represented by figures like Billy Graham, and institutions like the Fuller Theological Seminary (where I am a PhD candidate) and Christianity Today, encouraged a more dialogical intellectual engagement with non-believers. As historians have noted, it is this form of evangelicalism that gained widespread acceptance among the American public. Graham, for instance, had the respect and ears of prominent business figures, as well as presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan, playing the role of “America’s pastor.” This less-confrontational version of evangelicalism is not only distinct from fundamentalism, but it also seeks status as an independent intellectual and political tradition.
Yet FitzGerald shows that these “neo-evangelicals” were still a force for conservatism in the political arena, especially in the wake of the social upheavals of the 1960s. She shows, for instance, that although Graham maintained relationships with Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., he was also hesitant to publically support them, fearing that he might upset conservative southerners. Graham also supported the Vietnam War, largely over concern about the “apocalyptic” threat of communism. FitzGerald could have added that worry over labor unrest in the early 20th century, and disdain for Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, landed evangelicals on the right of the political divide in the decades preceding Graham. Graham, if anything, inherited this tradition, and benefited from the support of various Christian capitalists who saw his ministry as a safeguard against leftist reform.
Although Billy Graham might seem like the polar opposite of Donald Trump in terms of character and theological vision, there may be a conceptual likeness between the call for a return to a more faithful Christian America and “Make America Great Again.” Could the revivalist emphasis on the liberty of the individual conscience underpin, or resonate with, the unwavering emphasis on personal responsibility and contempt for social programs expressed by the Tea Party? And could the modern rightist resistance to intellectual “elitism” draw on latent anxieties about the threat of “atheistic” modern science? Could 81 percent of evangelicals have ignored the misogyny and anti-immigrant nationalism of the Trump campaign because the man capitalized, crassly, on their deeply embedded longing for a return to a prior state of American goodness, surety, or even holiness? FitzGerald implies that this is the case.
In FitzGerald’s analysis, evangelical spirituality, which emerged from the revivalism of the 19th and 20th centuries, is bound to a conservative political belief that the United States was and remains “God’s country.” Indeed, the lesson of this book is that, in the context of American political discourse, “evangelical” is nearly impossible to extricate from histories of political conservativism and even jingoism. Trump may not be an aberration as much as a cartoonish expression of this trend.
Evangelicals — particularly white evangelicals — have rarely seen themselves as implicated in the moral failures of the United States; notably, they often have been the ones who benefit from them (e.g., racial segregation). Evangelical, then, is not only a theological marker; it is also a political, social, and even, perhaps, racial one. In this sense, evangelicalism has a lot of work to do not in terms of healing of the United States’s moral failures, but in confronting and acknowledging its own. Their goal and ours should not be to “make America great again,” but to take stock of the ways that America has yet to be great, especially for those on its periphery. FitzGerald does not raise these broader questions about the future of evangelicalism and our democratic process, but her text does provide a useful ground for considering them. Lord willing, all is not lost.