Is the Past Our Future? Learning From the 'Evangelical Left'

Evangelical Christianity's hijacking was not inevitable. We barely missed the bus. We could have traveled with a more sophisticated political theology, free from clichés of the right and left.
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Would anyone mind if I flung open a window and bellowed a primal scream: "It could have been different!"? Evangelical Christianity's hijacking was not inevitable. We barely missed the bus. We could have traveled with a more sophisticated political theology, free from clichés of the right and left.

Such were my thoughts as I read the thoroughgoing triumph by David Swartz, "Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism." Swartz examines a phase in which many evangelicals embraced the peace movement, preference for the oppressed, simple living and environmental stewardship. His research is comprehensive (no surprise there: this was based on his doctoral dissertation); and the book is a good read on a relevant subject (big surprise there: doctoral dissertations are usually opaque tomes, bearing thrilling titles like, "The Significance of Counter Anti-Pelagius Polemics in Seventh Century Semi-Augustianism: A Introductory Approach").

Mental Memorabilia

Swartz, an assistant history professor at Asbury University in Kentucky, guides us down the baby boomer's memory lane, evoking images of flames in Watts, Newark and Detroit -- and black arm bands and student marches and tear gas and police riots and F-4s and B-52s and U.S. Marines dodging Hue's snipers in the Tet Offensive. Through it all, I couldn't help but mourn over the what-if's: What if the evangelical left saw nuances and shades? What if some of its youthful, bulldog leaders possessed the politician's wisdom and forged alliances with enlightened conservatives? What if the American old left, grounded in pro-religious New Deal liberalism and often embraced by evangelicals, had survived the assault of the fervently secular new left, which scared off many Americans and tainted the "liberal" label?

We see the movement's rise through the sagas and issues of some of its main characters: Carl Henry, who was no leftie but shook many out of their a-political slumber in his 88-page tract, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism; John Alexander and racism; Jim Wallis and Vietnam; Republican Senator Mark Hatfield and electoral politics; Sharon Gallagher and spiritual community; Samuel Escobar and global Christianity; Richard Mouw and the view from Reformed theology; and Ronald Sider, author and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action. Tom Skinner, John Perkins and individuals from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship also played key roles. They gathered with others at a Chicago YMCA in November of 1973 and, after some tense meetings, issued the climactic Chicago Declaration of Social Concern. All seemed set for the rise and dominance of a politically progressive but theologically orthodox evangelical faith. The nation even elected a Democratic born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter, in 1976, the year Newsweek anointed as the "Year of the Evangelical."

But there were cracks and tremors. First, the leaders themselves ailed from their own intensity and finger-wagging righteousness. Nothing measured up. Jim Wallis, for example, condemned America's liberal consensus and said Keynesian economics, the theoretical basis of the New Deal, vindicated corporate greed. "We protest," he wrote, "the materialistic profit culture and technocratic society which threaten human values." Page after page of his publication, The Post-American, later renamed Sojourners, portrayed America as the face of evil, riddling even sympathetic readers like me with guilt. I remember thinking the heretical thought: "If Wallis were in Moscow and writing about the politburo, he'd be escorted to the gulag." He wouldn't fare any better in Hanoi. Granted, our nation's racism was cruel; granted, the Vietnam War was an immoral, colossal mistake. But at least we're relatively free. Doesn't that win our country a few brownie points?

Two subsequent workshops in Chicago fragmented amid arguments over identity politics. The quarreling did not abate through the 1980's: Many mounted protests against President Reagan's Central American policies to little avail while Sider established a political action committee, JustLife, that advocated the Consistent Life ethic. The Reformed-leaning Association for Public Justice (now the Center for Public Justice) refused to sign on despite its resonance on almost all of Sider's policy proposals. James W. Skillen, APJ's director, said evangelicals should spend "at least a decade formulating a public philosophy, then building a constituency, and finally beginning to elect officials based on that philosophy."

Skillen is a good man, but he failed to see that flesh-and-blood political theory develops on the hustings, not in the academy's office. JustLife folded.

Another tremor weakened the movement from the outside: Leaders of the Democratic Party, formerly an evangelical home, bought into the new morality and made abortion a litmus test; even Consistent Life pro-lifers were as welcome as lice -- never mind that a third of the party's rank and file opposes Roe v. Wade and many Americans, while agreeing that abortion should be legal, don't like it. Good-bye to the Hubert Humphrey liberal; good-bye to many Catholics; good-by to most evangelicals. Democrats continue to alienate themselves from a potential constituency by labeling all abortion opponents "extreme." Political wisdom, if nothing else, would compel them to throw a bone: "We understand that this is a complicated issue and that sincere individuals have different views" ... yada-yada-yada ... But no. No one gives even a rhetorical inch.

The entire story reminds me of the quip: "The only difference between liberals and cannibals is that cannibals eat their enemies." Such inner-tribal devouring was not lost in 1935 on Rexford Tugwell, one of the New Deal's artisans (quoted in Arthur Schlesinger's "The Politics of Upheaval"): "The progressive mind is stratified with dogmatism of the most appalling kind ... The progressive theme-song is 'I'll tell you about my panacea but you must not tell me about your panacea.'"

The Moral Majority swept the evangelical left to the sidelines, where Sider's ESA narrowly evaded bankruptcy and Sojourners prowled the wilderness. Fortunately, progressive evangelicalism did not die. The normally warm Sider educated himself on economics and writes with more sophistication today. Wallis calmed, wrote a best seller, and walked in from the radical desert. He now shares the platform with Jimmy Carter, whom he once criticized, and prays with President Obama. He also advocates civility. Mouw writes books and presides over Fuller Theological Seminary. They and others are mentoring the emerging New Evangelical Movement.

Warnings For Today

Are we "New Evangelicals" open to the hard lessons? There are hopeful signs. One leader, Lisa Sharon Harper, has seen that the answer to the "evangelical right" is not a revived evangelical left. She wants more nuance:

"I am a Kingdom Christian, not a leftist Christian, a conservative Christian, nor any other political brand of Christian ... I am called to be a prophetic Christian. The axis of my political engagement is scripture and the biblical theology of shalom: It sets the standards of my political engagement."

Such an approach allows everyone to listen to all sides. There really are compassionate conservatives who share burdens for justice, the environment and the poor. I know. I've met them. We can work together. Honest. Perhaps some will become instrumental in resurrecting the GOP's moderate wing -- which can only be good.

The bus is rumbling back. Swartz's book can help us climb into it if we listen to its implied warnings.

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