Politics and Culture Wars on the Other Side of American Evangelicalism – By Todd M. Brenneman

Todd M. Brenneman on David R. Swartz’s Moral Minority

David R. Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, 376pp., $47.50
David R. Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, 376pp., $47.50

Much of the attention paid to contemporary evangelicalism in the United States has focused on the political activity of evangelicals who have energetically supported conservative causes. The standard narrative starts in the early twentieth century: conservative evangelicals-cum-fundamentalists, reeling from the public relations fiasco that was the 1925 Scopes Trial, retreated from the public sphere into their own subculture of fundamentalist churches and Bible schools. In time, however, some of these fundamentalists involved themselves in American public life. Ministers like Billy Graham brought moderate fundamentalism (often called neo-evangelicalism) to the attention of fellow Americans, typically downplaying the need for political engagement with most issues despite evangelicals’ staunch anti-communist stances. Everything shifted once again, according to this standard narrative, in the early 1970s. Spurred by the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, this moderate, apolitical evangelicalism transformed into a conservative political machine, as seen initially in Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, and then the Pat Robertson-led Christian Coalition.

Several scholars have recently challenged this traditional narrative. Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt and Daniel K. Williams’s God’s Own Party examine how fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals were in fact politically active throughout the middle of the twentieth century, pushing for a Christian America that espouses fundamentalist values. Largely overlooked, however, are evangelicals who supported progressive causes. David Swartz’s Moral Minority attempts to rectify this missing piece to evangelical historiography.

Swartz offers eight biographical vignettes of important progressive evangelicals from the post-World War II era to the present, arguing that these individuals shaped political evangelicalism in the 1960s and 1970s until their racially diverse coalition began to break apart due to identity politics and their increased marginalization from fellow evangelicals and secular liberals. Finding neither a home in the more politically-active but conservatively-focused evangelicalism of the late 1970s and 1980s, nor in liberal circles suspicious of any faith-oriented claims, progressive evangelicals sought to respond to the issues of their day through their theologically-conservative but socially-active worldview.

Significantly, Swartz argues that the politicization of contemporary evangelicalism began not with the Reagan Revolution or abortion politics, as is commonly assumed (and as many studies of evangelicalism have asserted).  Rather, the politicization of contemporary evangelicalism began with these earlier evangelicals who were concerned about war, civil rights, American imperialism in third-world countries, consumerism, and consistent ethics. Motivated by issues such as these, evangelicals like Carl Henry, John Alexander, Jim Wallis, Mark Hatfield, Sharon Gallagher, Samuel Escobar, Richard Mouw, and Ron Sider sought to transform American culture primarily through the personal transformation of evangelicals. Each tended to focus on a specific issue: Anderson, for example, stressed racial equality, while Wallis was concerned about American involvement in Vietnam. In one way or another, all of the individuals begged other believers to abandon their largely apolitical stance and become more active in developing the kingdom of God in the United States.

Despite the common ground that more conservative evangelicals shared with their co-religionists, many could not accept progressive evangelicals’ insistence that structural issues lay at the heart of much of the injustice in the world. Given their focus on a personal, individual spirituality, conservative evangelicals assumed that individual conversion would bring about the end of issues like poverty and racism. They were also hesitant to heed progressive evangelicals’ calls to support liberal Democrat candidates and causes. It was especially difficult for most evangelicals to see the negative consequences of American imperialism, which progressive evangelicals were keen to address due to the experiences of evangelicals in the global South.

On the other hand, given their conservative theological stance, progressive evangelicals faced opposition and suspicion from non-evangelical progressives. Because they insisted on a consistent life ethic that valued human life at all stages, many progressive evangelicals remained fixedly pro-life even when other progressives emphasized a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body. Progressive evangelicals were also doubtful of the utility of violence in liberal causes and most supported a non-violent ethic. Finally, their appeals to scripture and their biblical justifications for various claims did not prove effective with secular liberals.

By the late 1970s, a variety of factors caused the loosely associated collection of progressive evangelicals to splinter. Racial and gender concerns fractured the coalition as African Americans, Latinos, and women believed that the leaders of this loose affiliation tended to understand issues from a white male point of view. Additionally, progressive evangelicals’ willingness to find common cause with non-evangelicals alienated other evangelicals.

By the end of the twentieth century, progressive evangelicalism stood at the margins of political evangelicalism. Conservative groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition succeeded where progressive evangelicals had failed. These organizations (and later the Religious Right) mobilized a large number of evangelicals politically and exerted a significant impact on American politics at the turn of the twenty-first century. Despite the setbacks experienced by progressive evangelicals, Swartz ends his monograph on an optimistic note, highlighting the way in which progressives like Jim Wallis returned to prominence with a younger generation of evangelicals who were interested in their message.

Moral Minority addresses a significant oversight in the history of contemporary evangelicalism. Most recent works have ignored this important section of the movement, and Swartz’s biographical examination of key figures adds to the list of important evangelicals in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet the work is more suggestive than definitive. Swartz maintains, for example, that the evangelical left participated in the rise of politically active conservative evangelicalism. But he provides very little evidence to support this assertion, other than to hint that progressive evangelical action showed other evangelicals that it was acceptable to be politically active. Beyond this claim, it is unclear how progressives influenced the rise of the Religious Right.

Additionally, Swartz’s approach to his subject—examining progressive evangelicalism largely through biographical sketches—works well in some cases but not in others. He consistently places biography at the center of the first eight chapters but then abandons this approach for a more thematic, if roughly historical exploration of the fracturing of the progressive coalition. Swartz tries to connect the subjects of his biographical case studies at various points, but it is difficult at times to see how they are interacting with each other and drawing other evangelicals to their viewpoints. One wonders if a more consistent thematic or historical approach might have produced different insights. This alternate trajectory remains open for fruitful study. At a minimum, Swartz’s approach detracts from the flow of the narrative regarding progressive evangelicalism’s development in the postwar period.

Overall, Swartz’s book provides a helpful corrective to the easy equation of contemporary evangelicalism with stock conservative stereotypes. It broadens our understanding of the appeal of evangelicalism across the political spectrum. It also suggests that there is much more to investigate regarding evangelicalism in the United States. Swartz demonstrates that the easy equation of evangelicalism with conservative politics is fallacious. While conservative evangelicals have received the most attention, there is a progressive side to evangelicalism that has the potential to revitalize the movement and allow it to more faithfully speak to the current political and social crises both in the United States and the world.