Please trust me on this. If you were a journalism graduate student in the early 1980s -- especially someone like me who had already worked through two degrees combining history, religion and journalism -- then you knew all about Francis FitzGerald.
So, yes, I devoured her famous 1981 piece in The New Yorker -- "A Disciplined, Charging Army" -- about a rising, but then obscure, figure in American life -- the Rev. Jerry Falwell. I recognized that it had some of that "National Geographic studies an obscure tribe" vibe to it, with Falwell and his supporters seen as the heathen hosts who were coming to sack Rome.
But the reporting in the piece was fantastic. I used it as the hook for a paper in a graduate seminar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign entitled, "The electronic tent revival: Computers in the ministry of Jerry Falwell."
FitzGerald was interested, kind of, in the faith and history of Falwell -- a man who was already blurring the line between an unrepentant Protestant Fundamentalism and the emerging world of the new Evangelicals. But mainly she was interested in this new threat to her world and the existing political order.
Remember that famous quote from philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame, the one in which he quipped that:
... (A)mong academics "fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."
"Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. ... In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views," noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. "That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch.' ... Its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' "
This brings us to this weekend's think piece, which is a Neil J. Young review at the Religion & Politics website of FitzGerald's recent book, "The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America." The headline on the review states the obvious: " 'Evangelical' Is Not a Political Term."
Young's opening anecdote is, in my opinion, perfect. Then again, I grew up as the son of a centrist Southern Baptist minister. This is long, but essential:
In the hallway just outside the sanctuary of the midsize Southern Baptist church I grew up in hung a small cork board for posting announcements and other information. Every now and then, someone would pin a voter guide from the Moral Majority or, a few years later, a pamphlet from the Christian Coalition. But most of the time the board filled up with the more pressing concerns of a church body: sign-up sheets for the women’s retreat, the month’s deacon-on-call schedule, pictures from a youth group service project, prayer requests for missionaries in Kenya or the Philippines, an advertisement for a revivalist passing through town.
A hundred years in the future, a historian finding one of those boards preserved from the 1980s or 1990s might thrill at the rich religious lives she could reconstruct from such materials, envisioning more clearly what it meant to be an evangelical in the late twentieth century. Yet the temptation for those writing about evangelicals today is to allow the political part -- like the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump -- to stand in for the whole. It is to make the great mistake of reaching only for that Christian Coalition handout tucked into the corner of that cork board in order to account for all of the diversity and variety within a religious tradition to which one in four Americans belong.
That is the weakness at the heart of the journalist Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, a sprawling 700-plus page history of the nation’s most important and influential religious movement.
Yes, it's interesting that FitzGerald, at the start of her book, reminds readers that "the category ‘evangelical’ is, of course, not a political but a religious one.”
But Young notes that the book opens with Jimmy Carter and closes with Donald Trump and just about everything in between -- three centuries of Protestant history -- is framed by the logic and emotions of political power in modern America.
Once again: Politics is real. Religion? Not so much. And as your GetReligionistas keep arguing, the fact that about half of white evangelicals in America voted for Trump, but didn't WANT TO, is just as important as the fact that 80-plus percent of them ended up voting for you know who (and, thus, against Hillary Clinton). What were the key issues in play? Might some of them have been linked to culture, morality and religious liberty?
Here is another crucial passage in Young's review:
Falwell appears less than halfway through The Evangelicals, and the book slows down considerably as more than 300 pages cover the Christian Right. (A 101-page chapter on George W. Bush and the Christian Right is especially plodding.) FitzGerald keeps alive her theme of evangelicalism’s diversity, but now she depicts it almost solely in political terms. A majority of evangelical leaders spearheaded or at least supported the Christian Right, she argues, while a smaller group, including Jim Wallis of Sojourners and the Orlando megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, became its critics.
As the wide swath of American evangelicalism becomes increasingly flattened into the Christian Right and its opponents, the vibrancy and vitality that marked the first half of The Evangelicals steadily lessens.