Ah, those mysterious Protestant Evangelicals, as pondered by our cultural elites


Just when you thought you’d seen enough analysis of those U.S. Protestant Evangelicals to last a lifetime or two, a major April release is commanding yet more ink: “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America” by Frances FitzGerald (Simon & Schuster).

Any book from FitzGerald, a boldface author who won the Pulitzer Prize for her Vietnam lament “Fire in the Lake” (1972), gets guaranteed media attention. Her latest, hailed as “masterful” by Time magazine, will surely be mandatory reading for religion writers. This blockbuster has already gained major reviews from highbrow analysts Randall Balmer, Alan Wolfe and Garry Wills (also a Pulitzer medalist).

The Religion Guy has yet to read this 740-pager but is wary after learning that FitzGerald pays so much attention to figures like Rousas Rushdoony. His idiosyncratic theocracy scheme frightens the journalism natives, but is hardly representative of mainstream evangelicalism, or even of its most politicized segments.

Otherwise, the reviews provide  significant cultural indicators of how elitists view a movement that’s somehow so mystifying and unnerving to outsiders, and the way adherents are ogled with condescension, particularly after so many voted for Donald J. Trump. Irredeemable deplorables, anyone?    

Balmer, Dartmouth’s religion chair and the author of a somewhat competing 2016 title, “Evangelicalism in America” (Baylor University Press), says having such a “distinguished author” undertake this topic should be “cause for celebration.” But he finds the result “curiously pinched and narrow.”

One of his criticisms, echoed by others, is that FitzGerald’s narrative omits African-American Protestants. That’s an important choice that the Religion Guy finds justifiable because these believers, as well as Latino Protestants, have such  distinct subcultures. Explaining the larger population of “white” evangelicals is more than enough for one book.

Another Balmer complaint on narrowness is that FitzGerald “dispatches with two centuries of evangelical history” prior to the 1925 Scopes Trial about evolution, and thus underplays the earlier evangelical heritage of “progressive” politics and recent activism typified by President Jimmy Carter -- themes that Balmer’s own writings cherish.  

Wolfe typifies a different professorial lament. He says “so many” believers  are guilty of “overweening pride, lust for power, and idolatry of worshiping the state” and that “will at some point probably doom them.” He joins the liberal legions that put scare quotes around “religious freedom,” charging that cultural conservatives demand “the right to discriminate on religious grounds against other people’s constitutional rights.”

Wills states that “evangelicals are suspicious of establishment, liturgy, elaborated creeds, and standardized piety.” That’s true for many in independent and parachurch circles, but not all of evangelicalism. He emphasizes emotion-laden spectacles, end-times fervor, and the “young earth” variant of creationism – again, part of the evangelical phenomenon but not the whole.

“Religion for them is an experience, not an argument,” Wills thinks, sidelining  the rationalistic forms. To Wills, evangelicalism is merely “revival religion” characterized by three things, “crowds, drama, and cycles.”

Emphasis on style over substance overshadows the biblical convictions that define the movement. The tipoff is Wills’ claim that the late Father Divine was “certainly evangelical,” despite the fact that he was believed to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, opposed evangelistic efforts, and advocated celibacy.

Very often the mass media ignore the lives of actual evangelicals who mostly devote their time, energy, thought and money to basic Christian beliefs, worship, Bible study, and private deeds and donations to help those in need, not headline-grabbing revivals or “religious right” political crusading. Politically-focused writers like FitzGerald and her reviewers, like so many mass media interpreters, are able to grasp only the trunk of the evangelical elephant.

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