Frances F. Denny
Frances FitzGerald

SALT LAKE CITY — Frances FitzGerald has a knack for timing.

Curiosity brought her to Jerry Falwell's church in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1979, on the cusp of a political revolution. The evangelical leader was about to launch the Moral Majority, which helped conservative Christians become a major political force.

"Being a New Yorker, I'd never seen a fundamentalist before, as far as I knew. I was totally fascinated," she said.

She kept tabs on Falwell and his successors over the years, watching as evangelical Christians became a key voting bloc within the Republican Party. Nearly four decades after her church visit in Virginia, she published a 752-page overview of the faith, just in time to dissect evangelical support for President Donald Trump.

"I became convinced that the only way for people to understand evangelicals is to understand their history," FitzGerald said.

"The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America" was a finalist for this year's National Book Award in nonfiction, awarded Nov. 15 to Masha Gessen for "The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia." FitzGerald previously won a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for "Fire in the Lake," which explores Vietnamese history and American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The Deseret News turned to FitzGerald this week for help understanding some of the biggest religion news stories of the year. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: Evangelicals are in the news this week for standing by Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore after he was accused of sexual misconduct. Where does that instinct to protect Moore come from?

Frances FitzGerald: It comes from the same place that the instinct to support Donald Trump came from.

Moore is well-known in his state, and he's upheld what many people think of as Christian values. He's practically gone to jail for them.

In the past, he put up the Ten Commandments on the wall of his courthouse. He's been known to make all kinds of radical remarks about homosexuality and guns and so forth.

I think people believe that Roy Moore and they themselves as evangelicals are being persecuted by Yankees and The Washington Post and so on. That they're not being allowed to live as they want to.

DN: What prompted that sense of persecution?

FF: I think it goes back to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy (in the 1920s and 1930s.) Fundamentalists tried to take over the Baptist and Presbyterian churches and failed. They became separatists and began to feel that everyone was against them. The real problem was that nobody paid any attention to them.

Then, the 1960s and 1970s brought radical changes like feminism. There were a lot of people who felt these shifts were interfering with their way of life, traditional families and so forth.

DN: But evangelicals have also persecuted other faith groups, and there have been high-profile attacks, for example, on Mormons and Muslims. Does this aggression stem from theological or political concerns?

FF: I think their political persona derives from theological differences.

Obviously, the worst thing you can be as far as many evangelicals are concerned is Muslim. But theologically, that's not necessarily true. You could imagine a preacher making the case that Mormons are worse than Muslims theologically.

But since Muslims are associated with the Middle East and terrorism and understood to be anti-Israel, they become more politically incorrect, if you will.

DN: As evangelicals face the same membership decline affecting most faith groups today, are they becoming more open to interfaith alliances?

FF: Absolutely. But I think it only goes so far.

They can align with the Catholic Church on abortion and contraception, but they run into problems with other social justice issues. It really depends on if you're talking about conservative Catholics or progressive Catholics.

DN: Why should people who aren't evangelical Christians care about this faith group?

FF: They represent one-fifth to a quarter of the entire country. They are a large part of the Republican Party, and, to some extent, they run the party. Politically, they're very important.

When they went for Trump, it made a big difference for the Trump campaign.

DN: Evangelical support for Trump came as a surprise to many Americans, including leaders within the evangelical Christian community. What happened?

FF: Nobody expected the vote to go for Trump, including leaders of the Christian right. During the early part of the primaries, 50 of them got together and decided who to vote for and, of course, they chose Ted Cruz, who they thought was the most plausible. After all, he's an evangelical and a Texas conservative.

But then it turned out that only a minority of evangelicals voted for Cruz, which is fairly unprecedented. The evangelical world is splintering in many ways.

Many right-wing evangelicals were part of the tea party, for example. And there's also a progressive left wing that didn't exist before 2005.

And younger evangelicals tend to be more like the progressives. They're social-justice oriented. They haven't given up on (changing) abortion laws, but they tend to support homosexual rights and gay marriage.

DN: What will the splintering mean for the next election?

FF: It really depends on who runs.

The changes are going to be incremental, because they're demographic. Young evangelicals don't vote as much as older people, but, as they grow older, they will.

The splintering is going to continue. Right-wing evangelicals will join with the secular right, while progressive evangelicals join with people of other faiths and secular people over the issues they care about, like immigration.

It may be that we won't be talking about an evangelical vote.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @kelsey_dallas