Would We Know as Much about Evangelicals if Not for the Religious Right?

Would We Know as Much about Evangelicals if Not for the Religious Right? April 25, 2017

Barry Hankins makes the fair point that Francis Fitzgerald’s new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, fails to capture the extent of evangelical life beyond political activism:

I’ve always maintained that the typical evangelical isn’t all that political. Rather, the important things for most evangelicals are: (1) living godly lives; (2) raising their children to be committed, evangelical Christians; (3) being active in their local churches; and (4) evangelizing their neighbors. They talk about issues like abortion and gay marriage in Sunday school, and on Election Day about 75 percent to 80 percent of them dutifully vote Republican, even if a pagan like Donald Trump is at the head of the ticket. They may even put a sign in their yard for the Republican congressman in their district. But the vast majority of evangelicals don’t march in the street, write letters to their congressmen and senators, run for the local school board, or attend Christian Right rallies. They’re too busy being Christians, so they leave that to the Falwells, Roberstons, and Dobsons of the world.

This is where FitzGerald’s book falls down a bit. In covering the Christian Right so thoroughly, The Evangelicals perpetuates the myth that evangelicalism and the Christian Right became synonymous. In part, FitzGerald seems to want to show that this was the case and that it was an unfortunate aberration, given the nearly three centuries of rich and robust evangelicalism that predated the Christian Right. On the other hand, however, part of the reason we need good history is to show that perceptions, especially those perpetuated by the media, need correction—that there’s more to a movement than its most visible, loud, and sometimes outrageous public figures.

What if we only knew more about evangelicalism, however, thanks to editors and publishers willing to produce books on evangelicalism thanks precisely to a desire to figure out the Religious Right? At the risk of self-promotion, almost fifteen years ago I noticed the coincidence of an outpouring of scholarship on evangelicalism precisely at the same time that born-again Protestants were making headlines and magazine covers thanks to their association with the Republican Party:

A funny thing happened to the study of evangelical Protestantism in the decades after Newsweek declared 1976 “the year of the evangelical.” A religious movement largely in obscurity since the Scopes Trial emerged as a source of inspiration for millions of Americans and a formidable lobby in electoral politics. Even so, the early scholarly returns on evangelicalism were not encouraging. Martin E. Marty declared that, by 1980, “there was a paucity of good research” on evangelicalism or its related subjects, fundamentalism and pentecostalism1—one indication that the so-called recovery of American religious history, lauded by Henry May in 1965, had yet to pay dividends for Protestants outside the mainline
denominations.

In 1992, within a decade of Marty’s assessment, Jon Butler of Yale University claimed in a provocative paper delivered to the American Society of Church History that the tide had turned into a tsunami of historical writing on evangelicalism and its influence on American society, drowning other perspectives and interests. In response to Garry Wills’ Under God: Religion and American Politics, which faulted academics and journalists for ignoring faith’s importance, Butler asked, “Are we looking at the same subject?” He claimed that historians, especially Americanists, could scarcely pay more attention to religion: meetings of the Organization of American Historians and the American Studies Association offered countless sessions on religion, and books on American religion were published in record numbers despite the decline in publishers’ interest in New England Community studies. The publishing boom in particular drew Butler’s interest. The books described the importance of American religion, especially evangelical Christianity: “They often describe religion as a cause—sometimes the cause—of what is distinctive and important in America, American culture, politics, even identity…. They are, in the main, books about evangelical Christianity’s dominant position in American religion and its shaping of American identity from the Puritans to the Reagans.”

This is not to suggest that evangelicalism equals a certain kind of political activism, though the notion that personal faith must inform all of life makes it hard to separate religion from politics. But it does mean that the study of evangelicalism would be substantially less prominent if most Americans assumed that born-again Protestants were simply a curious group of Christians who somehow clung to the experiences that Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield first cultivated. After all, if evangelicals were not political would they generate any more attention than the Amish?

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