Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
by Frances FitzGerald (Simon & Schuster, $35)
The cultural power of American evangelism has often blindsided nonbelievers, said Lily Rothman in Time. In Frances Fitz Gerald’s new book, a work “as zippy as a 752- page history can be,” surprise resurgences become a motif. In the 1790s, the Second Great Awakening startled the Founding Fathers. In the 1930s, fundamentalist churches brushed off defeat in 1925’s Scopes Monkey Trial to build a ready audience for Billy Graham’s postwar crusades. In the 1970s, the emergence of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority stunned pundits who had declared God dead. FitzGerald, the author of a Pulitzer Prize–winning 1972 history of the Vietnam War, clearly doesn’t like the agenda of the modern Christian right, said Terry Eastland in The Wall Street Journal. But in her effort to understand the movement, she has crafted a compelling history that’s “impressive for its level of detail.”
FitzGerald sweeps through decades of history “with a Barbara Tuchman–like grace,” said Douglas Brinkley in The Boston Globe. She begins in the 1740s, when theologians like Jonathan Edwards bucked tradition and took to the fields and streets, delivering emotive sermons that sometimes attracted tens of thousands of listeners. Revivals spread across the land, as the preachers’ focus on each believer’s personal connection to Jesus appealed to listeners’ individualism. No surprise, then, that the nation’s evangelical Protestant sects seldom acted as a united force until the mid-20th century. But led by celebrity clerics like Graham, the movement had begun to coalesce before Falwell established evangelical Christianity as the heartbeat of the Reagan-era Republican Party.
Despite FitzGerald’s mastery of her material, “she makes one astounding error of taxonomy,” said Garry Wills in The New York Review of Books. The Evangelicals focuses almost exclusively on white evangelical Protestantism, a decision she justifies by writing that the history of the African-American church “is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation.” But most black churches are evangelical and have had huge political influence. Still harder to understand is why FitzGerald forgets about evangelism’s past resurgences when she tells us it’s splintering as a movement. She even cites the 81 percent of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump as evidence not of a political resurgence but of believers rejecting the guidance of church leaders.“She may be right,” said Glenn Altschuler in the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, but given history, “it is probably wise to think—and think again—before making predictions about the future of religion and politics in America.”