The Evangelicals NPR coverage of The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances Fitzgerald. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo The Evangelicals

The Evangelicals

The Struggle to Shape America

by Frances Fitzgerald

Hardcover, 740 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $35 |


Buy Featured Book

The Evangelicals
The Struggle to Shape America
Frances Fitzgerald

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

NPR Summary

A history of the Evangelical movement in America traces the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries that rendered evangelism a dominant religious force, describing the rise and fall of denominations and how they influenced American agendas.

Read an excerpt of this book

NPR stories about The Evangelicals

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Evangelicals

The Evangelicals



WHEN JIMMY CARTER, a liberal Southern Baptist, ran for president in 1976, the pollster George Gallup estimated that fifty million Americans were "born-again" Christians, and Newsweek magazine ran a cover story, "Born Again! The Evangelicals," explaining who these millions of people were.1

Four years later the Christian right emerged in force, declaring holy war against "secular humanism" and vowing to mobilize evangelicals to arrest the moral decay of the country. Jerry Falwell, a fundamentalist pastor, Pat Robertson, a televangelist, and conservative Southern Baptists led the charge against the gay rights movement, abortion, and the banning of school prayer. At an enormous rally in Dallas Ronald Reagan became their standard-bearer, and won the presidential election with the help of evangelical votes.

The sudden appearance of the Christian right shocked most political observers. Who were these people, and where did the crusade against "secular humanism" come from? Journalists wrote furiously about these questions until the mid-1980s, when the movement seemed to die away. The Christian right was forgotten for several years, as were evangelicals generally, until the telescandals of Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Then evangelicals were forgotten again. The pattern continued. As the veteran journalist Joe Conason wrote, the political coverage of evangelicals was "a cycle of neglect followed by sensationalism and then more neglect." Rick Warren, the best-known of evangelical preachers, told journalists in 2005, "It's a funny thing to me that every five years American journalism reintroduces evangelicals to America. It's like starting with Carter—you know there's a headline, 'Who are Evangelicals?' Well, it's not like they're a fringe group."2

Even the well informed tend to have very short attention spans when it comes to evangelicals. Many equate evangelicals with fundamentalists or the Christian right when only a minority belong to either group. Others dismiss them as a marginal group doomed to extinction with the process of modernization. In fact evangelicals compose nearly a quarter of the population. They are also the most American of religious groups, and during the nineteenth century they exerted a dominant influence on American culture, morals, and politics. By the mid-twentieth century the United States was becoming a more secular nation, but since 1980 many evangelicals, led by the Christian right, have struggled to reverse the trend, and while they have not entirely succeeded, they have reintroduced religion into public discourse, polarized the nation, and profoundly changed American politics.

The category "evangelical" is, of course, not a political but a religious one. The word "evangelical" comes from the Greek "evangel," meaning the "good news," or "the Gospel." While the word could be claimed by all Christians, evangelical became the common name for the revivals that swept the English-speaking world in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In America the series of revivals, known as the First and the Second Great Awakenings, with their emphasis on simple Bible preaching and immediate conversion, touched virtually all Protestant denominations. For most of the nineteenth century almost all Protestants would have called themselves evangelicals in the sense that they believed they had been born again in Christ and had a duty to evangelize, or spread the good news of the Gospels in America and abroad.

Today white evangelicals are a very diverse group that includes, among others, Southern Baptists, Mennonites, Holiness groups, Pentecostals, Dutch Reformed groups, and a number who belong to nondenominational churches. Many have little in common except for the essentials of their faith. As the religious historian George Marsden writes, "Evangelicalism today includes any Christians traditional enough to affirm the basic beliefs of the old nineteenth-century evangelical consensus: the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of the Bible, the real historical character of God's saving work recorded in Scripture, salvation to eternal life based on the redemptive work of Christ, the importance of evangelism and missions, and the importance of a spiritually transformed life."3

This book is not a taxonomy or attempt to describe the entirety of evangelical life, but rather a history of the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents that have emerged in recent years. It purposely omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation, but also of the creation of centers for self-help and community in a hostile world. Some African American denominations identify as evangelical, but because of their history, their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals. Only long after the success of the civil rights movement did some black churchmen begin to enter the story of the white evangelicals and their internal conflicts. What is important to stress is that the white evangelical world has always been changing, though it has retained many of the characteristics acquired during its history. In any case, no movement, including the Christian right, has ever been static or completely coherent. Evangelicals have had some influential leaders, but in essence their world is decentralized and difficult to lead, much less to control.

The book begins with the two Great Awakenings, the first in the late eighteenth century with the end of Puritan society, and the second in the decades after the American Revolution. The first, led by Jonathan Edwards and the English revivalist George Whitefield, helped make a nation out of the disparate colonies by crossing the colonial boundaries and spreading the evangelical faith from north to south. The separation of church and state in the Constitution, though only a federal law, permitted evangelical denominations, such as the Methodists and the Baptists, to evangelize freely in spite of the established churches in states such as Connecticut and Virginia. It created a marketplace of religion, giving all denominations and sects an incentive to increase their flocks, and beginning a process that made America the most religious country in the developed world. The Second Great Awakening, which began a decade or more afterward, was in essence a revolt against the Calvinist establishment that led to the disestablishment of the last state-subsidized churches, and made the United States a more egalitarian society.

Many of the revivalists of the Second Awakening were lay preachers, who, working on the frontiers, created a populist religion focused on conversions that introduced an anti-intellectual strain into evangelicalism. The more established preachers began reform movements in areas such as education, health, temperance, and criminal justice. In the North some, such as Charles Finney, were abolitionists, whose campaigns against slavery led indirectly to the first feminist movement.

The Second Great Awakening inaugurated a period of evangelical hegemony, or what the religious historian Martin Marty calls the Evangelical Empire. For most of the nineteenth century, in spite of increasing Catholic immigration, evangelical Protestants dominated all cultural institutions, including the public schools and the universities. In this period there was no real distinction between religion and politics. Still, it was not the Golden Age the Christian right looks back to with nostalgia. For one thing, a series of divisions rent Protestant society. In the first part of the century northern and southern evangelicals parted company over slavery. The southern defense of slavery extinguished the reformist zeal, affected evangelical theology, and made the South a closed society. Meanwhile many new intellectual currents flowed through the North. After the Civil War, Darwinian evolution and other aspects of modernist thought, such as German biblical criticism and a new epistemology, divided northern evangelicals between liberals, who embraced modernist thought, and conservatives, who rejected it. At the same time industrialization and urbanization elicited different reactions from the two: the modernists sought structural reform to help labor in its conflict with capital while the traditionalists continued to believe that the conversion of individuals and prayer would heal the rift between the two. Evangelicals today debate these issues, but many of those Protestants who identify with modernist thought and social reform no longer call themselves evangelicals.

Toward the end of the century conservative ministers associated with the great evangelist Dwight Moody formed Bible societies to defend the traditional religion against what they saw as the apostasy of the modernists. Taking from the Princeton seminary the idea that every word of the Bible was "inerrant," or absolutely and literally true, and from John Nelson Darby, the English sectarian, the prophecy that civilization was in an inevitable decline and was heading toward the great battle of Armageddon in which Christ would return to restore His kingdom in Jerusalem, they fashioned an essentially new religious amalgam that eventually became known as fundamentalism.

The fundamentalist-modernist conflict that erupted after World War I took place among the Baptists and Presbyterians but affected all Protestant denominations and profoundly marked the fundamentalists, who lost and had to leave their denominations. After the Scopes trial in which the great lawyer Clarence Darrow defeated William Jennings Bryan in a rhetorical battle over evolution, most informed people thought fundamentalism dead. To the contrary, it grew mightily in the North, through the work of separatist pastors, radio preachers, and tent revivalists, who preached to rural Americans and to those who migrated to the fast-industrializing cities in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s.

After World War II, when Americans poured into churches and synagogues, Billy Graham, then a fundamentalist, attracted enormous crowds to his revivals. In the 1950s he became a celebrity, well known in Washington, and a confidant of important men such as the oil baron Sid Richardson and Richard Nixon. His preaching evolved, and in the hope of bringing all Protestants into his big tent, he broke with the fundamentalists, and called himself an "evangelical." The term, which had gone out of use, he and fellow moderates defined as a conservative Protestant who had been "born again." For many years not all conservative Protestants used it, but eventually the term stuck in part because pollsters, journalists, and academics used it in order to describe the confusing set of conservative denominations and independent churches. Fundamentalists then became a subset of evangelicals, and most of them were separatists who had left their denominations.

Graham and his mentor, Harold Ockenga, the Presbyterian pastor of the Park Street Church in Boston, knew the importance of creating institutions. Ockenga, who had helped found the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, formed the National Association of Evangelicals to gather conservative Protestants and create an alternative to the liberal National Council of Churches. Graham started a magazine, Christianity Today, as a rival to the liberal Christian Century. Both flourished, but soon developments within other sectors of conservative Protestantism changed the balance of power in the evangelical world. One was the explosive growth of Pentecostalism, and the spread of Pentecostal beliefs to the liberal Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church. The second was the integration of white southern evangelicals into the life of the nation for the first time since the Civil War. Of the two, the first was more surprising, but the second was more politically significant.

Pentecostalism had begun among the poor, black and white, in a Los Angeles mission in 1906. The movement had spread quickly across the South and Southwest, and segregated denominations formed, but in the 1920s and '30s white Pentecostals, like their black counterparts, remained largely poor farmers, or people working in marginal jobs in the cities. Their distinctive belief was that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, like speaking in tongues, prophesying, and healing, were available to believers today as they were to the apostles at Pentecost. Before World War II most Protestants looked down on Pentecostals, calling them "snake-handlers" or "Holy Rollers." In the 1950s, however, many Pentecostals became middle-class, and one of the tent revivalists, Oral Roberts, left his tent to preach on radio and television, to build a university, and to make Pentecostals respectable. In the 1960s, a time of spiritual experimentation, some of the Pentecostal beliefs caught on with liberal Protestants and Catholics, who integrated them into their own church doctrines and practices. The so-called charismatic renewal movement took on a life of its own, spreading even to conservative Protestants.

In the same period white southerners, including evangelicals, emerged from the isolation they had proudly suffered since the Civil War. By then the dominant religious force in the South was the Southern Baptist Convention. Its theology had been untouched by modernism, and Southern Baptists thought it to be the pure Gospel of the New Testament. Until the Second World War the SBC had stood as a bastion against social change, championing states' rights, white supremacy, and the existing economic order. In the villages the church reigned supreme as the arbiter of morals, the social order, and the truth of the Gospel. The arrival of northern industry, highways, and federal regulations therefore came a as shock to the system. The growth of cities, improvements in education, and involvement with the rest of the country created a cosmopolitan elite. Some of the heads of the SBC belonged to it and became more theologically and politically moderate. In 1954 the SBC's Christian Life Commission persuaded the Convention to accept the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education, and three years later its chairman acted as mediator between President Dwight Eisenhower and Governor Orval Faubus in the conflict over admitting black students to Little Rock Central High School. What did not change was the commitment of SBC leaders to evangelism. When southerners moved out of the South, many to Southern California and the cities of the Midwest, where industry was booming, they formed their own congregations, and the SBC followed, building churches at an astonishing rate and moving out across the country until there were Southern Baptist churches in every state. The SBC's office in Washington thus became a power to reckon with.

The 1960s and early 1970s—the so-called Long Sixties—saw the election of the first Catholic president, the Supreme Court decision banning prayer and Bible reading in the schools, the civil rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam War, and the Roe v. Wade decision. Surprisingly, only the fundamentalists objected to all of them. Other evangelicals took moderate stances on many of them, and the period passed quietly. It even saw the growth of a small evangelical left in the colleges.

The reaction came later, first with the upsurge of fundamentalism in the South, and then with the appearance of new leaders. Billy Graham, who had associated himself with Nixon even during Watergate, lost his influence; separatist Baptists grew in number, and fundamentalist Southern Baptists successfully challenged the moderate leaders for control of the Convention. Jerry Falwell and a host of pastors and televangelists took to national politics, forming the Moral Majority, the Christian Voice, and the Religious Roundtable. A talented preacher, Falwell picked up on the grassroots rebellions against "the sixties" in all its forms, from sex education to homosexuality, to the federal government's insistence on the integration of Christian schools. He also voiced the southern sense that Washington was encroaching on states' rights, and that Jimmy Carter was weak on national defense and was destroying the economy with deficit spending. Out of all this, he constructed a jeremiad that conservative Christians had to get into politics or see the destruction of the nation. With a few changes the Christian right has used the same jeremiad ever since. Falwell and Reagan created a bond that was more rhetorical than real, but the South moved gradually into the Republican Party from the presidential level on down.

The Christian right was a populist movement, and it had only two systematic thinkers, R. J. Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer. Of the two Rushdoony was by far the more radical. He proposed that Christians should reconstruct the society based on biblical law, a theonomy that would lead directly to the coming of Christ. Reconstructionism, his school of thought, was too outlandish to be adopted fully by more than a few people, but his ideas circulated anonymously in a watered-down form. Schaeffer, by contrast, was a major intellectual celebrity, who lectured in evangelical colleges, wrote best-selling books, and made two influential documentary series, one released in 1979, condemning abortion in such vivid terms it changed the minds of thousands of evangelicals. In the book he published two years later he wrote that humanism was "a total world view" standing in complete antithesis to the "Christian world view," and that humanists used the concept of "pluralism" to mean there was no right and no wrong. Schaeffer died in 1984, but ever since many Christian right leaders have testified to the profound influence he had on their thinking.

Jerry Falwell had to shut down the Moral Majority in the late 1980s, but he was soon succeeded by Pat Robertson, the son of a U.S. senator from Virginia who had built a successful television network. A contradictory figure, he had political ambitions, yet to the embarrassment of his father, he hosted a television program in which he claimed to heal the sick and to avert hurricanes. In 1988 he ran for the Republican nomination for president, and when he lost, he supported the establishment candidate, Vice President George H. W. Bush. Shortly afterward he formed the Christian Coalition to change Republican politics with the boyish-looking Ralph Reed as his executive director. A brilliant political organizer, Reed trained Christian right activists to run in local races, figured out new tactics to attract "pro-family" voters to the Republican Party, and distributed millions of voter guides favorable to socially conservative Republicans. By the 1992 election the Coalition had not only become indispensable to the Republican politicians, but also was integrated into Republican ranks and in control of the GOP apparatus in eighteen states.

During the first two years of Clinton's administration the Coalition, along with other Christian right organizations, experienced an explosive growth in membership and financing. In the midterm elections the GOP gained a major victory that put Republicans in control of the House for the first time in forty years. White evangelicals moved decisively into the Republican camp, giving the party 75 percent of its vote. The Coalition by its account mobilized four million voters and helped the Republicans sweep the South. It seemed unstoppable until the House leadership decided to impeach Clinton. The effort ended in disaster for the GOP, and the Coalition broke apart, beset by financial difficulties.

By 2000 even many Christian right stalwarts almost gave up on the movement. George W. Bush, however, had been born again; he spoke their language, and he knew how much Republicans depended on the Christian right with its influence on evangelical voters. His first administration saw a growing alliance between the two because he gave them access to the White House and supported some of their favorite programs, but most of all because of what they perceived as his strong leadership after 9/11 and in waging the Iraq War. The major Christian right figures in this period were James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, and Richard Land, the head of the policy arm of the conservative SBC. Like Falwell and Robertson, they believed that America had been a Christian country and would be one day again. Between them they revived the moribund movement by making a concerted effort to ban gay marriage in the states. The 2004 election was close, particularly in the key state of Ohio, and when they succeeded in passing referenda against same-sex marriage, they could take credit for Bush's victory.

In the second Bush administration the Christian right had its greatest triumphs and became more radical than before. Its alliance with the increasingly unpopular Bush administration, however, created a backlash in Congress, in the general public, and even among evangelicals, who feared they had become identified merely as a part of the Republican Party. Around 2005 many leading evangelicals, such as Rick Warren, began to distance themselves from the Christian right, and some began to voice dissent publicly for the first time. Known as the "new evangelicals," many of them took up social justice issues, such as poverty and climate change.

The decline of the Christian right had begun. Jerry Falwell and other Christian right leaders, now in their seventies, died or retired, and no one took their place. The baby boomers and the subsequent generations had absorbed the social changes that had taken place since the 1960s, and many of the older concerns had receded. According to polls, the young were more inclined to worry about the environment than their elders and were more in favor of an active government at home. Abortion was an important issue for them, but homosexuality was not, and in 2007 one in three favored same-sex marriage. Most took the equality of women for granted, and on the whole they were more tolerant of the views of others and believed the U.S. a pluralistic country.

After Obama won the 2008 election, policy-oriented new evangelical leaders faced off over the president's health care bill against the Catholic bishops and the remaining Christian right leaders, who believed its mandates on contraception and abortion would violate their religious freedom. The bill passed, but Obama's victory coincided with an economic crisis that began on Wall Street and spread to Main Street, causing the worst recession since the Great Depression. The reaction this time came from the right in the form of the Tea Party, a movement financed by libertarian corporate barons, such as Charles and David Koch. At the grassroots level Tea Party members supported programs, such as Social Security, they perceived as going to productive members of society, such as themselves, but opposed government "handouts" to undeserving "freeloaders," a category that seemed to be made up of the young, undocumented immigrants, and people of color. These people, the Tea Party members seemed to feel, were destroying the fabric of American culture. Christian right activists, who shared much the same sentiments, melded into the Tea Party, the larger and more powerful group.

The "new," or progressive, evangelical leaders fought for the cap and trade bill to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, for the protection of the poor against budget cuts, and for immigration reform with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. On immigration reform they were joined by groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention because the Bible spoke of welcoming strangers, but also because they already had Latinos and Asians in their churches, and they saw that their prospects for growth lay in evangelizing these and other immigrants.

Growth had become an important issue because in the first decade of the new century the evangelical population had plateaued. Some denominations, such as the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, were growing with Latino converts, but the enormous Southern Baptist Convention was losing members every year. What was more, the number of Americans who had no affiliation to any church was growing fast. One solution, the evangelical leaders knew, was to bring more immigrants into their churches.

The trouble was that many people in the pews of white evangelical churches did not want immigrants, whom they felt were destroying American culture. They also knew that most Latinos, both Catholics and evangelicals, voted Democratic and that many supported legal abortion and same-sex marriage.

By the time of the 2016 election, the evangelical world had become a complex place. The Christian right no longer dominated evangelical discourse. Further, it had taken up a more secular language—there was little talk of Christianizing America. In Washington many thought the Christian right dead, but Republican legislators in the red states passed scores of laws restricting abortion and LGBT rights. That Donald Trump, the thrice-married libertine, won the Republican nomination for president with many evangelical votes confounded most evangelical leaders. Clearly something was happening that would change American politics, and the Christian right would not be what it had been before.