Understanding the “Evangelical Left,” Part 1: Why It Matters for the Brethren in Christ

Most popular and scholarly understandings of American evangelicalism focus on its conservatism — theological conservatism, social/cultural conservatism, and political conservatism. The problem with this narrow focus on evangelical conservatism is that it tends to obscure an important development within the movement: the so-called “evangelical left,” which emerged as a religious and political force in the 1960s and 1970s, ostensibly as evangelicals responded to and/or embraced the New Left movement within American culture.

Most readers of this blog know that, since the 1950s, the Brethren in Christ have been increasingly invested in the American evangelical movement. What some readers may not realize is that the Brethren in Christ also played a crucial role in the emergence of the “evangelical left,” and that the “evangelical left” in turn significantly shaped the religious and political consciousness of a generation of Brethren in Christ.

Ronald J. Sider, for instance, was a major player in the rise of the “evangelical left”; his writings (especially 1977’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger) pointed evangelicals toward the biblical basis for social justice and encouraged them toward political activism. Sider was also (and still is) an ordained minister in the Brethren in Christ Church, and has described how his Brethren in Christ upbringing influenced his ideas about social justice, peacemaking, and political activism.

Given the role that the Brethren in Christ played within this movement, those interested in denominational history ought to have a better understanding of this development. Enter David Swartz, a recently minted PhD in history from the University of Notre Dame. Now a professor at Asbury University, Swartz wrote his dissertation on the formation of the “evangelical left” and its impact on late twentieth century American politics. The dissertation also describes the role of Brethren in Christ people like Sider in the origins of this movement.

In an series of interviews at Withered Grass, Swartz has explained the “evangelical left” and its origins. Here’s a taste:

Wheaton, Fuller Theological Seminary and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship are significant players in your narrative.  What was it about these three entities that made them so key to the growth of the evangelical left?

Fuller, Wheaton, and InterVarsity enjoyed a status as several of the most influential and prominent institutions of the “new evangelicalism” out of which the evangelical left emerged.  They were prone to an internal insurgency for a couple of reasons.  First, they were among the first evangelicals to repudiate dispensationalism, a nineteenth-century innovation of British evangelist John Darby who divided history into discrete dispensations and argued that Christians would be “raptured,” that is, removed from the earth prior to Jesus Christ’s return and millennial reign.  Fundamentalist evangelicals considered the rapture to be imminent.  Such a framework placed supreme consequence upon getting the world ready for the rapture for fear that many might be “left behind.”  This eschatological pessimism clearly inhibited social action.  Repudiating this theory marked evangelicals’ tentative first steps toward social engagement in the postwar era.

A second reason was primarily sociological.  As evangelicals grew more socially and economically mobile, they began to attend college and graduate school in greater numbers.  It makes sense then that an evangelical left would start to flower when the first and second generations of evangelical graduate students at Harvard, Boston, etc., returned to teach at Wheaton and Fuller.  If these young professors had managed to retain a theological conservatism, many of them had not retained the dominant apolitical orientation of their fundamentalist forbears.  Many returned to evangelical institutions wholly supportive of the civil rights movement and wary of the building war in Southeast Asia. A generation of evangelical students, touched by these notions, used the very tools of the middle class bequeathed by their parents to rebut that very tradition.  “Not a whole lot for many of us to worry over, suffer for,” wrote one young evangelical in the 1970s.  “Looking at us here, who would guess what victims we are? We are victims of our past. Our Evangelical history with its immersion in the American Way of Death seems almost to drown us.”

Read the whole interview here and here.

(Stay tuned for our next installment in this series.)

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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7 Responses to Understanding the “Evangelical Left,” Part 1: Why It Matters for the Brethren in Christ

  1. David Swartz says:

    Hi Devin,

    Nice to see this series. The BIC definitely has had an outsized influence on the evangelical left. You’ve probably heard of it, but an upcoming book called The Activist Impulse speaks to the intersection of Anabaptism and evangelicalism in the last decades. Contributors to the volume include John Fea, John Roth, Steve Nolt, and many others who run in these circles.

    Hope we can meet in person someday. I’m a big fan of your blog!

    David

    • Devin Manzullo-Thomas says:

      Hi David! Thanks for the note, and the nice words about my blog. I’m a big fan of your dissertation!

      I’m looking forward to reading The Activist Impulse when it comes out later this year. As someone who is interested in pursuing questions about Anabaptist-evangelical encounters at the doctoral level, I’m looking forward to seeing how folks like Fea, Roth, Nolt, and others (don’t you have an essay in the collection?) are approaching the subject.

      Right now, I’m working with one of the book’s editors, Jared Burkholder, to put together a panel on Anabaptism, evangelicalism, and cultural change for the Conference on Faith and History annual meeting in October.

      Hopefully we’ll run into each other at a conference some day. Thanks for reading.

      Devin

  2. Pauline Hogan says:

    Were it not for the place created by the “evangelical left” I and many others would not feel at home within the BIC community.

    • Devin Manzullo-Thomas says:

      Thanks for the comment, Pauline. I know a great many people for whom your statement is also true, and count myself among them, to a certain extent. That’s something I appreciate about the Brethren in Christ community: that folks with a wide range of Christian perspectives can coexist (somewhat) peacefully, united by a shared desire to follow Jesus Christ in word and deed.

  3. Pingback: What Is An Evangelical? « the search for piety and obedience.

  4. Pingback: Understanding the “Evangelical Left,” Part 2: Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger « the search for piety and obedience.

  5. Pingback: I Am So Excited About This Book « the search for piety and obedience.

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