Frances FitzGerald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, explores the evangelical movement’s influence on American culture in The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (Simon & Schuster, Apr.). Inspired by a New Yorker article FitzGerald wrote about the televangelist Jerry Falwell in 1981, the book examines how a new generation of evangelicals is shaping the Christian right today.
Why do you think it’s important for people to understand the culture and politics of evangelicals?
They comprise more than a fifth of the population, and they are perhaps a third of the Republican vote, so you can’t just write them off. For the past 30 years or so they have played an important role in American politics [as conservative activists and voters].
What surprised you the most while writing this book?
I have always had a tendency to think that things will stay as they are, but, in fact, the evangelical world has changed a great deal in the past 40 to 50 years. And it is changing right now. There used to be very strong leadership [from] people like [founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network] Pat Robertson and [founder of Focus on the Family] James Dobson. But there really isn’t now. And also, there is this generation gap. Millennials are less conservative than their parents, and much more open to other people, and new things. They also have [different] social concerns.
A lot has been written about why evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election. What do you think happened there?
I don’t think evangelicals fit very well with Donald Trump himself because he is a thrice-married libertine. However, they have been voting Republican for a very long time, and whoever the Republican candidate is has to accommodate them. You’ll notice that with Trump’s cabinet appointments; you have four or five Christian right figures, like Betsy DeVos and, of course, Vice President Mike Pence.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
Evangelicals are a far more diverse group of people with a diverse set of interests and political views than one might think. People tend to see people like Jerry Falwell [who made statements condemning homosexuality, Islam, and secular education] as “The Evangelical,” but they are a much more complicated group than that. There are changes taking place among them—white evangelicals specifically—mainly because of a new progressive movement that has come forward in the past decade or so. And this could profoundly change the political landscape.
Does that mean Democrats can peel some of this voting bloc away?
White evangelicals are splintering, and the millennial generation is much more social justice-minded—concerned about the environment, poverty, and immigration. However, I don't think they will give way on abortion. I can't make an exact prediction, but I think during the next presidential election we will see a higher number of millennial voters [that were young and less likely to vote in 2016] who will either vote less Republican and possibly Democratic or [for a third-party candidate]. [Another possibility is that these millennials] will start to change the Republican party into one with fewer Christian right leaders.