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.
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SOURCE: The New York Times