The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism
Publication Year: 2012
In 1973, nearly a decade before the height of the Moral Majority, a group of progressive activists assembled in a Chicago YMCA to strategize about how to move the nation in a more evangelical direction through political action. When they emerged, the Washington Post predicted that the new evangelical left could "shake both political and religious life in America." The following decades proved the Post both right and wrong—evangelical participation in the political sphere was intensifying, but in the end it was the religious right, not the left, that built a viable movement and mobilized electorally. How did the evangelical right gain a moral monopoly and why were evangelical progressives, who had shown such promise, left behind?
In Moral Minority, the first comprehensive history of the evangelical left, David R. Swartz sets out to answer these questions, charting the rise, decline, and political legacy of this forgotten movement. Though vibrant in the late nineteenth century, progressive evangelicals were in eclipse following religious controversies of the early twentieth century, only to reemerge in the 1960s and 1970s. They stood for antiwar, civil rights, and anticonsumer principles, even as they stressed doctrinal and sexual fidelity. Politically progressive and theologically conservative, the evangelical left was also remarkably diverse, encompassing groups such as Sojourners, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Evangelicals for Social Action, and the Association for Public Justice. Swartz chronicles the efforts of evangelical progressives who expanded the concept of morality from the personal to the social and showed the way—organizationally and through political activism—to what would become the much larger and more influential evangelical right. By the 1980s, although they had witnessed the election of Jimmy Carter, the nation's first born-again president, progressive evangelicals found themselves in the political wilderness, riven by identity politics and alienated by a skeptical Democratic Party and a hostile religious right.
In the twenty-first century, evangelicals of nearly all political and denominational persuasions view social engagement as a fundamental responsibility of the faithful. This most dramatic of transformations is an important legacy of the evangelical left.
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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Evangelical activists, proclaimed the Washington Post, sought to “launch a religious movement that could shake both political and religious life in America.” This prediction referred not to efforts in 2000 to elect George W. Bush to the White House, nor to the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s during which the president...
PART I. AN EMERGING EVANGELICAL LEFT
1. Carl Henry and Neo-Evangelical Social Engagement
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Evangelicals reemerged in the mainstream political consciousness in the year of the nation’s bicentennial. With the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter, himself a born- again Christian, evangelicals had captured the White House. At the time, more...
2. John Alexander and Racial Justice
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Northern evangelicals’ posture toward civil rights reflected Carl Henry’s emphatic but vague call for increased social action in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Like Henry, many spoke forthrightly against segregation, yet they...
3. Jim Wallis and Vietnam
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Like the rest of the nation, evangelical opposition to the Vietnam conflict developed unevenly. John Alexander and his father Fred, who agreed on civil rights, spent hours arguing over Vietnam in the late 1960s, agreeing only that “factual issues...
4. Mark Hatfield and Electoral Politics
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On a Monday morning in 1971 soon after the first issue of the Post- American was released, Jim Wallis took a telephone call from Senator Mark Hatfield, a Republican from Oregon. “Is it true,” asked the senator, who over the weekend had perused the provocative tabloid, “that there are other evangelical Christians against the war?”...
5. Sharon Gallagher and the Politics of Spiritual Community
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By the early 1970s political activists, evangelical and secular alike, despaired over the futility of their protests. Racial conflagration persisted, despite the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., and The Other Side’s John Alexander. Big business remained big, despite New Left critiques by Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society and...
PART II. A BROADENING COALITION
6. Samuel Escobar and the Global Reflex
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As the Thanksgiving Workshop of 1973 approached, the progressive evangelical coalition consisted primarily of Americans with roots in Billy Grahamstyle revivalism. Sharon Gallagher’s communitarianism, Mark Hatfield’s electoral savvy, Jim Wallis’s antiwar activism, John Alexander’s civil rights advocacy, and Carl...
7. Richard Mouw and the Reforming of Evangelical Politics
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Postwar evangelicalism in the United States encountered an ethnic challenge from within its own borders as well as from without. In the 1960s and 1970s, several important voices from Dutch Reformed enclaves in southern Ontario, western Michigan, and northwestern...
8. Ron Sider and the Politics of Simple Living
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Like the Dutch Reformed, Swiss- German Anabaptists also broadened postwar evangelicalism. With a history reaching to the turbulent sixteenth century Reformation, most Anabaptists opposed infant baptism, iconography, church- state collusion, the use of violence, and other Catholic and Reformed innovations they saw as extra...
9. The Chicago Declaration and a United Progressive Front
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In the 1960s politically progressive evangelicals were “scattered, lonely, and frustrated,” according to Reformed philosopher- theologian Richard Mouw. They came from diverse traditions, nurtured different impulses, and pursued disparate projects. In the...
PART III. LEFT BEHIND
10. Identity Politics and a Fragmenting Coalition
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As Watergate erupted in the hot summer months of 1974, so did evangelical politics. The ferment began when Ron Sider, the Anabaptist organizer of the 1973 pan- evangelical Thanksgiving Workshop, tried to address the complaint most registered by delegates...
11. The Limits of Electoral Politics
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In the mid- 1970s, just a few years removed from the Chicago Declaration, it was not yet clear that identity politics would prove debilitating. If anything, expectations for political success heightened as a most unexpected presidential candidate emerged: an outspoken progressive Southern Baptist from rural Georgia. Conservative...
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In 1983 conservative activists repeatedly disrupted a conference on peacemaking at Fuller Theological Seminary. During a workshop on Central America, one protester shouted his objection to evangelical accommodation with communist totalitarianism...
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The evangelical left also left behind a legacy. Seeds of social justice took root in unnoticed crevices of North American evangelical structures, sometimes sending up shoots in unexpected quarters from thinkers and leaders who had been nourished by...
Appendix. The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern
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I am grateful to a host of mentors, colleagues, friends, and family for their support of this project. For their incisive critiques and model scholarship, I most wish to thank George Marsden and Mark Noll. Many others, including John McGreevy, Fr. Thomas...
Publication Year: 2012
Series Title: Politics and Culture in Modern America