Who are The Evangelicals? Frances FitzGerald studied American history to explain

Frances FitzGerald.

Frances FitzGerald.

For the past two years, many media outlets seem to be obsessed with one particular group of people––the one which by-in-large elected President Donald Trump. Through hundreds of articles and op-eds, reporters and pollsters are slowly educating the world on who these “white evangelicals” are and where they came from.

But for journalist and historian Frances FitzGerald, the fervor surrounding the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 is merely another cycle of evangelicalism rising to the public’s attention.

FitzGerald’s sixth and latest book, The Evangelicals, tracks the history of the constantly shifting, decentralized movement of white evangelicalism. Through an academic lens, Fitzgerald helps her readers understand how this group (nearly a quarter of Americans) originated and led to the controversies sparked in recent years.

Religion Unplugged sat down with FitzGerald in late November at her Upper East Side home to discuss her work and its relevance halfway through Trump’s term. The interview is edited for length and clarity.

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RU: The Evangelicals came out in 2017, and it’s quite a dense book. I really enjoyed it.

FitzGerald: I did a lot of reporting on it for The New Yorker, starting in 1980 actually. Very much off and on. But quite a bit on toward the end of the Bush administration, when evangelicals were really taking power. But having done all of these pieces, I then thought, you can’t understand evangelicals if you’re someone like me, unless you go back into history. I mean, they just didn’t appear like that out of God’s eye.

RU: You say in the intro, which I find very interesting, that the sudden appearance of the Christian Right shocked most political observers. So, why do you feel like that was the case? Why do you feel like people misunderstand or are surprised when the Religious Right comes back into the public eye?

FitzGerald: Well, it didn’t come back actually. In the sense that [Jerry] Falwell was doing something new for evangelicals. He was not just sort of in politics himself like Billy Graham used to consort with all the presidents. But Billy Graham never had a movement that was focused on certain very secular reforms. Falwell did that or started that. That was something new––it really was. The fundamentalists, for example, had been in politics but locally and made a lot of speeches but they’d never tried to actually corral groups of voters to get things done in the government.

RU: Then why do you think it is surprising when something like 2016 or George W. Bush––why are people surprised it?

FitzGerald: Well, it’s funny, but most people don’t like to think about evangelicals… They don’t like to think about a religious group. Most people are so secular, even if they go to church. What happens is they learn something and then they forget about it.  

RU: That’s why journalists are so important, right? Having the memory.

FitzGerald: I think I quote some journalist in there saying that they jump from scandal to neglect; scandal to neglect. And similarly, the consciences of evangelicals have gone from intense interest to total memory loss.

RU: What do you think is the most misunderstood aspects of evangelicalism is, especially in the last couple of decades? It’s obviously shifted every decade or so.

FitzGerald: I have to keep reminding my audiences that it’s a religious group, not a political group. This is something evangelicals worry about themselves a good deal. Not wanting to get thought of as a political group, which they are very much in danger of doing, at least the Christian Right. But people don’t know about groups like that National Association of Evangelicals, which is very much into policy but not at all into politics. And there is a difference.

If you really want something, you behave like the Catholics or NAE for example, and you have an office in Washington, and you say, “Look, we care about Darfur, or religious freedom someplace,” or “We really care about government not cutting poverty programs”––which they both have done, for example. They don’t care which party they say this to. They say this to everybody. And of course they worry about other things, such as abortion and gay rights and so forth. But that’s policy, rather than actually getting up and defending candidates or parties in general.

RU: It’s probably not comparing apples to apples necessarily here, but you talk a lot about different splits in your book––the fundamentalists vs. the modernists, the liberals vs. the conservatives, various schisms or splits. Toward the end, especially in 2016 with Donald Trump and what we’ve seen in the media over the past few years there’s been a different kind of splintering that you’ve referred to. Do you see that split as similar to some of these others or very different, and how so?

FitzGerald: It was very different. The difference is the fundamentalist-modernist split, or the liberals and conservatives in the 19th century, was a split between two existing groups of people who inhabited the same space, essentially. I mean, the modernists controlled the denominations––Presbyterians, Baptists and so on––and fundamentalists wanted to take them over. And one would win and one would lose, but it was people of the same age and the same general background had theological and other kinds of splits.

More recently, the split is more generational. It’s sometimes gender. It’s certainly racial. Black evangelicals vote 98 percent Democratic all the time. Latinos and Asians also vote Democratic, by a lesser degree, like 67 percent.

book cover the evangelicals.jpg

So you have to watch the statistics as if they’re talking about white evangelicals, or everyone else. Because white evangelicals have been very united behind the Republican party––more and more so in fact––ever since Falwell, I think there have been more and more evangelicals voting Republican. They’ve gotten used to it. It’s the sort of thing that happens in parties. You grow up an FDR Democrat and you never really leave that party.

I think the same thing is happening, and therefore the split is generational and as I say, ethnic and racial.

RU: And we find in the 2016 election, we thought that would be different but it wasn’t. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump.

FitzGerald: In the sense of voting Republican, it’s been a constant thing... In a way it’s not a movement anymore. It’s sort of an interest group. But even now, evangelicals today really don’t have major leaders such as [Pat] Robertson and such as [James] Dobson but even so, they have continued to vote more and more Republican. It just culminated with the last election. They voted for a Mormon. At least 75 percent of the vote just because he was Republican.

RU: As you were researching and writing your book, was there anything that you saw as a red flag, or as a, “we saw this coming.” Was his election genuinely surprising or were there things that you saw as you were researching?

FitzGerald: I didn’t think the election was so surprising, but what was surprising to me was the primary vote. Because the Religious Right got together 50 leaders and said, who are we going to campaign for this season. And they ended up saying Ted Cruz, and no one listened to them. There were plenty good evangelical candidates in that race, there were plenty of choices. Instead, it was really some of the sort of the rank and file that voted for Trump, that liked Trump. It was a very populist part of the constituency.  

RU: If you did a “second edition” with what’s happened in the last couple of years is there anything you would add?

FitzGerald: What happened subsequently [after Trump’s election] is what you might have imagined, in that the evangelical vote was so big, about a third, and that meant really he had to do what they want. He has done absolutely what the Religious Right wants. He named two Supreme Court Justices, was the main thing. They’re moving the embassy to Jerusalem. And many other things, small pieces of legislation, small executive orders which make it more difficult to get certain kinds of contraceptives, which make it harder to get abortions in various ways. Sometimes they’re money bills and sometimes they’re not. His lawyer came out for the religious freedom bills––gay wedding baker and so on. Across the board he’s done much more for the Religious Right than W. ever did.

RU: I’m curious in all of your scholarship, reading all of these books––you have quite a few of them that you list in your bibliography––did you feel like this specific history was needed?

FitzGerald: Well because I never had seen one! If I had seen one I wouldn’t have written it. But it wasn’t there. So I felt like I had to write it. As I say, there’s a certain amount of work on the Religious Right and I had done a certain amount of it myself in articles, but the question is where did that come from, and I was really curious about that. So the new part of the book for me was the first part going back to Jonathan Edwards, really. I was completely fascinated by that. I wrote it as if I didn’t know where I was going.

Kara Bettis is a Boston-based freelance writer on the topics of faith, culture and politics. Follow her @karabettis.