Monday, January 21st, 2013
David Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)
It did not have to be. The Falwells, the Dobsons, the Reeds, the LaHayes, all those who may well have given more contours to the term “evangelical” than any theologians – they did not have to be the embodiment of evangelical public activism that goes down in history. There was another option. Maybe there still is. One that protests abortion but also nuclear armament and imperial wars, that answers “what would Jesus do?” with “he would consume less.” One that thrives not only under the halogen lights and artificial plants of suburban churches but also under the scrutiny of Berkeley or Chicago academia. What sounds like a happy hipster fantasy from the fringes of indefinable 21st century evangelicalism is, in fact, a well-substantiated claim of David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, just out from the University of Pennsylvania Press.
The 1970s were not a “Reagan Revolution-in-waiting,” he argues, but the age of a “fluid”, open-ended evangelicalism that was beginning to explore more than just one kind of electoral politics and political activism. In the end, Swartz’ narrative documents a failure. However grand the intentions of the faithful’s small movement, it was not effective enough, was torn apart by identity politics and theological disputes. During the Reagan years, evangelical political involvement eventually became equated with conservative causes. And even though this book makes one wonder at times if it hasn’t arrived ten or twenty years too early, given the fact that many of its protagonists are still around and influential, it describes a chapter in American political and religious history that is definitely closed. Yet Swartz does not provide a lament, and even hints at at signs of re-birth, despite the groans of Ron Sider, one of his main characters: “we called for social and political action, (and) we got eight years of Ronald Regan.”
Characters, anyways; this book is full of them, and they sparkle here. Swartz’s ability to combine biography and social history carries his narrative through the stories of several more or less prominent individual activists who, taken together, represent a segment of the political landscape that is barely imaginable today: there is Jim Wallis, the Post-American communitarian turned presidential confidante; Mark Hatfield, Evangelical and Republican Senator from Oregon who called the Vietnam war a “sin that scarred our national soul;” Sharon Gallagher, the enigmatic co-founder of Berkeley’s “Christian World Liberation Front” that negotiated the movement’s porous borders with both the Radical Left and fundamentalist religion. We meet Calvinists whose Kuyperian understanding of God’s total claim on all of life translated into progressive action on campus and in politics, and Anabaptists whose attempts to live, cook, and bring in the kingdom were suddenly echoed once simple living became a matter of economic urgency, not just Christian faithfulness. Or Peruvian evangelical Samuel Escobar, representing “other third-world evangelicals” and their scathing diagnosis of how American imperialist assumptions had infected evangelical theology and praxis.
Swartz’s emphasis on the contribution of ethnoreligious fringe communities to evangelical political engagement is intriguing. Why was it that the call to a different kind of public faith was echoed so loudly in Dutch, Latino, African-American or Swiss-German quarters on the vast map of American Protestantism? Was there something peculiar about growing up among a minority which could afford the luxury of emphasizing the desirable, not just the doable, and placed a premium on a healthy and functioning community that made many of Moral Minority’s characters particularly susceptible to the goal of changing an entire national community and to “a dualistic application of moralism?” Or was it, in fact, embarrassment about their own confined ethnic communities and the desire to finally being listened to by the America out there that drove their quest for relevance?
Or was the origin of the Evangelical Left located within transformations in fundamentalism, not necessarily the energy of minority communities? Swartz seems to suggest so. It is Carl F. H. Henry’s clarion call to fundamentalists to overcome their “uneasy conscience” and recover the “world changing potential of the gospel” that kicks off Moral Minority. Given Henry’s reputation as the patron saint of conservative evangelical culture-transformers, the storyline of him inspiring the likes of Jim Wallis and Ron Sider seems unlikely at first. But Swartz succeeds in telling it. He downplays the larger implications of choosing this kind of genesis, but demonstrates a significant point: despite the dividing line between right and left, both sides are best understood as fundamentally united by the desire to change the world through activism and politics. At the end of the day, it is that kind of understanding of what the church ought to be and the assumption that such a thing as “Christian responsibilities of citizenship” existed, as the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern put it, that sets it apart as the kind of neo-evangelicalism that blossomed in light of Henry. Swartz provocatively suggests another form of kinship between left and right: the Manichean worldview behind progressives’ combat against what they saw as “satanic” in the United States ultimately “modeled” to the religious right what good activism could look like. “The evangelical left hastened the arrival of the religious right,” he states.
The final third of the book is devoted to a story of decline and decreasing relevance. When workshops were finally splintered up into smaller segments, each representing a particular brand of identity politics or theological preference, a cohesive activist movement became an illusion. And though Swartz points out that many evangelical communes were more long lasting and, by many measures, more successful than their secular counterparts, they also became less and less self-consciously evangelical. Their magazines had to rely on Catholic and mainline Protestant subscribers, still tickled by the peculiarly evangelical brand of energy on their pages, and more than once does Swartz document the looming question: was the evangelical left still evangelical? His suggestion that space played a role in the movement’s decline – stuck in academic bubbles and Northern cities while the country’s political pulse moved more and more to the South and West – is equally intriguing and deserves further consideration in light of the larger historiography of 20th century political geography.
In addition, Swartz points out, the evangelical left was pushed away by secular progressives with whom they shared agreement on various policies. While the evangelical right found powerful coalition partners in rising secular neo-conservatism, the left had to deal with secular cobelligerents for whom abortion rights were non-negotiable and evangelicals an expendable force. Though Swartz doesn’t state it explicitly, one wonders if the religious left was ever taken seriously by their supposed secular allies. Too often, evangelical progressives appear as Johnny-come-latelies, frantically trying to baptize an already existing political agenda and unable to deliver large number of votes for Democratic causes (unlike the evangelical right for Republicans). Eventually, the reader is not surprised to learn that evangelicals who wanted “Jesus’ demands” taken seriously were dragged out of a meeting of the Berkeley Students for a Democratic Society.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Swartz’ narrative of decline is the enduring hold that denominational subcultures had on many progressive evangelicals. Denominational loyalties remained strong. Some activists perceived “evangelical” itself as an imperialist word conquering older, ethnic, local and peculiar subcultures. American religion, Swartz all-too-briefly suggests, cannot be as easily divided along the lines of a conservative-liberal realignment that sociologists invoke. Older boundaries still endured – or were freshly discovered: “High Church traditions … poached surprising numbers of young evangelicals.”
Swartz’ portrait of the Evangelical Left’s breakdown counters not only the thesis that political and sociocultural interests supercede denominational loyalties, but also common wisdom among many conservative evangelicals: peace’n justice speech does not necessarily spill its speakers into a quasi-secular mainstream but may as well throw them on a quest for the distinct and particular. “There is a lack of a sense of body in the evangelical community. It is fragmented.” Carl F. Henry sighed in an interview with Sojourners. After all, once the slogans got old and common enemies couldn’t be identified easily enough anymore to inspire energetic action, whose peace and what kind of justice one talks about became important again. It remains to be seen if para-denominational evangelicalism and its case for modern capitalism are strong enough of a center to prevent a similar fate for the religious right.
David Swartz has written a book of colorfully portrayed characters and credible storyline that strikes an elegant balance between politics, theology, social history and biographical narratives. Wherever he has refused to go down an avenue to explore what was, this book at least opens a new discourse. And wherever he provokes the reader to ponder what might have been, it succeeds, no doubt.
Philipp Gollner, Doctoral Student in History and Presidential Fellow, University of Notre Dame