The constant refrain of this book is that American evangelicals are not necessarily either white or Republican. As the author points out, evangelicals are distinguished more by charitable giving than by Republican voting. And their numbers have frequently been drawn from African-American, Native American, Asian, and (especially recently) Latino groups. So, the media image of evangelicals as a political and racial bloc is inaccurate. Thomas Kidd, himself an evangelical, white, and often (though not in 2016) a Republican voter, insists that the movement has been primarily religious rather than political, and multiracial rather than white.
Kidd mounts his case through a survey of the evangelical past, a task for which he is well-qualified as the James Vardaman Endowed Professor of History at Baylor University. He begins by discussing the eighteenth-century Great Awakening, when George Whitefield rekindled the embers of Reformation piety. Though Kidd frankly acknowledges the blemished record of Whitefield on slavery, he points out that there were African-American converts in the movement from its origins. In the era of the early republic, evangelicals were a nation-forming force, urging religious liberty and attacking social abuses, but they were spiritual in their priorities. They gradually developed an “establishmentarian impulse,” wishing to impose their own standards of sabbath observance or abstention from alcohol on the wider society. Although evangelicals had the worthy aims of ensuring a day of rest for laborers and minimizing domestic violence against women, they opened themselves to exploitation by well-meaning or opportunistic political leaders. The evangelical taste for politics was to prove a snare.