During the 2016 presidential campaign, it became common for some evangelical leaders to defend Donald Trump by comparing him to King David. Sure, King David may have committed adultery and arranged the death of his mistress’s husband in battle, but despite these considerable failings he had still retained the full favor of God. (Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. first made the David comparison after revealing that he’d enjoyed a pleasant repast of Wendy’s cheeseburgers with Trump.) The then candidate, according to this line of thought, was not what he so baldly appeared to be—a personality cut from the same cloth as Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt. Rather, he was a warrior for righteousness tragically beset by unpredictable appetites. (Perhaps these apologists also recalled King David’s penchant for insulting disabled reporters and accusing debate moderators of being premenstrual?)
This strained analogy certainly raises questions about the state of evangelical Christianity in America today: how could evangelical authorities pound such a resolutely square peg into such an obviously round hole? After a campaign season marked by unusual theological justifications for supporting Trump (with some notable exceptions), King David the Second won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote, more than any other presidential candidate in history. Coming at exactly the right time, Frances FitzGerald’s mammoth history of the evangelical movement in America, The Evangelicals, helps shed light on conservative evangelicalism’s transformation into a quasi-political institution.
FitzGerald, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her classic study of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, provides an immense chronicle of fundamentalism and evangelicalism in America, delving into the movement’s anti-intellectualism, narrow literalism, and focus on sexual restrictions—characteristics with which we’re all familiar. At the same time, she highlights oft-overlooked evangelical history and figures who far transcend the more familiar “religious right” mold. There is, for example, the great nineteenth-century evangelist Charles Finney, who made abolitionism a central part of his mission; we also have William Jennings Bryan, whose brilliantly awakened social conscience was undercut by his misguided opposition to Darwinism and cultural defeat during the Scopes Trial; and then there’s Billy Graham, whose political moderation and essential decency seem like ancient history next to his son Franklin’s more aggressive conservatism. (Graham was a southerner who befriended Martin Luther King Jr. and opposed segregation before the 1950s were over.) Additionally, FitzGerald discusses the historical countermovement away from fundamentalism—liberal Christianity—in a way that kindles admiration for theologians like Horace Bushnell and Reinhold Niebuhr.
FitzGerald describes the movement’s roots as “a folk religion characterized by disdain for authority and tradition,” incubated during the Second Great Awakening, a period of religious revival in the early nineteenth century. In rebellion against Puritan Calvinism, these early evangelicals placed emphasis on the believer’s own agency in making the decision to be saved, dispensing with the gloom of predestined damnation. This experience of conversion involved a direct encounter with God, in the person of the Holy Spirit. While evangelical Christianity disdained authority, it was also potentially a force for liberating individuality and inspiring social change. By insisting on a Christian’s direct relationship with God, the movement in many ways stood against authoritarianism.
Southern Baptists used to refer to the “soul liberty” or “soul competency” of the believer: the idea that no one should interfere with one’s personal understanding of the Bible, since it was part of a relationship with God that could admit no intermediary. (Harold Bloom’s classic The American Religion is particularly valuable in elucidating this point.) To critics of its current conservative iteration, American evangelicalism went off the rails when it sacrificed its soul competency, allowing ostensibly charismatic figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to become guiding lights—in preference to the inner light of the Holy Spirit—while the Southern Baptist Convention was taken over by its most brazenly intolerant faction, discarding soul competency in any meaningful sense.
With regard to these regrettable mutations, we might cite Emerson in “Self Reliance”:
In like manner the reformers summon conventions, and vote and resolve in multitude. Not so, O friends! will the God deign to enter and inhabit you, but by a method precisely the reverse. It is only as a man puts off all foreign support, and stands alone, that I see him to be strong and to prevail. He is weaker by every recruit to his banner.
In other words, if spirituality isn’t grounded in a highly individual, private, and inner relationship to God, it will evaporate and cease to be a vital influence in one’s own life and in the world. American evangelicalism, often oriented toward the collective revival experience, has unfortunately followed the opposite trajectory from the one Emerson suggests: it has kept the crowds and institutions, but has lost its inner core.
Those who missed, or have forgotten, the heights of televangelism in the 1980s may find FitzGerald’s narrative of that era entertaining. There are campy dramas involving Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker—who owned an air-conditioned doghouse and once advised their viewers that if they were praying to God for an RV, they should be sure to “tell God what color”—as well as the more sordid downfall of Jimmy Swaggart. These colorful examples illustrate the moral bankruptcy of a certain strain of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, as it focused on screen theatrics and shocking proclamations. (Think Falwell’s infamous comment about 9/11 being God’s judgment against America for homosexuality, abortion, feminism, and liberalism.)
Throughout the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, evangelicals often seemed ascendant, while also sustaining deep losses in the culture wars. Arguably, the gross intolerance of people like Falwell actually benefited the LGBT movement by repulsing great segments of the populace. They were losing the culture war rapidly and, it seemed, definitively. As Barack Obama took office, major prominent “new evangelical” leaders, like megachurch pastor Rick Warren, were turning away from the bombastic style of Falwell, and focusing instead on social justice efforts, such as defeating AIDS.
This brings us to the dawning of the Trump era. The un-attuned observer might mistake Trump’s victory for evidence of a conservative evangelical resurgence. But, really, the fact that evangelicals voted for someone without any apparent convictions shouldn’t provoke undue concern that we’re descending into Margaret Atwood’s Republic of Gilead. The typical Trump rally is a kind of evangelical revival shorn of religion—the final hollowing out, a total revelation of emptiness.
At the end of The Evangelicals, FitzGerald indicates that America will probably head in the direction of secular Europe. If she is correct, the American right wing may become more like the European right wing, focused on “blood and soil” rather than on issues of Christian value. A Washington Post article from March 2016 showed that self-identified evangelical voters who did not attend church were far more likely to vote for Trump than evangelicals who did. (Trump still attracted a plurality of church-attending evangelicals during the primaries, but the majority of voters were with Cruz, Carson, Rubio, and other ill-fated travelers to the House of Dust.) Peter Beinart observed in the Atlantic that non-church-attending Republican voters were more likely to hold negative views of African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims than church-attending voters. At the same time, as of this writing, Trump’s firmest base of support comes from those white evangelicals who attend church most regularly.
Right now, everything is undecided. Maybe evangelicalism will fade away. Or maybe it will transform into something better or something worse. But if Billy Graham was right when he said, “The true badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy but love,” Christianity in America—whether overtly liberal or moderately evangelical—still stands a chance of recovering its true badge of honor. Perhaps America will become as secular as France currently is, but I doubt it. America has always been a spiritually imaginative country, generating new and occasionally quite wild forms of religious experience (the early Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists, for example). For liberal Christian communities to appeal to people again, they need to address this dimension of religious life. They need to satisfy the one need evangelicals have most often fulfilled: the desire for direct experience, for a connection with the Infinite. Liberal Christianity can’t simply feel like a social justice discussion group—it needs to ground its passion for social justice in a deeper spiritual relation to existence.