Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism
Reviewed by Philip D. Byers, Residence Life, Bethel University
David R. Swartz has produced a book that is at once innovative historiography and enlivening prose. Using the 1973 Thanksgiving Workshop of Evangelical Social Concern and its resulting “Chicago Declaration” as his framework, Swartz narrates and analyzes the mid-twentieth-century progressive movement in American evangelicalism. Examining many of the dominant figures associated with the Thanksgiving Workshop, Swartz explains how a movement once bearing the traces of cultural and political ascendency splintered under the centrifugal forces of identity politics. Additionally, Swartz demonstrates how the then-nascent Religious Right did not merely surpass its progressive rival; rather, it asserted itself by employing the very tactics and rationale which had first characterized the evangelical left.
Swartz identifies his primary thesis in the book’s introduction: the rise of the Religious Right was not a foregone conclusion. Prevalent narratives that depict evangelicalism as a monolith wed to political conservatism from time immemorial are wholly unhelpful. Swartz bases this assertion on both broad and specific grounds. Broadly, Swartz argues that these narratives fail to comport with basic, accepted renderings of evangelical history which recognize a movement that is “fundamentally fragmented and nonhierarchical” (8). In its historical context, then, the simultaneous evangelical entry into both wings of American politics is congruent with the movement’s basic fiber rather than anomalous.
At a more specific level, Swartz’s methodology for corroborating his thesis revolves around portraits of a variety of evangelical activists. The book is divided into three sections. The first section describes the emergence of the evangelical left by focusing on several figures and the issues they championed, including Carl Henry (general social engagement), John Alexander (racial justice), and Jim Wallis (Vietnam). In the second section Swartz identifies the manner in which the movement built on its initial successes by expanding its coalition and tapping into previously-excluded ethnic-religious movements. These chapters focus on the two-thirds world church, the Dutch-Reformed church, and Swiss-German Anabaptists, with a concluding chapter expressly focusing on the Thanksgiving Workshop. The final section details the factors that dissipated the movement’s focus and eventually enervated its overall vitality.
Much of Swartz’s work involves making the unknown a little more familiar, as figures drawing scant prior attention in histories of twentieth-century evangelicalism receive consideration here. Moral Minority reveals former Harlem gang leader Tom Skinner as a dynamic evangelist and prophetic social critic who nurtured relationships with figures including Maya Angelou and Jesse Jackson. An unflinching critic of the unquestioned conflation of American ideals and Christian values, Samuel Escobar challenged American evangelicalism from the margins while also functioning comfortably in “established” evangelical venues like the Lausanne Conference and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Sharon Gallagher and the Christian World Liberation Front provide a fascinating counterpoint to the prevailing depiction of life in 1970s Berkeley, California. Meeting characters like these will be an invigorating exercise for many readers.
Making the blandly familiar a little more three-dimensional, though, might be Swartz’s most significant accomplishment in Moral Minority. Many evangelicals will recognize Ron Sider as the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. They are likely less familiar with Sider’s role as one of the great evangelical networkers in the last half century, initiating the energy behind Evangelicals for McGovern (EFM) and helping to convene and lead the 1973 Thanksgiving Workshop.
Given his role as president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Rich Mouw is perhaps even more familiar to evangelical audiences. Superficial analyses of Mouw could easily characterize him as the epitome of the evangelical establishment – white, well-connected, and an advocate of “convicted civility” in political discourse.1 Yet Moral Minority portrays Mouw’s rich complexity. A fundamentalist by birth and member of Students for a Democratic Society by choice,2 Mouw did much to contribute to the broader evangelical embrace of the Kuyperian belief that God reigns sovereign over everything, both individual lives and societal structures. While Mouw and many mid-century Calvinists first made these points in support of progressive movements, Kuyperian philosophy is now considered mainstream among Christians of a variety of ideological stripes. Swartz’s extensive primary source documentation and capable narration highlight several similar occasions in which characteristics of the evangelical left prefigured later traits of the Religious Right, demonstrating his thesis to be highly plausible.
Moral Minority is not above critique. Interpretively, Swartz adopts the constant equilibrium of an objective reporter, but some of the characters in Moral Minority could benefit from an analyst more willing to demur when his subjects contradict themselves. For instance, the text describes several instances in which evangelical progressives claimed to have no party ties.3 By the letter of the law such statements are true, but any cursory read of Moral Minority shows that evangelical progressives supported Democrats almost exclusively.4 Without sacrificing his academic credibility, Swartz could have questioned whether such claims have any merit and to what degree this dissembling has either helped or hindered the movement.
Still, quibbles like this only emerge when one analyzes a book for an academic journal. Moral Minority is superior scholarship. In terms of historiography, this book covers new ground. While several able scholars have examined the role of neo-evangelicals in the rise of the Religious Right, Swartz does the first comprehensive work on evangelical forays into progressive politics.5 Moreover, like many of the books by Swartz’s mentor George Marsden, this work is also important in the popular sense, and the list of groups which would benefit from engaging his careful research is lengthy.
Contemporary conservatives would do well to familiarize themselves with this history. For secular conservatives and Republicans who have come to depend on overwhelming evangelical support in elections, this story is an excellent reminder of the dynamic nature of evangelicalism. If poll numbers describing increased evangelical ideological diversity have not yet convinced these conservatives of the tenuous footing upon which their coalition stands, reading about energetic evangelical activity in progressive movements might do the trick. Yet this history is also essential reading for evangelical conservatives. The text possesses the capacity both to increase their understanding of their counterparts on the left and to speak prophetically to them regarding their current political alignments and ideological priorities.
Like conservatives, progressives will benefit from exploring Swartz’s book. Besides helping progressives better understand their forebears, Moral Minority has the potential to ease tensions between left and right; when younger progressives see evidence that the Religious Right inherited its modus operandi from the evangelical left, it will be much more difficult to dismiss the movement disparagingly.6 The mutual understanding James Davison Hunter sought to evoke by making this very point in his masterpiece To Change the World is now supported by extensively-documented primary sources.7
Furthermore, Moral Minority contains important words for contemporary protestors and lobbyists. The story of the evangelical left is one of impassioned, committed activists. Those same deep passions and abiding commitments that provided these players with their vitality were the factors that eventually fragmented the broader progressive movement and set the stage for the ascendance of the Religious Right. While political pragmatists may deplore the metaphorical nose-cutting that occurred among the evangelical left, idealists might identify the disintegration of the progressive coalition as the necessary collateral damage of a stand committed to first principles above all else. Regardless of one’s assessment of the madness or virtue of such an approach, activists should be familiar with the story, especially in a polarized political climate characterized by primary challenges and ideological pledges.
Finally, any evangelicals interested in electoral politics as an avenue toward social change should explore Swartz’s scholarship. Much like the record of its tactical sibling the Religious Right, the history of the evangelical left is peppered with evidence of the persistent allure of power. Jim Wallis and the Post-Americans figure largely in Moral Minority and provide an excellent case-study. Swartz describes how the original style of the Post-Americans “sharply contrasted with the mid-century neo-evangelical inclination to court establishment structures” (59). This movement that began with a profound skepticism of the establishment first moved from Chicago to Washington, D.C., later became closely associated with prominent Senator Mark Hatfield, and finally found itself inhabiting “gleaming new headquarters” and functioning at the “center of American politics” (257). Political philosophers and theologians can debate the merits of such an evolution in tactic, but what is indubitable is that a movement that originally found its identity in an intentional co-habitation on the margins with the “least of these” eventually decided to operate within the traditional establishment structure. Evangelicals inclined toward embracing electoral politics as the answer to social ills would do well to familiarize themselves with this story and to develop proactively a philosophy about discipleship and the allure of power. Too nuanced for party slogans and too complex for facile headlines, the story in Moral Minority is an invaluable contribution to the literature on twentieth-century evangelicalism.
Cite this article
- See Richard J. Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010).
- An interesting excerpt finds Mouw reflecting that the “passion, intensity, and length of the ‘endless participatory democracy antiwar protest discussion groups … was not unlike the fundamentalism of my youth’” 138.
- For instance, see: “…the ICS’s rigorous critique of mainstream politics, both liberal and conservative”; Jim Wallis: “The selective and inconsistent morality of both left and right…,” (246); the title of Wallis’ 2005 book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, (257); and the actual text of the Chicago Declaration which reads, “By this declaration, we endorse no political ideology or party, but call our nation’s leaders and people to that righteousness which exalts a nation,” (268).
- Progressive support for Republican Senator Mark Hatfield is an obvious exception.
- For example, see Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011); Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); Steven P. Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); John Turner, Bill Bright & Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Swartz’s chapter on President Jimmy Carter and evangelical hopes for electoral politics is rife with examples of the overlap between the evangelical left and right in method and tone. One particularly salient moment finds then-Governor Carter telling a crowd of evangelicals, “When I’m president, this country will be ours again,” (216). For an example of a popular text somewhat dismissive of the evangelical political activity of older generations and quixotic concerning the priorities and activities of Millenials, see Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (New York: Doubleday, 2010).
- See James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).