David R. Swartz’s Moral Minority provides a much-needed history of the evangelical left in America during the 1960s and 1970s. For too long, scholars have simplified the evangelical Christian community as conservative and moving toward the formation of the Religious Right. While that holds true for many, if not most, evangelicals, it hardly reflects the diversity of evangelical voices from that era. Furthermore, [End Page 151] historians of the left ignore these colleagues, relegating all evangelical beliefs to a conservative point of view. Swartz argues that the evangelical left had a promising start to its political activism of the early 1970s that lasted until the Jimmy Carter administration. He then delineates its demise and marginalization by the time Ronald Reagan became president. Exhaustively researched, well written, and carefully articulated, Swartz adds a vital book to our understanding of evangelical Christianity, the 1960s and 1970s, and the protest movements.
Far from a universal move toward the right, Swartz uncovers the complexity of evangelical thought as he shows the variety of points of view and arguments. Many leftist evangelicals actively participated in the civil rights movement and then gravitated toward an antiwar platform regarding the Vietnam War. Certain elements within the evangelical left also championed women’s equality, even feminism, and other rights issues. In addition to domestic politics, they often became more entrenched in their leftist vision by examining the international scene and its many economic and political disparities. The exploitation of Latin American nations and their citizens by U.S. corporations provided but one example of why they adopted a liberal outlook on foreign policy and wanted the United States to curtail its harsh Cold War stance and probusiness platforms. These liberal ideas often irritated conservative evangelicals as being out of touch with a “proper” role for religion in politics and moderate evangelicals as too divisive. At the same time, Swartz demonstrates that their leftist colleagues in organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society or even the Democratic Party often shunned leftist evangelicals or pushed them aside because they articulated a faith vision for their stances that did not align with more secular views.
Indeed, Swartz emphasizes that the evangelical left developed its activism and ideologies first and foremost because of theological convictions. For example, they combated racism as a “satanic” force and viewed its associated economic degradation of an entire race as unchristian. They denounced the Vietnam War in the same terms, [End Page 152] in that it defied God’s law of civility and killed too many innocent civilians. Unlike their conservative evangelical colleagues who viewed the lost missionary opportunities as a way to support U.S. policy in Vietnam, the evangelical left stated that their calling and biblical interpretation led to a fight against the “injustice and violence” of the U.S. government and other leading American institutions. They also felt called to denounce American materialism and articulated a vision of leading a simpler, and therefore biblical, way of life.
Swartz concludes with an assessment of why the evangelical left failed in many of its endeavors and ultimately was pushed aside by conservative evangelicals. Ironically, much of its difficulties had to do with the very diversity it championed. The disparate theologies and political views made the evangelical left almost impossible to unite with a clear message, while conservative evangelicals had a greater consistency of outlook that coalesced their objectives. Too, the disconnect of the left from more “traditional” liberals in America as they secularized muted the evangelical message in those circles. A tour de force in American religious history, no scholar attempting to study contemporary America should miss out on Swartz’s study.
David E. Settje is professor of history at Concordia University Chicago. He is author of Lutherans and the Longest War: Adrift on a Sea of Doubt about the Cold and Vietnam Wars, 1964–1975 (2007) and Faith and War: How Christians Debated the Cold and Vietnam Wars (2011).