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The EvangelicalsReview - The Evangelicals
The Struggle to Shape America
by Frances FitzGerald
Simon & Schuster, 2017
Review by Bob Lane
Jan 23rd 2018 (Volume 22, Issue 4)

Certainty is demonic. Hypocrisy is omni-present. Politics is religion. Religion is politics.

"Even the well informed tend to have very short attention spans when it comes to evangelicals. Many equate evangelicals with fundamentalists or the Christian right when only a minority belong to either group. Others dismiss them as a marginal group doomed to extinction with the process of modernization. In fact evangelicals compose nearly a quarter of the (US) population." (p.2)

Those founding Puritans continue to have an influence on the culture and particularly the politics in the USA. The clash between fundamentalism and modernism erupted after World War I and affected all Protestant denominations. The core beliefs of the fundamentalists seem to be: what the Bible says is true and inerrant (particularly, of course, the New Testament); abortion is categorically evil; homosexuality is also evil and same sex marriage an abomination. As Fitzgerald points out "For them the first chapter of Genesis is to be interpreted literally. Even today two thirds of evangelicals say they believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time." (p. 625) These beliefs are manifest in the opposition to the SCOTUS decision banning prayer and Bible readings in public schools, almost all of the civil rights movement, the 1960s protests against the war in Vietnam, and the Roe v. Wade decision.

In short these are the believers in self-reliance (see Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, "He (Major Major's father) was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged
individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism.") who have fathered the Tea Party, the alt-right, and some white supremacists' groups in the USA and around the world. Most of the core beliefs are "preserved in amber."

FitzGerald's book is a comprehensive study of the ideas, the leaders, the political and religious hectoring, the sermonizing, the publicity seeking and the rise and fall of the men and women who worked so hard to organize the evangelical Christians in the 20 the century to become major players in the political world of the country. The book does more than many to help explain how the 2016 election in the USA turned out the way it did. It is a long and carefully researched book taking us from after WW1 to the current time with Donald Trump. Fitzgerald is readable while being scholarly, interesting even with the statistics, and excellent in presenting the major players in the evangelical movement over time. We meet Dobson, Huckabee, Falwell, Moore, Pryor, Swaggart, and others involved in the evangelizing of the word and proselytizing for the faith family. We also are reminded of some of the politicians who rose and fell because of the religious movements and their illegal acts: DeLay, Moore, Frist; for example, "The former majority leader Dick Armey, a libertarian conservative who had never liked DeLay, called "the Terri Schiavo thing" "pure, blatant pandering to James Dobson." Senator Frist began avoiding journalists. DeLay and his Christian right allies, on the other hand, blamed the public reaction on the liberal media and, continuing to believe that conservative Christians supported them, pressed their attack on the courts. The Terry Schiavo case (an infamous end of life case turned into a political football), Bauer said, will "bring more emotion into the view held by many conservatives already that the courts are rewriting the Constitution to suit their own value system."

After a federal appeals court rebuked the Congress for intervening, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused for the fourth time to take the case, fury at the courts redoubled. Senator John Cornyn (RTX) mused about how a perception that judges are making political decisions could lead people to "engage in violence," and DeLay ominously declared that "the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior." Meanwhile in the school system the attacks on evolution raged on. Anti-science attitudes seemed to be on the rise throughout many states. Flat-earthers, Genesis is literally true believers, and Certainty ruled the television stations, the radio congregations, and the new social media. Certainty tells us about the speaker's state of mind and not about a state of affairs. Mark Twain gets it right: We are always hearing of people who are around seeking after the Truth. I have never seen a (permanent) specimen. I think he has never lived. But I have seen several entirely sincere people who thought they were (permanent) Seekers after the Truth. They sought diligently, persistently, carefully, cautiously, profoundly, with perfect honesty and nicely adjusted judgment- until they believed that without doubt or question they had found the Truth. That was the end of the search. The man spent the rest of his life hunting up shingles wherewith to protect his Truth from the weather.

FitzGerald's book is a great review of recent history. Reading it I am reminded of the tendency we all have to forget the past.

Is there any hope? Politics in the USA right now seems in a state of paralysis – or in the hands of a magician, who causes a confusing spectacle while quietly redrawing the political landscape.

"Yet in the two years after Bush's re-election, half a dozen prominent evangelicals published books denouncing the Christian right for what they saw as its confusion of religion and politics, its equation of morality with sexual morality, its aggressive intolerance, and its unholy quest for power. Some of the authors, like former president Jimmy Carter and Jim Wallis, had already been dismissed by the right as liberals or "pseudo evangelicals," but the first, and the most powerful, critique came not from anyone on the evangelical left but from Reverend Gregory A. Boyd, the head of a large conservative church in St. Paul, Minnesota. In his sermons, as in the book he published in 2005, The Myth of a Christian Nation, Boyd challenged the idea that America had been, or ever could be, a "Christian nation." Taking his text from the Gospels, he reminded evangelicals that Christ's kingdom was "not of this world," and worldly kingdoms were the domain of fallen man." (p.540)

Or, this passage:

One Oklahoma pastor, Paul Littleton, blogged, "I'm conflicted because I am a part of an American evangelical Christianity that's almost entirely and uncritically in bed with the Republican Party who will support them as long as they support capitalism and oppose homosexual marriage. Do that, and we'll vote for you, we'll go to war with you, we'll let you spend the country into oblivion and we'll be silent when you make sexual advances to minor pages. I don't go for any of that stuff." A pastor from Texas, Benjamin Cole, wondered why "the most ardent supporters of the conservative resurgence somehow see global warming . . . [as] somehow apart from any Christian concern, but they think the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms as very much an issue of religious liberty. . . . I've been a card-carrying of member of the so-called 'Religious Right' since I first voted for Pat Buchanan in the 1996 primaries," he wrote, but "I am sick and tired of the Religious Right. . . . As a Southern Baptist, I don't want to wake up any more in the morning and look on the pillow beside me and find an elephant." (p. 581)

FitzGerald sets out to examine and explain the Christian right in the USA: its certainty, its hypocrisy, its power, its beliefs, its attraction, and its history.

He does just that.

 

© 2017 Bob Lane

 

Bob Lane is Professor Emeritus, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Vancouver Island Universtiy.


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