MORAL MINORITY by David R. Swartz

moralminorityreviewed by Mark A. Noll

David Swartz's thoroughly researched and persuasively argued Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) focuses on the politics of evangelicals in the non-South United States as those politics were configured in the early 1970s. As a challenge to the conventional story that assumes a permanent, organic link between rightwing Republicans and the nation's evangelical believers, Swartz documents the moderate and left-leaning character of that early evangelical configuration.

While the book does recognize that strong ideological conservativism or political apoliticism has long characterized a broad sweep of American evangelicals, it also explains how and why evangelicals from the center and left led the way in mobilizing this segment of the American body politic. Careful study of the networks represented by the 54 signers of "The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern" (1973) enables Swartz to make good on his claim that organized evangelical politics in the recent past began as a socially progressive movement a half-decade or so before comparable mobilization on the right.

The Chicago Declaration, with its forthright denunciation of racism, materialism, American militarism, and the structural forces reinforcing poverty, drew together a surprising array of leaders: post-fundamentalist neo-evangelical theologians like Carl F. H. Henry, evangelical promoters of racial justice like John Alexander of The Other Side magazine, anti-Viet Nam War protesters like Jim Wallis of the Sojourner's Community, African American activists like John Perkins, Reformed proponents of social justice like Richard Mouw, Anabaptists engaged in public advocacy like Ron Sider, community-minded veterans of the Jesus Movement like Sharon Gallagher, Latin Americans serving in evangelical parachurch agencies like Samuel Escobar, and more. The blessing of Oregon's Republican Senator Mark Hatfield, along with positive editorial notice from Christianity Today and a few secular publications, drew wider attention to this coalition. It gained support from students and faculty at several evangelical colleges in the East, Midwest, and West, while also appealing to many participants in InterVarsity chapters at secular universities.

Swartz offers a particularly insightful account of how divergent streams of development came together in a common perception of national ills: Anabaptists who began to address public issues as their constituencies became more urban and better educated, African Americans finding an audience in a few white churches for what had once been their isolated concerns, Dutch Reformed intellectuals testing Abraham Kuyper's vision of Christ's cosmic lordship in American and Canadian settings, and maturing Jesus People still turned off by conforming suburban culture. The same coalition also found itself embracing a relatively common conviction that the dynamics of personal evangelical faith demanded a course of faithful public action. For a brief moment it seemed that "evangelical politics" might come to mean social activism and cultural criticism from the Left.

The last section of this fine book explains why that possibility did not develop. Disagreements over thorny issues of racial and gender identity fragmented the nascent movement. The educators, church officials, and writers who promulgated The Chicago Declaration never succeeded in attracting the mass constituencies eventually recruited by the Religious Right. The turn by the Democratic Party to embrace prochoice policies alienated evangelicals who otherwise leaned in a progressive direction. And Republican activists successfully portrayed the social agitations of the 1960s as threats to evangelical values.

Yet if the evangelical left was, in the title of the book's last section, "left behind," Swartz demonstrates convincingly that it never died out completely. A helpful epilogue sketches the continuing political influence exerted by figures like Hatfield, Sider, and Wallis. It also explains the alienation that substantial numbers of evangelicals have always felt toward rightwing politics and the signs that have increased in recent years of a new evangelical openness to progressive policies. But if the book does end with a cautionary note about simplistic identification of all contemporary evangelicals as conservative Republicans, its great contribution is to recover a history that even some of us old-timers who actually lived through those days had never realized was so dynamic, diverse, and theologically well-rooted.

Mark A. Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at University of Notre Dame and the author, most recently, of Protestantism—A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011) and The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2009)

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1 Response

  1. October 10, 2013

    […] His book review on Evangelicals For Social Action […]

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