Frances FitzGerald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist who has written for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, among other publications. Her books include Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (for which she won the Pulitzer Prize) and Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War. In March, her newest book The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America was released, which explores the role evangelical christians have had in shaping America’s political landscape. Drawing on extensive research and packed with original reporting, FitzGerald shines a spotlight on a powerful movement that has often remained in the shadows. We spoke to her about her research, her findings, and her motivations behind writing this book.
What made you decide to write a book about the evangelical movement in America?
I’ve actually been writing about evangelicals for a long time, starting in 1980 when I went to Lynchburg [Virginia] to teach. By pure coincidence, a professor told me I must go to see Jerry Falwell’s church. At that point he had just begun to create the Moral Majority, which was an attempt to bring to bring conservative Christians into the Republican Party. The evangelical movement was becoming a political issue.
I was interested in the evangelicals because I come from New York and had never consciously met one before. So I have a considerable curiosity about them. It seemed to me that this was “the other,“ the people least like ourselves in this society. I’m not sure I feel exactly that way now, especially not about all evangelicals, but fundamentalists, which are a subset, certainly are puzzling. So I was trying to figure out what they thought and why they thought it. It turned out to be important, because this is what then became the Christian right. It’s largely made up of fundamentalists and other evangelicals, and very conservative protestants.
Around 2007 or so, I began to write about evangelicals for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. I did a considerable amount of research and eventually thought that I should do this book, because it’s very difficult to understand fundamentalists in particular if you don't understand their 19th century background. Some of the things they believe seem completely unbelievable to non-evangelicals.
Can you explain what you mean by that?
Well, take this business of armageddon, for example. It’s this project of the future, and evangelicals see things as getting worse and worse to the point where God will intervene. A lot of it has to do with Israel and the Jews’ return to Israel in 1948. This is essentially a mid-19th century idea. These prophecies of God’s return go back ages, and they’ve been picked up again by the evangelicals today.
In your book and your previous articles on evangelicals, you analyze how this religious movement increasingly became a political one. When did this shift first occur?
Their power really established itself in the 1980s. Jerry Falwell used to go see Ronald Reagan a lot, and Reagan made these wonderful speeches which probably helped the evangelical cause along better than anything else. Falwell, unlike some in the Christian right, wanted a lot to be done at the time. Nuclear weapons was a big issue then, but a lot of evangelicals wanted to stay away from that topic. But Falwell campaigned for the rearmament plans, and that kind of cemented the connection between the Reagan Republican party and the religious right. But they [the religious right] didn't have as much effect on political elections as they did after the South went Republican. It began with Nixon, I suppose, but it wasn't until the mid 90s that they came to seem like an almost dominant force.
What do you think the role of the evangelical movement was in these current presidential elections and the subsequent political developments?
The evangelical movement is not all like it was in the 80s and 90s, where they had particular leaders and massive national as well as regional organizations. They're still here, but the things that you see happening that you would assume are instigated by the Christian right, like the resolutions on abortion that have come in in recent years, are not directly their doing. It’s just that evangelicals have become a part of the Republican party, and you can’t really separate the two anymore. What is rather surprising is how they voted for Donald Trump. They were not for him in the primaries. But they were so much a part of the Republican party that almost any Republican candidate has to defer to them, as Trump then did. Once Trump was elected, everyone got behind him because essentially there are two things that are important to evangelicals, namely Roe v. Wade and gay marriage. What goes along with that is the choice of a supreme court justice. What also goes along with that is the notion of religious freedom, which they see as allowing for discrimination against LGBT individuals. They don’t always require that someone has to be their model of the perfect candidate, as long as those main issues are addressed.
Describe your research process. What was your reporting like?
I would try and get as close to what was going on as possible. I went to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Heritage Village [a Christian theme park in South Carolina] and as time went along they became very open to me. But there are other differences as well. They are pentecostals, as opposed to Falwell, who’s a fundamentalist. A lot of pentecostals, like the Assemblies of God and all that, are much stricter than fundamentalists. So I had to research that as well. I also went around visiting other places like Oral Roberts University [an evangelical university in Oklahoma] and the big evangelical enclaves of the South.
Did anything in your research surprise you?
My first experience with Falwell and his community was the most shocking to me because it was just so different, but as a journalist I take a somewhat distant view. My book is not a polemic. I hope that people will feel that I’m being fair to them.
I covered the religious right in the 2006 midterm elections, and then I discovered these progressive evangelicals who were actually distancing themselves from the Christian right and expressing themselves for the first time, since the Christian right was in bad shape by the end of the Bush administration. It allowed a new generation of pastors to come up and either object to the Christian right directly or go off in their own direction, into things like environmentalism, humanitarian work, objecting to the Bush administration’s policies, and so forth. So soon they were very different from the Christian right except for agreeing on the basic things like abortion and gay marriage.
I also discovered a lot during my archival work, which was great fun because I could suddenly see where these beliefs were coming from. There haven't been many histories on evangelicals except those written by evangelicals themselves. It was no longer academically chic. There’s a wonderful book on the Second Great Awakening [an evangelical revival movement in the 19th century] by Nathan O. Hatch called The Democratization of American Christianity, where I found out that many preachers during that era threw off the established churches and the established social hierarchies. The more educated evangelicals were the great reformers of that period, particularly when it came to the criminal justice system in the beginning of 19th century. So that gave me a lot of context to the movement.
What do you want readers to take away from your book and your research?
The evangelical movement is quite malleable, it’s not one thing that will always be there. It’s changed a lot over the years. I certainly blame the Falwells et al. for creating a serious division in this country. I think they’re the source of the divisive rhetoric we often see now. They believe everything is black and white. If it’s black it’s gotta be the devil, it’s gotta be something nefarious.
White evangelicals have always felt that they were the leaders of this country, which they were for a lot of the 19th century, before the catholics came in great numbers. The Christian right thinks they ought to be back in the saddle again, they think this should be a Christian nation and by Christian they mean evangelical. But what’s interesting is that recently, a fair number of Latinos have gone into white evangelical churches. That’s one change. There’s also generational change. The Falwellians had lived through the shock and the societal changes of the 60s and the generations after didn’t. The millennials are now beginning to think that’s all a little silly. Millennials are really the constituency of these progressive evangelicals. I did see a lot of young people during my time reporting. I’d say I was generally hopefully that the next generation is not going to be this combative. I don't think they'll change their mind about abortion, but they are starting to change their mind about gay rights. I would like them to be good citizens. Nobody can do it for them. But I hope that they’ll care about their neighbors and not just themselves.
As much as we oppose a lot of things that the Christian right stands for, we have to realise that they have a point of view and that has to be understood before we start condemning them. I think it’s important to know about them because it does have something to do with this Trumpism we’re experiencing now.
Interview by Luisa Rollenhagen