You’ll find everything you want to know about the religious right in America and then some in this incredibly thorough study of evangelicalism in politics. The book begins with the First Great Awakening in the 18th century (when nearly all Protestants were evangelicals as the term is used theologically today) and continues through the election of Donald Trump (barely, in the epilogue).
I don’t know anything about the author, but what impressed me the most was her fair treatment of the subject. There are so many secular writers who just don’t get religion — they don’t understand it, they don’t understand how it makes people tick, and they’re ready to dismiss too many adherents as either ill-informed or loonies. But FitzGerald gives religious Americans the respect they deserve, even though they doesn’t shy away from the fact that there are loonies among them. Even after finishing the book, I’m not sure what her religious and political views are.
Readers unfamiliar with the historical intricacies of Protestantism would do well to read the glossary at the back of the book first, where the author explains terms such as “premillennialism” and “Pentecostals.” She at times gets bogged down in the details of historic theological debates — I didn’t mind, but many readers might.
My main criticisms derive partly from my expectations — since the book has 700+ pages, I expected it to cover a few details that it did not. First, this isn’t really about American evangelicalism as a whole, but about white evangelicalism; black evangelicals certainly played a major role in the civil rights movement, for example, but that’s barely mentioned. Also, she ignores evangelical movements — the “quiverfull” movement and Gothardism come to mind — that played a role in evangelical culture but didn’t affect politics. Finally, she says very little about changes in evangelical culture, such as the shift to contemporary music and nondenominationalism, except as they pertain to politics.
In some ways, I wish FitzGerald had been able to wait a year or two to write this book. Just as the Terri Schiavo saga (one of the fascinating tales recounted in depth) was a key event in changing the nature of religious-right politics, so was Trump’s election. Although FitzGerald surmises that the influence of the religious right had irretrievably waned by 2009, recent events suggest to me that might not be the case. But who knows? I suppose there’s always a risk in writing history while it’s still happening.
Photo by Taber Andrew Bain/CC BY 2.0