Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Politics and Culture in Modern America)
First published in Historical Horizons: Calvin History Department Blog. 29 April 2016.
We’re in the midst of a fascinating political season. As we look to potential realignments, particularly when it comes to the role of evangelicals in party politics, it is worth looking to history to see if we might be able to gain greater insight into our current situation.
One important book in this regard is David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. The book provides a much needed introduction to an often overlooked tradition of America evangelicalism, and students in my US Religious & Intellectual History course this semester were fascinated by the movement Swartz describes. We were eager for the opportunity to learn more, and Swartz has graciously joined us at Historical Horizonsto answer our questions and to offer his insights into what might be in store for the evangelical left.
KKD: Let’s start with your brilliant title. Did you have the title for this project at the very beginning? Did you ever consider any alternative titles?
This project, which began as my doctoral dissertation, originally had the title of “Left Behind: The Evangelical Left and the Limits of Evangelical Politics, 1965-1988.” It nicely captured a key point of the manuscript: that the evangelical left was “left behind” by the religious right. And some readers were amused by the reference to the apocalyptic novels from the Left Behind series. But my project really had nothing to do with the end times, so the allusion seemed misleading. So I cast about for a different title for a couple of years while I revised my dissertation into a book manuscript. With one week to go before the title was due, my wife Lisa and I were sitting on the floor in our bedroom talking about titles while our four children wrestled and played all around us. Despite the chaos, she was struck by flash of genius. She suddenly said, “Moral Minority.” It was short, catchy, and played off my characters’ ideological rivals. It was perfect.
KKD: Tell us about your decision to arrange the book around several biographical chapters. What made you choose that structure over a more conventional chronological narrative? Did you have to leave anyone out that you felt deserved a chapter of their own?
I organized the book around eight short biographies of activists who attended the gathering that produced the Chicago Declaration in 1973. This worked really well, I think, as a narrative device. Everyone likes a good biography, which made the manuscript more readable. And I was able to easily identify people who represented certain important characteristics of the evangelical left. Sharon Gallagher, for example, embodied evangelical feminism. Jim Wallis embodied antiwar activism. Samuel Escobar embodied global influence on the evangelical left. The downside was that some important characters in the movement got short shrift. Tony Campolo and Donald Dayton appeared, but because they were not featured in chapters, their considerable influence—and their Baptist and Wesleyan sensibilities—was not reflected in the book as a whole.
KKD: Reading this book in tandem with Daniel Williams’ God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, it’s striking how women seemed to play a more prominent role in the Christian Right than they did in the evangelical left. Do you think this is a fair assessment, and if so, how do you make sense of this?
The evangelical left theoretically offered more space for women. The Chicago Declaration, which served as the manifesto of the evangelical left, read, “We acknowledge that we have encouraged men to prideful domination and women to irresponsible passivity. So we call both men and women to mutual submission and active discipleship.” But in an androcentric culture in which women were often consigned to secretarial roles, theoretical space didn’t translate into actual space. These evangelical feminists, like many feminists in the New Left, found themselves quite frustrated by their limited role in the movement and with male leaders who “refused to take feminism seriously,” as one character protested. In the end, they largely abandoned the broader movement to instead build an organization—the Evangelical Women’s Caucus—that focused more directly on women’s issues. By contrast, women in the Christian Right were typically limited in what they could do in the churchly sphere, but perhaps that gave them more room in the non-churchly realm of politics.
KKD: Since Moral Minority was published four years ago, the American religious landscape has continued to shift. Do you think circumstances might be friendlier to the mobilization of an evangelical left today than they were even a few years ago?
As the book describes, the evangelical left failed to match the success of the religious right because of larger structural issues. Simply put, the religious right found a receptive political party to align with. Prior to the 1970s the Republican Party was arguably less pro-family and pro-life than the Democratic Party. But the Republican leadership was willing to clothe itself in those values to get an important bloc of votes. The evangelical left, with its idiosyncratic “consistent life” ethic, couldn’t attach itself to either party. It didn’t fit the Democrats because of abortion. It didn’t fit the Republicans because of the party’s pro-big business and pro-military planks.
I think this is largely still the case. More and more young evangelicals are wary of American triumphalism, wealth inequality, and xenophobia on the immigration issue. But broader political and social circumstances have not changed—except on the issue of homosexuality. But this means that there are now two big issues that keep many evangelical lefties from voting according to their economic and political view. Unless evangelical views on sexuality change faster than I think they will, the position of the evangelical left is even more untenable than before. The Democratic Party is not a comfortable home. Nor are the awful options of Cruz and Trump being offered by the Republican Party. Many younger moderate and progressive evangelicals feel like they have no electoral options.
KKD: What are the most important lessons history can teach the evangelical left today?
Electoral politics is not the only way to make an impact. Even though it could never find a good candidate or party, the evangelical left significantly shaped the culture of many evangelicals. Having labored for decades with little help Ron Sider’s concerns on poverty, women’s rights, and inequities in the global economy became standard among moderate evangelicals. A new consciousness on issues of consumptive patterns, simple living and the environment characterizes the work of megachurch pastors Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, editors at Christianity Today, and many other evangelicals, the majority of whom have never closely identified with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Despite a hostile political landscape, the evangelical left can still shape behavior, engage non-electoral structures, and be a faithful presence in churches.
KKD: What are you working on now?
My next book is an outgrowth of my chapter in Moral Minority on Samuel Escobar and the “global reflex.” I found much more material—and on places other than Latin America—than I could include in that chapter. But the theme of how American evangelicalism is transformed by global encounters is the same. I’ll have chapters on how missionaries were the most likely of white evangelicals to join the civil rights movement; on how World Vision, after difficult experiences abroad, moved from disaster relief in the 1950s toward “an integrated development” in the 1980s that addressed “the causes of poverty, not merely the results”; a chapter on how North American evangelicals, faced with pervasive secularism, dropping church attendance, and other pressing problems of modernity, were fascinated by supernatural stories from the Majority World; and finally, a chapter on how global evangelicals marshaled a vigorous critique of sexual libertinism in America.
What I find so fascinating about these encounters is that they bump up against American political and cultural categories. Like the evangelical left, the Majority World’s “idiosyncratic” combination of views doesn’t fit American definitions of conservatism or liberalism, at least as we typically conceive them. Because of immigration and a global imagination that continues to grow, this has the potential to shake up established evangelical patterns in the United States.
These questions were composed by members of Calvin’s Spring 2016 HIST 353 Culture Wars (Studies in US Intellectual &: Bekah Waalkes, Ashton Willis, Isaac LaGrand, Benjamin Ridder, Gene Hill, and Jenna Hunt. Many thanks to David Swartz for taking the time to answer them.