Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism / David R. Swartz

moral-minorityA version of this review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Reflections, the journal of the Missionary Church Historical Society.

With Moral Minority, David R. Swartz has produced one of the most eye-opening histories of American evangelicalism in recent years. The book charts the course of an understudied movement within American religious history: the so-called “Evangelical Left.” From our current historical moment, with the lingering influence of the religious right on American politics, a robust and influential Evangelical Left may be difficult to envision. But as Swartz ably demonstrates in his lively, easy-to-read study, this theologically conservative but politically progressive bloc has worked since the 1960s to integrate social justice and conversionist faith into a broadly pro-life evangelical political agenda. This Evangelical Left emerged in the years before the tradition’s right-wing turn, and though never monumental nor monolithic it has had a greater impact on the whole of evangelicalism than scholars typically presume.

Swartz argues that the groundwork for this progressive evangelical politics was laid in the years after World War II by Carl F. H. Henry, theologian and architect of a resurgent neo-evangelicalism. Henry exhorted evangelicals to abandon their political quietism and to assume a greater role in the public square, offering a “commanding call to a new social mission” (21). A second generation of “born-again” leaders would carry out Henry’s charge. At a time when evangelicalism was still “a politically contested and fluid movement” (25), these leaders would turn the tradition’s politics in a leftward direction.

The stories of these emergent evangelical leftists occupy the first part of Swartz’s study. Each chapter offers a biographical vignette of one movement leader: radical peacenik Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners; civil rights activist and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship president John Alexander; anti-Vietnam Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.); and feminist Sharon Gallagher, organizer of the Christian World Liberation Front. Their alternative political perspectives illustrate how, amid the social and cultural tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, evangelicals began to shift the focus of debate from personal faith to public action. Swartz also showcases the broad coalitions among national and international evangelical groups forged by the incipient movement: Samuel Escobar’s Latin American theology, Richard Mouw’s Dutch Reformed theology, and Ronald J. Sider’s Anabaptist theology each influenced the evangelical left in key ways.

These somewhat-disparate strands of progressive evangelical sentiment formally coalesced with the signing of the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Conscience in 1973, at a meeting of evangelical leaders at a YMCA Hotel in Chicago. The document united a movement-in-the-making while also delivering a more trenchant indictment of evangelical social apathy than Henry had offered a generation before. It upbraided evangelicals for their inattention to racism, their tacit endorsement of gender inequality, and their blind allegiance to nationalism, militarism, and conspicuous consumption. It urged evangelicals to repenting for failing to accept “the complete claim of God on [their] lives,” and rallied all believers to embrace “a Christian discipleship that confronts the social and political injustice of our nation” (quoted in 267). Such a decisive statement from such an unlikely source quickly caught the attention of both secular and religious media. According to Swartz, “a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times suggested that ‘some day American church historians may write that the most significant church-related event of 1973 took place last week at the YMCA Hotel” (181).

Indeed, this evangelical “progressive united front” emerged years before the rise of the more conservative Moral Majority. At the time it seemed that consensus centrism, not far-right Republicanism, might become the political persuasion of American evangelicalism, and that leaders like Mark Hatfield and Sharon Gallagher—not Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—might become this movement’s public faces. “That evangelicals would strongly mobilize on behalf of the Republican Party,” Swartz asserts, “was anything but assured” (218).

So what happened? Swartz offers two answers. First, he claims, identity politics fractured the coalition. African American evangelicals felt alienated by what they perceived as sustained racial inequality, even among their leftist colleagues; thus, they poured energy into separate organizations like the National Black Evangelical Association. Similarly, evangelical feminists—turned off by the preponderance of male coalition leadership and frustrated by repeated unsuccessful attempts to gain a greater voice within the movement—turned their attention to building groups like the Evangelical Women’s Caucus. Repeated and seemingly irreconcilable theological clashes between establishment-focused Calvinists and countercultural Anabaptists further fragmented the coalition. Without a unified center, the movement lacked a coherent platform and a resonant voice. Swartz concludes, “Preoccupation with minority rights and identity, while essential to their platform, hurt the political viability of the evangelical left” (210).

Second, evangelical progressives’ fusion of conservative theology and social action made them ideological orphans in the polarized political arena of the late 1970s. Until then, progressive evangelicals imagined themselves as occupying a viable space in electoral politics. However, as Swartz explains, evangelical leftists’ conservative theology alienated their would-be allies in the evolving Democratic Party, which would enforce a pro-choice orthodoxy and embrace a “cultural libertinism” (219) by the late 1970s. Meanwhile, a growing religious right gained traction within the Republican Party largely because of their capacity to forge a united front—a feat that leftist evangelicals could not emulate. As a result, in the 1980s and beyond, “progressive evangelicals . . . were left behind by both the left and the right” because of their inability to “fit [into] an evolving two-party political system” (214).

Swartz’s argument here is convincing insofar as it explains how a once-promising movement has been eclipsed in both the scholarly and popular memory by the much larger and more vocal religious right. And yet at the same time, the argument reveals one of Moral Minority’s difficulties: its use of the term “left.” These progressive evangelicals were neither “left” in the New Left sense, nor “right” in the sense of identifying with the politics of Nixon and, later, Ronald Reagan. Even before the political polarization of the late 1970s, these ministers, activists, academics, and others defied simple categorization. Their concerns were too expansive to fit a single party platform. And yet the appeal of the term “left” is obvious, since no word truly characterizes their stance. Were they “evangelical centrists”? Or just non-right? The existing classifications seem inadequate.

Whatever we might call them, these justice-oriented evangelicals did not disappear in the 1980s and 1990s—a surprise twist in Swartz’s account. Anyone familiar with the landscape of twenty-first-century evangelical politics can attest to the lasting influence of Wallis and his Sojourners organization, which continues to engage evangelicals on issues like global poverty, immigration, and race relations. Sider’s still-thriving Evangelicals for Social Action is the grandfather of all evangelical justice organizations. And a new generation of activists—like Shane Claiborne and his Simple Way intentional community—now follow a path first blazed by these progressive forebears.

The current popularity of figures like Claiborne points to Moral Minority’s greatest strength: its timeliness. As the diverse movement known as evangelicalism once again enters a period in which it is “politically contested,” Swartz’s book provides an important scholarly point of reference for this new context. Academics, church leaders, and laypeople alike would benefit from reading this lucidly written, exhaustively researched, and richly contextualized study.

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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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3 Responses to Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism / David R. Swartz

  1. Javan Lapp says:

    Interesting review, Devin. I’m curious regarding the similarities and differences between these evangelical progressives and those of the progressive era, such as William Jennings Bryan and prohibitionist leaders. I guess I’ll have to read the book…

    • Devin Manzullo-Thomas says:

      Javan, I’d definitely encourage you to read it. One thing you’ll find is that these evangelical progressives often pointed to those of the Progressive Era as spiritual forebears. In fact, some of these leaders (like Wesleyan theologian Donald Dayton) even produced scholarship with the express purpose of “recovering” this period of evangelical history, so that it could inspire the current generation. Truly a “usable past”!

  2. Thank you for this review–it sounds like a book worth reading. I agree wholeheartedly that “left” is an inadequate descriptor. “Justice-oriented evangelicals” is more accurate and more helpful.

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