I’ve started reading Frances FitzGerald’s new synthesis, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. It’s highly readable, engaging, and seems like it will serve as a useful overview for students or for people with a general interest in the topic. I’m not even half-way through, so consider what follows not so much a criticism of the book, but a broader commentary on the state of the field and our discourse. Perhaps it’s unfair to FitzGerald to use The Evangelicals as an occasion to do this, but her book repeats patterns we’ve seen in other work.
It begins with the publisher, which most likely has nothing to do with Fitzgerald. Open up the book jacket and you see this:
In this major work of American history, distinguished historian Frances FitzGerald describes the profound ways in which evangelicals have shaped our nation, our culture, and our politics. Her sweeping and authoritative account gives us the whole story for the first time.
You might say this is typical publisher overselling that doesn’t matter much. But why should we settle for misleading and exclusionary statements? Then turn to the end of the book, before the notes. FitzGerald has included a short glossary of theological terms. I don’t know if this was her idea or the publisher’s, but it’s a good idea. The first word FitzGerald defines is evangelical, using David Bebbington’s theological definition. There is no social definition; the theology does all the work here.
So, in sum we have:
- A book called The Evangelicals
- A publisher boasting it is “the whole story.”
- A definition of evangelicals that includes all Protestants who believe the theology Bebbington describes.
A book that did this would be really exciting. But it’s certainly not this book, which we learn pretty quickly when we turn to the introduction. FitzGerald writes,
This book is not a taxonomy or attempt to describe the entirety of evangelical life, but rather a history of the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents that have emerged in recent years. It purposely omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation, but also of the creation of centers for self-help and community in a hostile world. Some African American denominations identify as evangelical, but because of their history, their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals. Only long after the success of the civil rights movement did some black churchmen begin to enter the story of white evangelicals and their internal conflicts.
In other words, this is another book about white evangelicals and the Christian right, making the very title of the book misleading. I’d be curious to hear what scholars of African American Christianity think of FitzGerald’s words here. I’m curious to know what I’ll think by the time I finish this book and the other one on the docket, Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews’ Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars.
I don’t mean to pick on FitzGerald. After all, this is a synthesis that is in many ways only repeating the treatment (or lack thereof) of whiteness and blackness in many earlier books. Marsden, Carpenter, Sutton—wonderful books all, but no one is going to mistake them for sophisticated treatments of race. There are legitimate questions to ask about what we’re really doing with these methodological choices. FitzGerald describes it as historically driven, but I’m unconvinced. It is possible to describe exclusion without reinscribing it. We’ve failed to do that.
We run the risk of absurdity: defining our subject by race even as we pretend that race was not central to our subject.
The upshot of all this is that white evangelical is one of the most familiar phrases in our political lexicon, even though we can’t agree on what evangelical means, and we’ve barely even tried to figure out what whiteness has meant in the movement. This is so odd, so difficult to defend on a historical or intellectual level, that I begin to question our (I include myself in this) ethical stance. Does our work historicize racial exclusion, or recreate it? I think we would do well to sit with that question for a while.