Origin Story – A Conversation with Frances FitzGerald

francesFrances FitzGerald is a decorated journalist and historian. She is a recipient of the Bancroft Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award. Over the past five decades, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and The Nation, among many others. Her latest book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, provides a comprehensive history of the evangelical movement in the United States from the 18th century to the present.

ECM: Let’s start with some basics. What is evangelicalism, who are the evangelicals, and why commit yourself to documenting their entire history in the United States?

FF: Evangelicals are a product of the two Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries that turned virtually all American Protestants into evangelicals—people who believe in a high view of the Bible, salvation coming from Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the need to be born again in Christ. They also believed in spreading the good news of the gospel.

I began doing journalism on fundamentalists and evangelicals some time ago—in fact, somewhat by accident. I ran into Jerry Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1979 and was fascinated by what I found. I’m a New Yorker and a born Episcopalian, and I had never met a fundamentalist before. The community seemed very exotic to me, from the way people dressed to the way it organized its social life. And it turned out that Jerry Falwell was, at that point, organizing the Moral Majority and planning to fight the 1980 election.

I did a piece for The New Yorker then, and [since then] I’ve done pieces on evangelicals, particularly in the last years of the second Bush administration. That naturally led to a book. It is really impossible to understand evangelicals—particularly the Christian Right and fundamentalists—without understanding their history. This was my effort to do that.

ECM: Is it fair to say that early evangelicalism was mostly defined by denominational infighting, but that it has become increasingly public and political over time?

FF: No, I would say that during the Great Awakenings, denominations didn’t play much of a part. It’s true that they were led by Methodists and Baptists, who were essentially rebelling against the established churches. In the late 19th century, when the liberals and conservatives began to divide, there was a series of intra-denominational conflicts, but these were not political but religious.

ECM: Christianity has a long tradition, with a wide array of themes that range from the inclusive, compassionate, and forgiving to the exclusive, condemning, and punitive. The Social Gospel, for instance, represented the leftward side of the scale. But evangelicals have always preferred to emphasize the harsher elements on the right. Why?

FF: Until the fight between the fundamentalists and the modernists, this wasn’t true. The Social Gospel began before that, and some of the conservatives certainly believed in it. But right around the time of World War I, the tears that already existed in the fabric—at least in the north—began to open as the war created a climate of anxiety and heightened national consciousness.

At that point, the fundamentalist groups battled the liberals in their denominations over religious doctrines. At the same time, they rejected the Social Gospel and continued to believe that society could not be improved except by the conversion of one individual after another. And that continues to be the issue between the Christian Right and the more progressive evangelicals.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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