Magazine article Church & State

CULTURE WARRIORS: A New Book Examines the Rise of Right-Wing Evangelicalism in America

Magazine article Church & State

CULTURE WARRIORS: A New Book Examines the Rise of Right-Wing Evangelicalism in America

Article excerpt

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald. Simon & Schuster, 753 pp.

The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States left many people scratching their heads, especially in light of the whopping 81 percent of evangelicals who voted for him.

The strong support for the thrice-married, alleged sexual assaulter was especially confusing to some voters who assumed religious values would trump political power. Yet for decades, many within the Religious Right have chosen that power over the "values" they claim to hold.

That's what makes Frances FitzGerald's new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, all the more timely. FitzGerald's hefty tome provides a historical overview of evangelicals' rise in American society from the 18th century to the 2016 presidential election, which proves important in analyzing the sustainability of the Religious Right.

FitzGerald explores how instead of staying within the realm of religious or spiritual service, a right-leaning evangelical movement merged with the Republican Party in a quest for political power and a battle for, well, shaping American culture.

She narrates the historical significance of various figures and events that led to the rise of the "Evangelical Empire" long before Trump's emergence within the political sphere, and delves into historical archives to illuminate the rise and influence of the Religious Right.

As FitzGerald notes, the number of evangelicals grew rapidly during the two Great Awakenings (evangelical and revivalist movements in the 18th and 19th centuries). The success of evangelical proselytizing within Christian denominations made evangelicalism "the most dominant religion in the country."

Early evangelical enlightenment theology of questioning and addressing social issues such as slavery, women's rights and more had an interesting impact: FitzGerald notes that evangelicals' use of religiously tinged arguments in the public sphere sparked early regional culture wars between conservative and moderate evangelicals, primarily over slavery.

"Evangelicalism," FitzGerald writes, "developed so differently in the two regions of the country." While many Northern evangelicals participated in the abolitionist movement and made a faith-based argument against slavery, most Southern evangelicals tended to argue that slavery was an evil, but a "lesser evil" than dividing the union.

Although this narrative focuses on an earlier era in our history, FitzGerald's narration in The Evangelicals helps us understand what shaped the contemporary cultural morality divide between the Religious Right and moderate or progressive evangelicals. As social reform swept through American culture, the rise of fundamentalism within the evangelical movement provided a rationale for resisting social justice while striving for political power to block it. By the 20th century, "cultural exiles," as FitzGerald dubs them, portrayed "themselves as martyrs" fighting for faith in an increasingly secular country.

FitzGerald argues that religious historians have ignored how the fundamentalist wing of the evangelical movement not only survived, but thrived, during the Great Depression and World War II. An evangelist who played a predominant role in expanding the tent of Religious Right fundamentalism as we know it today was Billy Graham.

Graham's legacy as one of the nation's most well-known evangelists --he was continuing to preach as recently as 2005--was to unite conservative white Protestants around the country and get them to identify as "evangelicals." Despite not being notably racist, Graham's exclusive popularity among white evangelicals was a catalyst in solidifying the Religious Right's base as a racially-privileged vocal majority.

That would become a problem as American society adopted a more and more progressive focus regarding civil rights, women's rights, secular public school curricula and LGBTQ rights. …

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