The Evangelicals: A Conversation with Author Frances FitzGerald

This is Thinking in Public, a dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President. of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Frances FitzGerald is an award-winning journalist and historian. Her debut book Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam won a Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft prize, and the National Book Award. She has written for many periodicals, including the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s and the New York Review of Books, and she serves on the editorial boards of The Nation and Foreign-Policy magazines. She’s the author of several books including, America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the 20th Century, Cities on a Hill: A Journey through Contemporary American Cultures, and Way Out in the Blue: Reagan’s Star Wars and the End of the Cold War. But her most recent book is the topic of our conversation today; that book is The Evangelicals: A Struggle to Shape America.

Frances FitzGerald, welcome to Thinking in Public.


MOHLER: Ms. FitzGerald, I have to tell you I enjoyed reading your book. I enjoyed it immensely. And even though in so many ways it’s the life I have lived, I have to say like in the case of any good book, I learned things that I really didn’t even know before about my own tradition. But it led me to want to ask you a very primary question. Of all the issues and of all the subject matter you could’ve addressed in a book of this magnitude, why American evangelicals?

FITZGERALD: Well, I’m a New Yorker and an Episcopalian by background, and in 1980 by accident I was in Lynchburg, I visited Jerry Falwell’s church, and he was just starting the Moral Majority and I did a piece on him and his community for the New Yorker magazine. And since then I’ve done quite a bit of journalism on the whole subject. So it’s been a long-term interest of mine. And obviously I don’t need to tell you that evangelicals are a very important part of this country, and a lot of people that I know in New York really don’t understand them at all.

MOHLER: Yes, as an American evangelical sometimes you do feel like the treatment of evangelicals and evangelicalism is a bit like National Geographic sending out journalists and discovering a lost tribe. But you deal with evangelicals so comprehensively. Let me say the first thing about your book that I respect is the fact that you tell the pre-story, you work very hard at that pre-story. I think so many jump immediately to, say, the 1970s:1976, the election of Jimmy Carter; 1980, identified often as the rise of the new Christian right. And you take us back at least a couple of centuries to tell the story.

FITZGERALD: Well I don’t think the current story is understandable without the whole history of first, the First and Second Great Awakening and what happened during the Civil War and the division between liberals and conservatives after the Civil War. It seems to me that the split between fundamentalists and modernists was the great defining moment. So I just don’t see that you could write a contemporary book without that history.

MOHLER: I read the piece that you did on Jerry Falwell, I believe was in 1981 in the New Yorker. I was a seminary student at the time. I don’t think that those of us who were kind of living the story at the time understood how big that particular story would turn out to be. And from the rather secular, more liberal perspective, several of the works looking at the rise of evangelicalism have tried to treat it almost entirely as if it came out of the blue as a political phenomenon. And again, just as a word of appreciation for your book, you take theology seriously. And you understand evangelical origins in a specifically theological and historical context. I think there are many who miss that who don’t do that work.

FITZGERALD: I think that’s absolutely important. And I’ve always been interested in the history of religion and so it just came natural to do that. But certainly what Falwell was preaching puzzled me a lot and I wanted to find out where it came from and where he was going with it, which another matter quite interesting is how he changed and adopted his message over time.

MOHLER: In your book you really go from the beginnings of evangelicalism as something of a frontier movement that then developed through revivalism, an urban reality, but ends up by the time you get to the midpoint of the 20th century with what Martin Marty calls the “evangelical empire,” in terms of the successive chapters in that story, what was most interesting to you in terms of of the development of evangelical-ism as an -ism or as a movement in American Protestantism?

FITZGERALD: Well at the same time there’s a populist nature of these revivals, which I didn’t realize were really rebellions against the established churches at the time and which were very much a part of their times in the sense that certainly the Second Great Awakening was very Jacksonian in spirit. And people like Charles Finney were part of the whole reform movements that were going on at the time, including abolitionism in the North. He was very important in that. So I had of course read about Finney before, but again in the context of this history and the later developments it was more fascinating to me.

MOHLER:  In terms of the early periods of evangelicalism as covered in your book from, say, Jonathan Edwards all the way to Charles Grandison Finney and to what became the distinction between the New Light Presbyterians and the older, more traditional Presbyterians—It seems to me that as someone living in New York City walking along and seeing the various churches that are there just even in Manhattan, it’s all told in those buildings. I mean, you can look a city like New York and you can see the representations of all of these different movements right there, even in the geographical spread of churches in New York City.

FITZGERALD: That’s pretty much true except for the biggest white church in Manhattan you can’t see at all, it’s a megachurch, it’s Tim Keller’s church, and he holds his Sunday services in all kinds of places, you know, like Hunter College and a school on the Weft side. So that’s what’s interesting to me, I always tell people here that they have an evangelical megachurch right in their midst and they can’t see it.

MOHLER: Yes, and that kind of makes the point, because I sometimes take students on a walk from the oldest parts of Dutch New York outwards and and there you see the story of American Protestantism, by the way Catholicism as well, you could argue, but Protestantism in particular. By the time you leave the old traditional confessional Dutch churches, before long you’re at the collegiate churches and then before long you’re at churches that, as you say, don’t need a building at all. You go from the old confessional churches to Norman Vincent Peale to Tim Keller, you might say.

FITZGERALD: Yes, exactly yes. Absolutely.

MOHLER: Now in the early chapters of your book, you begin to do something which you continue through the book, and that is to reset the received narrative. And I think you make a clarification, especially in your chapter 2, that most others have missed. And I say this as a Southern Baptist and as an evangelical in the South. You point out that it’s something of an intellectual error to speak about one evangelicalism in this country. By the time you get to the period, certainly decades before the US Civil War, you’re looking at two evangelicalisms: one in the North and one in the South.

FITZGERALD: Yes that’s true, and what happened is very few historians of religion do both the North and the South together in one book. You can hardly find it at all. You look at Southern historians for the history of Southern Baptist Convention, let’s say, or at Northern historians for all the rest of it. So my thinking was to try to put these two together and see how they fit together. And it’s not totally complete, but the book is about movements as opposed to daily life or indeed a deep theological look.

MOHLER: Well in terms of the distinction you made between the North and the South, I think you lay out very well that modernity arrived in the North long before it arrived in the South, which explains many things that are certainly familiar to a Southerner. For one thing, it explains why the fundamentalist/modernist controversy erupted in the North far more than in the South; why it can be argued that the fundamentalist/modernist controversy actually did arrive in the South decades after—you might say, the 1970s and 80s—decades after it had erupted and largely the dust had settled in the North. So I found that to be very helpful in a narrative of American evangelicalism, making a distinction that I think many miss but I think is really fundamental to the story.

FITZGERALD: Thank you for saying that. I think it has a lot to do with what was happening to the economy and to the society generally at the time. These eruptions of revivals and conflicts tended to come at moments when the economy was changing, the first and second stages of industrialization in the North and then, much later, industrialization in the South, industrialization and urbanization which brought, always brings, new ideas and completely distorts the traditional society.

MOHLER: When it comes to revivalism even early on, I think one thing that’s implied in your narrative is also very important, and that is that in the South, revivalism was primarily an agrarian, more rural phenomenon; Cane Ridge perhaps being the most graphic historical example. And then in the North it was largely an urban reality, and you see a city like New York, 1858 the great prayer revival, even Moody in terms of his ministry: very much urban focused in the North. I think even that rural/urban distinction, which is of course tied to the advancing industrialization, is part of the story as well.

FITZGERALD: That’s right; that’s absolutely true. I don’t know what you think of Professor Sam Hill, but I think he does a very good job at this, at making this distinction between the two parts of the country.

MOHLER: Well as a matter fact I respect him a great deal as an historian. He’s lectured here, actually, when I was a seminary student. By the way, this leads me to advance a question I was going to ask you or a point I was going to make, which is, you somehow got to some of the best sources in terms of rendering this, your own historical and narrative analysis. Just a couple of examples: in terms of theological liberalism, I don’t think anyone can surpass what Gary Dorrien at Union has done in terms of the three volume history of theological liberalism in the United States. In terms of evangelicalism, especially in terms of the the early American period, you go to Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch and others, and later on in the South to people like Sam Hill and David Matthews and others. How does someone who is operating in your journalistic milieu get to sources as good as those? I say that with tremendous respect. Other people wouldn’t worry about these kinds of sources. You got to the best. How did you get there?

FITZGERALD: Well sometimes it being passed on to people by others, and sometimes it was sheer luck going through books at NYU library. That’s how I discovered Sam Hill. But others such as Gary Dorrien and Mark Noll were very well-known around here, so that wasn’t much of a problem. And I interviewed them as well as reading their extraordinary books.

MOHLER: Now when it comes to the distinction between the North and the South, you do make the point that—and I think this is very important—you make the point that theological modernism, or all that would later be called theological modernism, was really already present even before the Civil War in Protestantism in the American North.

FITZGERALD: Yes, and I think that if the book could have been 900 pages long I could have made an even stronger case for that. The Beechers, for example, were moving towards modernism, although not in really any theological or theoretical way. But it was there with Horace Bushnell, really, early on.

MOHLER: Yes, and it’s there as what I guess I could euphemistically a spirit of theological entrepreneurship or innovation. There was a deliberate willingness to sacrifice confessional commitments and even denominational history to the new energies of this revivalism.

FITZGERALD: Yes, very much true, certainly with Dwight Moody, who institutionalized revivalism and set up every meeting extremely carefully months and perhaps even years in advance, using help from the local churches and the local gentry who favored his approach.

MOHLER: Now in terms of what happens after the Civil War, you deal very clearly within the North the development of the social gospel and developing theological liberalism that leads directly to the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. And since your book is about American evangelicals, this is where the story in one sense accelerates a great deal, especially in the North. The fundamentalist/modernist controversy is what eventually produces evangelicalism as distinct from the mainline historic Protestant churches. So when you look at that, what do you see is primarily at stake? Do you see this primarily theologically, the way that I think both sides of the time saw it? Or how as an historian do you read it?

FITZGERALD: I do think it was theological, but of course at the time a whole lot of things including world wars were interpreted theologically by a lot of people. So you can imagine that people were conscious of a great variety of other things as well as the theology that they were actually arguing about.

MOHLER: Well you deal with, for instance, I love the reference to Henry Adams and his distinction between the virgin in the dynamo, I mean you really do have the meeting of two worlds there; the old and the new. And as an evangelical, I would say, trying to get into the minds of the self-declared modernists, they appear to be believing themselves to be at the precipice of an entirely new intellectual age in which everything was going to have to be restructured, rewritten, if anything were to survive.

FITZGERALD: Right. What I also didn’t realize about them at that point is that they were really millennialists as well. I mean, they were working towards the kingdom of God on earth. And you might surprise a lot of mainline clergyman if you told them that today.

MOHLER: No that’s true, but I would also argue that that still, even though it’s less theologically and biblically defined, that is still in many ways the main explanation for why the mainline Protestant churches maintain their political activism and have largely redefined their churches in terms of many those energies. It’s because I think even though they are no longer holding theologically a post-millennialism, the vestiges of that worldview are still in many ways what drives them.

FITZGERALD: I think that’s a fair point. I really do. Certainly in the Episcopalian church a lot of the liturgy that comes from the Common Prayer Book has that edge to it about the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. They would pick those parts of the Bible that head towards the brightest possible future.

MOHLER: In terms of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, clearly the modernists won in every major denomination. By the time you get to, say, the breakpoint of 1930 or so, the evangelicals are clearly out of power and devastated in terms of their hopes to recover those churches. You also cite that most interesting reference in The Nation, a magazine from the very beginning of the left, pointing out that in terms of an historical perspective it was the so-called fundamentalists who actually did have the claim upon continuing orthodox Christianity. And that statement in The Nation actually suggested back at the time that the liberals should leave and form their own churches as an act of intellectual honesty. But of course that did not happen, and the conservatives lost. Do you think that that was fated, so to speak? In other words, do you think that was almost a necessity of history given the direction that the country was going?

FITZGERALD: No, I don’t think there’s anything that predetermined it right there and then. It seems to me that it was less that the modernists won than that the fundamentalists as opposed to the evangelicals—because everyone was an evangelical at the time—the fundamentalists simply failed to convince the conservatives in their denominations that they ought to pull apart from the denomination. People who were very conservative theologically preferred to remain within the denomination particularly because of the importance missions.

MOHLER: You make that very clear. And by the way, the work of Bradley Longfield and his work on the Presbyterian controversy is very helpful here and may well be in the background of your analysis. And the observation he made, and the observation that’s very clear in your work, especially when your think of Presbyterians, you think of the controversy including Gresham Machen and the role someone like Clarence McCartney, the distinction being that there were fundamentalists and there were modernists, the liberals, but the mainstream were moderates and the point that Longfield makes is that in every one of these denominations the fundamentalists, the confessional conservatives, lost because it was the moderates who decided at the end of the day that they would rather be loyal to their denomination than to define it theologically. You actually make that very clear.

FITZGERALD: I think that’s fairly normal in American churches. I don’t know how many pastors actually think theologically all the time. They have lots of practical issues to deal with and in this case, the practical one was the continuation of these denominations.

MOHLER: Well you’re talking about to my life very directly. And I think one of the most interesting things that has developed in American evangelicalism is that I think our pastors are a good deal more theologically engaged now because they have to be. I don’t think that was necessarily a decision, but rather the context requires them to be far more consistently theologically engaged, because otherwise the acids of modernity, as Lippmann would call them, will leave the pastor without much say. So I just jumped over a good many decades here, but I do think that’s a very important part of the story, because by the time you get to the pre-World War II period and especially thereafter with the rise of the of the new evangelicalism, you’ve got an identifiable evangelicalism coming out of the ashes of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy who want to be as orthodox as the fundamentalists, but to be culturally engaged. And my guess is that’s where most people think the story you’re telling actually begins, that’s where they begin to recognize who are now called evangelicals.

FITZGERALD: I think that’s true. By the way, just from the beginning of your remarks now I wonder if I can ask you a question. And that is, I saw Lifeway did a poll in early November last year. It was asking first the clergy and then the laymen to say what issues were most important to them. I think what was interesting was the divide between the two, because the clergy took the theological issues, or not theological but let’s say they said what was important was the character of the person involved, their stances on religious freedom, on abortion, and that kind of thing, whereas the laity almost as a whole said that their concerns were economics and national security. And I was wondering how that fit into the whole issue of why 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump when a lot of pastors or indeed intellectuals such as yourself were opposed to Trump or somebody else.

MOHLER: It’s a very complicated situation. I understand the question. I would say a couple of interesting things to note: first of all, just in terms of the election, it was not true that a majority of evangelicals supported Donald Trump until he was on the precipice of gaining the Republican nomination. And at that point clearly they did, and I think the reason for that is simply the binary nature of American politics and the fact that from the period of the late 1970s until the present what’s been driven into the central concern of American evangelicals, especially in the pews, is a concern for a particular vision of government and of morality and engagement with these cultural and moral issues that didn’t at all make it a hard decision for most evangelicals. I think that’s what’s really interesting. In other words, it wasn’t an excruciating decision for most Americans. Binary choice: Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump. They didn’t have to think very long about this. I think ministers had to think a bit longer, and that’s the divide. I think just given responsibility, pastors and other evangelical leaders had to think a bit longer about this. And it’s still a complicated situation. I don’t know that I answered your question very clearly, but that’s what first comes to mind.

FITZGERALD: Well, thank you for that.

MOHLER: I think we shouldn’t at all be surprised. If you look at least in terms of the medium-term and you put the Republican platform and the Democratic platform side-by-side, you can even take the candidates’ names off. I think that’s the great lesson from 2016. You can take the candidates’ names off and almost entirely predict the voting pattern.

FITZGERALD: Well I think you are right about that generally, but the vote was higher than it had been before. And perhaps that’s simply a sign of how much more important these platforms have become to people. But in New York everybody asked me how this could possibly happen since Trump is the opposite of what one might think an evangelical would vote for as a personality.

MOHLER: Clearly these were amongst my most personal concerns in the midst of all of this. But here’s a lesson to be learned, at least for me, in terms of this picture. And that is that some were concerned with the distinction between Donald Trump and the ideal, and frankly generally expected, Republican nominee; and the other distinction is between Donald Trump or any Republican nominee and Hillary Clinton. And so when you ask why was that number higher, I actually honestly believe it had something to do with both, but it had a great deal to do with Hillary Clinton at the top of that ticket and the realization that for evangelicals, on issues ranging from abortion to just the general worldview issues at stake, probably feared Hillary Clinton more than any contemporary political candidate.

FITZGERALD: Well that’s an interesting point.


MOHLER: By any measure, this is one of the most significant books on American evangelicalism ever to have been written. But what makes this book particularly interesting is that heretofore, most of the books considering evangelicalism have been written either by evangelicals of one stripe or another or by those who would be identified as former evangelicals. When it comes to this particular book and this author, Frances FitzGerald fits neither of those categories. But still she has invested in this great project a study and a history of American evangelicalism.


MOHLER: Back to you book, and I’m glad to go back and forth, especially since you deal with me in the book, so there’s some points of conversation I look forward to there. But let’s do fast forward to the evangelical empire that Martin Marty identified. By the time you get to, say, the 1970s and especially 1980s, Americans are awakened, at least those read Newsweek and Time and those within the precincts of the cultural elite, they at least have to know there are a significant number of Americans who identify as evangelicals, and this could be a big story. And again you were a part of breaking that story: 1981, Lynchburg, Virginia. Did you see anything like what would eventuate in your book?

FITZGERALD: No. In a way I wasn’t really thinking politically at the time. I was more interested in the culture and why anybody would become a fundamentalists and how fundamentalists ran their families and society and so on. I didn’t even very much bother to think about it. But certainly if I had I would never have I think imagine how powerful this movement could become.

MOHLER: Now when you tell the story in terms of the contemporary evangelical movement, you talk about those who like Harold John Ockenga, Carl F.H. Henry, the other titans who came together to help to define this, Billy Graham, Christianity Today, eventually Fuller Theological Seminary and the entire network of institutions—and of course in the beginning this was, not exclusively, but overwhelmingly a Northern phenomenon because it came out of that fundamentalist/modernist controversy in the North. But it did become two evangelicalisms as one. Now even though there are continuing differences between North and South, you do entitle your book The Evangelicals, implying one evangelicalism of these days. What happened—I have my own argument—but what happened to meld the two more or less into one?

FITZGERALD: I think if you had to say very fast you’d say Billy Graham.

MOHLER: You said that very fast, and I think that’s exactly right as half of the story, and I think the other half of the story is the threat of the a new secular age, the entire complex of challenges that came with modernity. This is in many ways my personal story. I’m too invested to have much distance, but I think it was the great organizational and symbolic power of someone like Billy Graham, a singular figure without whom this story can be told.

FITZGERALD: He’s also able to preach in the North and the South the way few others have been able to before. He came from South Carolina, but he went to Wheaton and so on. He had both sides going for him all the time and people didn’t find him a stranger in either part of the country. And five of his revivals drew conservative Protestants of all kinds together who had never really been close to each other before, just physically but also I think they began to understand that they—Swedish Baptists and so on, small groups that came from abroad more recently—began to see that they had quite a bit in common with a whole lot of other groups. And so that’s really how the evangelical world was put together. I’m not so sure that for him the anti-modern strain was very important. I really don’t think so. I think that he was sort of in the middle always.

MOHLER: Well in one sense he was. I mean in terms of the larger movement of evangelicalism, the reason why the movement gained, not so much with reference there to Dr. Graham. And at this point I simply have to say I’m very indebted to Dr. Graham. He befriended me when I was very young; he spoke at my inauguration as president of Southern Seminary. We have a school here because of that date named in his honor. I later served as chairman one of his crusades. You can’t tell the story without Billy Graham. And by the way when you mentioned the North and the South, I always remind people that he spoke with a Carolinian accent, but always made certain that his address was, “Just write me. Billy Graham; Minneapolis, Minnesota.” To say Minneapolis, Minnesota with a Carolinian accent was to make a national claim in essence.

FITZGERALD: Ha! That’s good.

MOHLER: Now in terms of the story of evangelicalism, you do bring together the North and South, and one of the ways you do that importantly is with what came in the Southern Baptist Convention, especially in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. And you work hard to tell that story, and I read it with interest as the whole book, but since I’m involved there I do want to ask you a couple of questions, which is, Do you see this as the fundamentalist/modernist controversy of the North arriving late in the South?

FITZGERALD: Yes I do. I think that’s pretty much the case. I mean, I think that the central issue is inerrancy, the inerrant Bible.

MOHLER: I agree. That leads me to ask question, why then in the South—I think things is a perplexing question for many inside and outside the movement—why then did conservatives prevail in the Southern Baptist Convention having lost in all of the fights over the Northern denominations.

FITZGERALD: Well, a different time of course. It seems to me that they were particularly struck at that moment by everything one might call modernity, industrialization, urbanization, and so forth. Most pastors at the time, Southern Baptist pastors were rural. And they preached in rural districts. Forced to choose, they would say we want tradition and we don’t want any of this new stuff. So when the conservatives said these people are modernists and are changing the whole structure of theology and so forth, I think people would believe them. They believe in the truth of the Bible without asking themselves—most people—what that actually means. That Bible is true, but whether it’s true in the sense of the Westminster Confession or it’s true in the fundamentalist reading, they probably don’t ask.

MOHLER: Well, I think there’s a great deal of truth in that. I think there is, the way I would explain it, a basic instinct on the part of most evangelicals and certainly most Southern Baptists in particular—one little footnote here by the way, the vast majority of messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention during those crucial years were from rural and suburban areas, rural and suburban churches. I think you can’t talk about the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC without the new influence of conservative suburbs around the cities from Dallas and Houston to Atlanta and Birmingham and elsewhere. That’s where the massive megachurches develop during that very same period, providing most of the leadership for the Conservative Resurgence. I do want to say that as I read your account and having lived this history, it seems to me that one of the distinctions between what happened in the North and what happened in the South was that conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention made a sustained argument over time. And you do reflect this in your book. There were conservative concerns about the direction of the denomination going back to the 1920s, but there wasn’t a widespread traction to that argument of alarm. But by the time you get to the 1970s, I think clearly conservatives had the far better argument concerning theology and the inerrancy of Scripture. And eventually Southern Baptists responded in a way that grassroots in the North did not.

FITZGERALD: That’s certainly true. And it surely has to do with the nature of the South and the fact that the South had been really outside of a whole lot of the modernist currents for so many years. And they just sort of came upon them suddenly, without much of a back story. There were a few people in seminaries who would preach a slightly more modernist Bible, but they were fairly few. The rural people didn’t think about it so much. But you make an interesting point about the suburban nature of the new leadership, because according to the sociologists that I read, John Green and so forth, Nancy Ammerman on the Southern Baptist Convention, that’s where the conflict begins, which where rural and other traditional people come into cities, to the suburbs mostly, and meet the modernists, if you want, all these new things. And so they go into reaction and become militant. And that’s the definition of fundamentalist, I think, according to George Marsden any way, which is the militancy of the objection to modernization or modernism.

MOHLER: Interestingly, we’re back in the same pattern. Many historians speak of the conservative movement in the SBC and describe it as fundamentalist. And by the way in terms of spirit, I think there’s legitimacy to that; I say that as a conservative Southern Baptist. They certainly try to put that over against the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. If Gresham Machen was a fundamentalist, then so am I in that sense. But what makes fundamentalism inadequate there is that the evangelicals specifically rejected the truncated theological concerns of American fundamentalism, its preoccupations with some secondary theological issues and also called for an engagement with the culture rather than a withdrawal from the culture. I think that’s the distinction between the great fundamentalist tabernacles built on the fringes of the suburbs and the vast evangelical megachurches. In other words, one is built in kind of a tilt-wall construction to say, ‘We don’t expect to be here for long.” Those megachurches were built in order to say, “We’re gonna be here and occupy until they come.” So those are two very different paradigms.

FITZGERALD: I think that’s certainly true. We talked about this before, but if you take the standard of the inerrant Bible, that’s one major point on the other side of this argument. I hate to use labels that people don’t want themselves, but for a very long time Southern Baptists refused to be called evangelicals, and it wasn’t till fairly recently that it has become generally accepted. They were Southern Baptists, period.

MOHLER: Yes, and we didn’t feel like we needed anyone else, as a matter of fact, that was a sufficient identity. There’s one interesting footnote to that though, and that is that conservatives, or those who would later be recognized as conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention, did identify with American evangelicals. One central symbol that’s often forgotten: R. G. Lee was the pastor for decades of the Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He was on the founders of the National Association of Evangelicals. He wanted the SBC to join the National Association of Evangelicals. Eventually it would be one of his successors, Adrian Rogers, to be elected as the first president of the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC. So I think that’s a part of the story that is missing. In one sense what happened in the Conservative Resurgence was that self-consciously evangelical Southern Baptists are the ones who ended up being elected to leadership and bringing about changes in the denomination.

FITZGERALD: Absolutely, sure.

MOHLER:  In terms of how you deal with the Southern Baptist Convention and your chapter on the evangelical thinkers—and forgive me, you actually deal with me and my story a bit in this—but I was not first alarmed by modernism in the church, I was first alarmed by an entirely secular challenge that came to me as a teenager; atheism coming with very strong arguments, and what I needed was apologetics; I needed grounding; I needed Christian thinkers. And without going into the details of the story, I eventually found good sources of theological help and they were all evangelicals, some of them evangelical Anglicans as such as John Stott and J. I Packer, some of them evangelicals associated with the North, eventually someone like the Carl Henry who became in many ways my mentor. But most importantly during that time, it was the man who is the central figure of that chapter of what you call “The Evangelical Thinkers,” and that was Francis Schaeffer. That is that with that was how I became aware. I became aware of theological liberalism and modernism after looking for how I could identify and ground my beliefs in orthodox, historic Christianity over against the secular onset. So I think for many people in my generation there would at least be a very similar story.

FITZGERALD: Well that’s probably true. Schaeffer certainly had an extraordinary influence on many evangelicals. But again one might point out that where you found your sources of authority were men who were all Northerners. And that makes sense since this modernism came from the North, so too did the reaction to it. You couldn’t look for it in the South because it hadn’t happened.

MOHLER: Yes, it certainly hadn’t happened except in some isolated places. In retrospect we can see in some university battles and in some battles over professors in the seminaries in times past. All the basic issues were there, but the denominational energies were not yet focused on dealing with the problem. An example I often use is the human body. The system of antibodies comes immediately to protect the body when there’s a problem. And so the early efforts were to isolate the problem and deal with it just locally. It took a great threat in order for that basic antibody system to be overcome by the denomination willing to risk its own identity and the future by dealing with issues it thought were absolutely essential, and I think rightly so, especially the inerrancy of Scripture.

FITZGERALD: Looking back, do you think now the threat was as great as you thought at the time?

MOHLER: No, I think it was greater to be honest. In other words, I think that if you could take Southern Baptists in the 1970s and 80s and fast forward to where the left wing of this denomination has gone, it would be beyond anything they could have believed. The direction undertaken by the more liberal churches that left that were then in control of the denomination and its elites, I think if anything conservatives underestimated the problem back in the 1970s and 80s.

FITZGERALD: That’s interesting.

MOHLER: It’s something you can only find over the passage of time. Once the more liberal wing was no longer under the constraints of the denomination’s infrastructure, it headed off left in a hurry. Just take the issues related to the revolution in sex and morality. Those churches are very clearly identified with the mainline churches. And even this week an announcement coming from the group known as the Alliance, it used to be the Southern Baptist Alliance, it would be clearly identified with the left-wing of the Northern denominations.

FITZGERALD: Right, but that’s a relatively small left-wing alliance.

MOHLER: Yes, but many of their leaders were actually bureaucratic officers in the Southern Baptist Convention before the Resurgence. They had an inordinate influence in the SBC.

FITZGERALD:  Right. At least I think the general view was that the leaders of the SBC were trying to conciliate both sides, and that had been their effort throughout Southern Baptist history really because the Southern Baptist Convention contained a great variety of traditions. So the leadership tended to be very low-key about its doctrinal lines, you know, as opposed to taking a liberal or a conservative stance.

MOHLER: I think many of them saw that as their great role. Their purpose was to conciliate and create a denominational consensus that would include the vast majority of Southern Baptists. And I’m an insider so it is impossible for me to have critical distance that others would have, but I think it was an enormous development when grassroots Southern Baptists came to the conclusion that there was a problem big enough to require a total restructuring of the Southern Baptist Convention. To overcome the inertia in a denomination at that time was if not miraculous, let’s just say it was unprecedented in the SBC.

FITZGERALD: Right. By the way, again, this is my role as a journalist. I’m much more comfortable as an interviewer, I was wondering why you thought after these many years of growth in the SBC that it’s now leveled off and even slightly declining. There are various theories about this, so I’d love to hear yours.

MOHLER: That’s a great question. I would say first, before we get to anything theological, although this is tied to theological concerns, Southern Baptist birth rate, along with the rest of the county, that is significantly smaller than it was. And the reality is the vast majority of baptisms in the SBC all along—and in every other Protestant denomination, by the way—are our own offspring. So that has one immediate effect. And there’s good work showing that happened in the Northern denominations, the fall of birth rate is part of what is going on there. I think the other thing is that revivalism that had been one of the key energies for producing baptisms, membership, church attendance in the SBC, revivalism doesn’t really fit the cultural moment any more as it once did. So the great growth in the SBC—and by the way you document this in your book: United Methodists, or what became the Methodists we’ll simply say, were the largest Protestant denomination in the US until well after the Second World War. Southern Baptists only became the largest Protestant denomination after that period. And revivalism was a huge part of that. And I think the changes in the cultural context are massive. There is no easy evangelism in that sense now. It’s very tough. The South still has vestiges of the Bible Belt, but Southern Baptists no longer have the predictable growth that simply comes by doing what Southern Baptists have always done in preaching the Word, holding revivals, reaching out to the community. It’s a much tougher situation now. And I think we’re going to learn a great deal over the next twenty years or so.

FITZGERALD: Do you think that’s a consensus in the Convention among the leadership, that this is the problem and there’s really nothing to be done about it because the whole cultural setting is not conducive to evangelism?

MOHLER: No I didn’t at all mean to say there’s nothing to be done about it. I think there’s a great deal to be done about it, which is why I’m president of a seminary. I think one of the things to be done about it is to send out an army of young pastors who are going to lead churches that clearly teach and preach the gospel and in innovative ways, which means no longer in the South can you just put up a building and a steeple and say, “Y’all come,” and people come. Now it’s a very different missiological environment. It’s going to take a whole new set of skills. I do think there’s a great deal to be done, that’s what I’m committing my life to. But it won’t work to simply do the old things. And I think that’d be true if you look at the ministry of Billy Graham. There’s a reason why the Graham organization began to shift from those great city crusades decades ago to something different. This is a different cultural moment. Revivalism was specific cultural moment.

FITZGERALD: Interesting. I must say it went on for quite a while, because the Puritans were constantly having revivals.

MOHLER: And I it still goes on in some senses, but you no longer have a city like Los Angeles or New York paralyzed basically by a Billy Graham crusade. It’s not front-page news anywhere in America. It’s a completely different cultural moment. It’s not front-page news in Atlanta.

FITZGERALD: Right. That’s interesting, yes.

MOHLER: Let me ask you another question, if I may, which has to do with one particular way I show up in your book, and this is kind of a point of personal privilege, but it was also a good reminder to me. You deal with an event in which I was a leading participant called Justice Sunday that was held what seems like a long time ago during the George W. Bush administration. You point at one of the arguments that I made in which I talked about parallels between the liberal interpretation of the Constitution versus conservative interpretations of the Constitutional text and conservative interpretations of Scripture versus more liberal interpretation of Scripture. You wrote this sentence, if I may give it back to you. You said I was in danger of conflating the Constitution and the Scripture, the Constitution as an infallible text. I just wanted to tell you that I was aware of that when I was speaking of it; that’s why I went on to say the honest way to deal with the Constitution is to amend it, which we can’t do to Scripture. But there is an amendment process undertaken more than twenty times with the US Constitution. It’s not an inerrant text, and it is both fallible and correctable in a way distinct from Scripture. The way you raise that issue with reference to what I had to say makes me continue to use the analogy, but I’m going to be much more specific in make sure that I don’t take a breath before I make that further clarification.

FITZGERALD: Unfortunately the reporters who were there just simply didn’t report your further remarks about amendment. So I didn’t know about them. But I think it is a danger that reporters seize upon the most radical or exciting statements and tend to leave the rest out.

MOHLER: Sure, I get that. And that’s not a complaint, just a point of I thought helpful clarification I would want to make in a conversation like this. And I also have to say about that event, if you talked to my high school friends they would have said that I was least likely of all my high school class to show up in Rolling Stone magazine. But because of that event I did. So that’s one thing that came out of that particular controversy. It got the attention of Rolling Stone magazine of all places.

FITZGERALD: [laughter]

MOHLER: Ms. FitzGerald, this is an incredible work of historical scholarship written for more than an academic audience, written for, as in all your books—you won the Pulitzer Prize for your work on the Vietnam War because you’re able to tell these grand narratives and do son in a way that gets national attention. What do you think is the next chapter in the evangelicalism of which you write in this book?

FITZGERALD: Oh goodness, I think it’s very hard to say because in my view there’s no one leadership anymore and there’s no one direction. It seems to me that there’s a splintering, some going off into social justice mode; some haven’t. On one hand there are many more new immigrants, Latinos in particular, involved in evangelical churches than there were before. So the changing ethnic and demographics of it are creating something new but we don’t really know what it is yet. The few polls that one sees about millennial evangelicals tend to show that they’re more social-justice oriented than their parents and less interested in the Christian right agenda, with the exception of abortion.

MOHLER: It’s going to be very interesting to see how that story unfolds. Just one final question in terms of this book. When I finished the book, I felt like I wanted to ask you the question, from your perspective, do you see the cultural and wider impact of evangelicals in the United States as a problem to be explained? In other words, I wonder about someone who is not an evangelical reading this book. Do you see evangelicalism as a helpful contributing voice in the American public discourse, or fundamentally a problem that needs to be identified so it could be suppressed?

FITZGERALD: No, I wouldn’t have written this book if I thought of evangels simply as a problem. That’s not it at all. They’re a major part of the American scene. And while I may personally disagree with one thing or another, one policy or another, I find the whole story of evangelicals to be one of the most fascinating ways to look at American history that there is.

MOHLER: Well you give us a great deal to think about in this book. I do not think that any work on American evangelicalism has to date been anywhere near as comprehensive as yours nor the narrative as well and interestingly told. I doubt very much there will be any to follow on this scale anytime soon. So if you’ll accept this on behalf of American evangelicals, I do appreciate the care and interest you invested in this work. Ms. FitzGerald, thank you so much for thinking with me today.

FITZGERALD: Well thank you very much, Dr. Mohler. I am flattered by your kind words.


MOHLER: That was a most interesting conversation, and I expected it to be so because this is a most interesting book and written of course by a most interesting author. The story behind the book and the story the book tells: both are themselves very, very interesting. But when you look at this particular book and the timing of the book, it arrives just at another one of those moments when American evangelicals are asking the question that is never far from hand. And that is who exactly are the evangelicals? What does our story mean? Where is evangelicalism headed? These are live and very urgent questions in the year 2017, 500 years after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The evangelicals remain some of the noisiest of all Protestants, and for good reason. I think at least a crucial part of the self-consciousness of American evangelicals is that we are continuing that very Reformation that was begun 500 years ago today. But that means that evangelicalism is not a church, it is a movement. And as a movement, it did become, as Martin Marty has been cited already to have said, the great evangelical empire. The question is where exactly are American evangelicals headed now. In terms of this new work by Frances FitzGerald, there’s no question it’s going to be the cause and subject of many conversations among American evangelicals and, at least in theory, far beyond that. It should be noticed that this book has already been reviewed in some of the most important intellectual journals that serve the United States. That should perhaps server as a signal that evangelicals are not only interesting to themselves but to the larger public as well. And when Frances FitzGerald explained why she wrote the book, you’ll recall that both in the book and in this conversation she said that she wanted to understand who these people were as evangelicals that showed up here in the late 20th and early 21st century with such an unexpected influence in American culture and beyond that, also in American politics. Some of the early critical reactions to this book have included the criticism that Frances FitzGerald was not sufficiently comprehensive in telling the story. There are certain traditions and trajectories in evangelicalism that are simply not directly addressed. But when you look at a book that is already over 700 pages, you’re looking at the telling of a story that already by that indication is bigger than any single volume or any single author could ever undertake. It’s a tribute to this book and this author that it tells so much of the story and so well. There’s certainly more to the history and the reality of American evangelicalism than can be revealed in the this book. But that’s true of any book. There’s certainly more to say, but there’s not less to say. And this is a conversation, it’s safe to say, that will continue.

Many thanks again to my guest Frances FitzGerald for thinking with me today.

For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, Go to Thanks for joining me for Thinking In Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.