An Interview with Frances FitzGerald

The historian behind The Evangelicals explores the political power of true believers.


Important historian meets important subject in Frances FitzGerald’s sweeping new book, The Evangelicals. Subtitled “The Struggle to Shape America,” the work tells a fascinating tale of how organized religion has waxed and waned as a political force in the United States. Founded on a principle separating church and state, America has nonetheless been greatly influenced by religious leaders and congregations since the presidency of George Washington.

Fitzgerald, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for Fire in the Lake, a landmark study of the Vietnam War and that country’s history, has also written on Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the Pulitzer Prize Finalist Way Out There in the Blue, and America Revised, a study of textbook revisionism.

We met and talked in early April.

I think what history shows through your book, especially the last 50 years or so, is how often the Christian Right was underestimated or even pronounced DOA as a movement. And I'm wondering, did that happen again with the Trump election? Very few people saw it coming. Obviously, that was a huge factor in his victory.

It was. Absolutely. But it has been for many years now. Evangelicals have been voting, from either 68 percent to 80 percent, for the Republican presidential candidate, and Trump was simply no exception.

That's just amazing. You talk about this in the book, but given his background — divorced twice, misogynistic statements — why did he get their support? I even go back to Ronald Reagan getting that vote against Jimmy Carter. Reagan's divorced, and I'm divorced, I'm not picking on that, but just as an element of something that that constituency tends to care about. Carter is one of the most spiritual, religious, pious presidents we've ever had and, yet, most of them went with Reagan.

Well, let me first say that Evangelicals are a good deal more pragmatic than you might think, and that they vote for the person that they believe will carry out their particular agenda. And so, the fact that Jimmy Carter was a near saint was perhaps irrelevant in the sense that he went against abortion, and he was having these family conferences with all kinds of people who were of a...some new forms of family which simply did not appeal at all to the Evangelicals. Their urge was to support the traditional, patriarchal, Victorian family, and so that was that.

But one thing that might interest you, in terms of the recent election, is that Lifeway Research, which is an Evangelical polling firm, did a poll…before this election [of] what issue they would vote on, what issue was most important to them. And the pastors came out with the personality of the candidate, with religious freedom, abortion, all those things that you would imagine that Evangelicals would vote on, whereas the laypeople said what's important to us is economics and national security.

Now, you talked about some hot-button issues a moment ago, abortion being an obvious one, but something that struck me in your book, especially in the portion toward the end, is how much the issue of gay marriage galvanized the Christian Right in the last five to 10 years. It sounded like it was as important an issue as anything.

It absolutely was. Furthermore, they saw it coming from far off, way before the rest of us did, with the vote in Hawaii. Actually, it's a Hawaii Supreme Court decision [recognizing gay marriage], and a small group of [Evangelicals] became very anxious about this at the time, which is in the mid-1990s. So, the issue grew and it began to seem much more current…particularly because the Massachusetts Supreme Court allowed gay marriage in the spring of 2004. So, they made it an enormous issue during the campaign.

Eighteen states had amendments on the ballots banning same-sex marriage. This is because the Senate refused to vote on any constitutional amendment of the same nature, so they did it through the states. For most of the states, it didn't really affect the election results because they tended to be red states already or blue states who never did vote, but one state was really important, and that was Ohio. Ohio was the key swing state in that election. [George W.] Bush won by only 100,016 votes, and the marriage amendment in that state passed by many more votes than that. So, there was some evidence that, really, [Evangelicals] had won the election for Bush because that was the state that counted, and a lot of people really believed that. It's circumstantial, perhaps, but it was pretty good because it put him over the top.

The Evangelicals certainly told Bush that's why he won.

That's right.

They wanted to get credit for it.

And then they told him what they wanted, which was one or two Supreme Court justices.

Let me shift gears slightly and talk about Pentecostals. Could you talk a little bit about what Pentecostalism is, and how it was basically, if not made for television, perfect for TV in terms of getting the message out?

Well, Fundamentalists and Pentecostals are kind of opposite sides of the same coin. One is by the book, rather strict doctrinal, and the other is all about emotion and feeling and miracles. Speaking in tongues. But also they believe that ordinary people have the possibility of the same gifts that the Apostles had at the time after Christ's death. And Fundamentalists hate that idea because, to them, the Bible is it.

Literal.

Literal. So, for Fundamentalists, it's really hard to make television work because it's all about doctrine, the Book, and they're rather puritanical about display, whereas Pentecostals are often the opposite. There are a great variety of them, running from Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker to Jimmy Swaggart, so it's not as though they're all one thing. The Assemblies of God is a very respectable group of people. But, if allowed, it makes for very good television.

We've talked about The Evangelicals here, but you've written many other books. Beyond being an historian who wants to tell important stories, do you feel there's a theme in your work?

Well, I think I'm just after subjects I'm interested in, but it turns out that there is somewhat of a theme. I've, in a way, been writing about Evedangelicals for some time. I wrote about it in the Reagan book [Way Out There in the Blue]. I wrote about it in a book I did about textbooks [America Revised]. But, in that book, I talked about the Fundamentalists’ influence on textbooks. So, it was only really Vietnam [the first book, Fire in the Sky] that had nothing to do with it.

[Photograph by Frances Denny.]

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