The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
By Frances Fitzgerald
Simon & Schuster, 2017, 740 pages
Several weeks ago I saw some reviews of this weighty tome and I finally ended up borrowing a copy from the library, even though I hesitated because of its length. However, because of the interesting subject material, especially the first half of the book, I breezed through it pretty quickly.
Unbeliever Fitzgerald examines the history of evangelical Protestantism, from the First Great Awakening in the 1730s to 2016. It’s fascinating stuff for history buffs. She begins with the revivals in Colonial America spearheaded by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, followed by the Second Great Awakening, which included Arminian revivalist, Charles Finney, and then proceeds to frontier revivalism, the polarization of the church over slavery, the rise of higher textual criticism and the social gospel, the splintering away of biblical fundamentalists, the rise of Billy Graham and the New Evangelicals, and the move into political activism and ecumenism.
The first 260 pages take the reader up to the 1960s. The remainder of the text, about 360 pages, deals with the rise of Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson and the intricate details of the Christian Right’s misguided efforts to mix nationalism with the Gospel and “reclaim America for Jesus.”
The heavy over-emphasis on the last fifty years of evangelical history is a drawback. I wasn’t altogether enthusiastic about the minutiae regarding the support for this and that congressional bill and for this and that presidential candidate, although I did enjoy learning more about the inspirations behind the political Christian Right, R.J. Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer. The author is at her best describing the broad sweeps of pre-1970s evangelicalism. Fitzgerald is not a believer and is often not complimentary of the Christians she writes about or their beliefs. I dismiss the scoffing for what it is but I wholeheartedly agree with her that Christians in America have not always done a good job of sticking to the Gospel and witnessing for Christ.