U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Minority Report: Update on the Christian Left

In the Sunday NYTimes Book Review, David R. Swartz’s new book, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism is reviewed by Molly Worthen (who will be a member of a panel at the S-USIH conference in a month).  Overall, Worthen finds much to praise about Swartz’s book, not least that it is one of the few books to ask what happened to the religious left following the Vietnam War.  Readers of this blog know I am interested in this question as well and having ordered Swartz’s book look forward to seeing how he addresses it.

Of particular interest to the ongoing discussion over Andrew’s forthcoming book on the culture wars is where the evangelical left found itself.  According to Worthen, Swartz provides valuable discussions of the internal disputes that fractured the evangelical left (politics of identity as well as theology) and the political platform of the Democratic Party which made support of abortion rights a difficult position for Christians on the left to accept.  Certainly Christian Left leaders such as Jim Wallis and a few American Catholic bishops and priests devised a strategy that used the “consistent ethic of life” as a rallying call.  But then, as Andrew will probably tell us, such theological consistency was no match for culture war issues that pitted the dire warnings from the left against apocalyptic pronouncements about the end of the American family, American freedom, and American education that came from the right.

Worthen takes issue with Swartz’s claim that actions by the Evangelical Left both pushed Christians into the conservative movement AND provided a strategy that conservatives used to solidify support for their culture war positions.  As many folks have written and debated here, such strategies came from a plethora of sources: the New Left, the Civil Rights Movement, William F. Buckley’s minions, and the cold war.  Worthen insists that (as Swartz also intimates) the “evangelical left was too divided…to offer a competing grand narrative that would resonate with ordinary evangelicals and transform scattered sympathetic student gatherings into a national movement.”  In other words, “the evangelical left was a casualty of the radical polarization of American politics after 1970s.”

What I find somewhat confounding as an intellectual problem is what happened to religion in the radical polarization of American politics.  In a way, both left and right accepted the message in the sign above–they both believed that Vietnam, Watergate, and the drift of the cold war in the late 1970s presaged a day of reckoning for Americans.  The two sides differed (so I argue in God and War) over their theological interpretation of the United States.  Wallis and others on the Christian Left appeared to advocate a post-American era (the title of the first magazine he published); this was not merely a counter exceptionalist narrative but an scathing critique of the foundations of the nation itself.  The Christian Right also believed the nation was in peril, but were more than willing to defend it and find a great deal of righteousness is the foundations of America itself.  On this point, Richard John Neuhaus’s reflections on asking fellow clergy to sign the Hartford Appeal are instructive–the upshot was that he began to see a growing schism among clergy between those who believed the nation could be saved and those who seemed to believe it was hopeless and lost.  One can see this conflict in sharp relief in the days just before the First Gulf War when Wallis went to the Middle East to stop the war, and Neuhaus wrote a long editorial in the Wall Street Journal defending it.  The bottom line was this: the right would defend going to war for the nation; the left believed killing in the name of the nation perpetuated a tragedy made evident in Vietnam.  For me, this is where the culture wars literally bled into real war.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The evangelical left played no role in the growing importance of the evangelical right. It was far too marginal. I have nothing against historical studies of marginal figures and movements. Understanding the margins helps us to better understanding main currents. For that reason I look forward to reading Swartz’s book. But I don’t write about the evangelical left in my culture wars book because conservative evangelicals were animated by the increasing secularization of American public life, and understanding the culture wars dialectic trends does not, to my mind, require including an analysis of the evangelical left.

  2. Ray: Is the upshot of your reflection that, for a religious movement to be successful in the United States, it must also be patriotic or in some way nationalistic? Certainly, one could read the hard times of the ecumenical movement (i. e., National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches) to a sense of loss of patriotism during the Vietnam War protests–see Jill Gill’s EMBATTLED ECUMENISM on this point. It seems the religious left was punished for “mixing faith and politics” then while the religious right is now blessed for doing the same (at least Liberty U. seems to be doing pretty well despite encouraging their Young Democrats to disban).

  3. Andrew:

    Hey, hey, ho, ho — sharply polarized explanatory schemes have got to go. For example, I would think that understanding the relationship/overlap/differences between “the evangelical left” and “the African-American church” might be helpful in understanding an important dimension of the Culture Wars. If “conservative evangelicals” = “WHITE conservative evangelicals,” that leaves a lot of culturally conservative evangelicals out of the story.

    The (perceived? partial?) shift of African American churches on some “values” issues during the 1980s-90s is an important part of the Culture Wars narrative — as is, perhaps, the unchanged position of the churches on other values issues. It seems to me that a contrapuntal narrative that triangulates — or quadrates — between right/left evangelicals and black/white evangelicals, showing the ways in which these groups converged and diverged on issues of faith in politics, would provide a better map for understanding the fault lines and shifting grounds of the Culture Wars.

  4. Hi Mark:

    Good questions as always. I look forward to reading how David deals with the transition from the sixties Christian left to that which morphed into into the counterpoint to the evangelical right. From my work, I was struck at the fault line that even King couldn’t forge when it came to bearing witness to the nation. So King could stand as a moral force on the race question but was hammered when he spoke against Vietnam. That drift seemed to persist into the mid-1970s, and while I do think patriotism might be one fault line, I think making that the only fault line would be too reductionistic. It seems more complicated than that to me. Here I see Wallis’s trajectory somewhat instructive. He was pretty hard on the nation after the war, but when he looked for another position to take in the 1980s he had a hard time finding one that captured both the witness he wanted to represent and the political leverage needed to face down his brothers on the right.

    I haven’t read Gill’s book, but it seems to me that the ecumenism of the 1960s had many possible avenues to take after Vietnam and the left never managed to create an effective metaphorical (and then political) touchstone, and the right did. In a way, Wallis made a difficult offer, become post-American without knowing what that meant in a country that most people, even after the war, still felt better about than anything else they knew.

    • Thanks, Ray. The faith and patriotism question has been on my mind of late, as my next book project (years down the road) on Francis Pickens Miller and the Council on Foreign Relations will center pretty heavily on it. Miller was instrumental to conceptualizing the World Council in the early 30s. He was also heavily involved in pro-intervention groups after 1939. He once stated in a letter his convinction that America could be both “strongly anti-imperialist” and yet “the aggressive champion of a particular way of life.” What a wonderful tension to unpack, methinks!

      Regarding religious right “touchstones,” certainly the idea of vocation which Francis Schaeffer championed during the 1970s helped many religious conservatives gain a more constructive, confident stance toward engaging secular culture. Interestingly, Miller and the NCC/WCC talked ALOT about vocation during the 1950s, but it never realy seemed to stick in mainline churches.

  5. I’m late to the party, as usual, but I’ve got to toss in a couple comments. Andrew, you may be right that the evangelical left played no role in the formation of the evangelical right, I think the left has played a significant role in shaping the right over the last few decades. I’m also skeptical of Swartz’s claims regarding tactics. However, I think the evangelical left, with its ties to the peace churches and the Dutch neo-Calvinists at ICS in Toronto (not to mention its appropriation of Catholic social teaching), did a great deal to shape the intellectual atmosphere at many evangelical colleges and in much of the evangelical press. Its largest impact, that is to say, was (and is) generational.

    L.D.: That’s why someone needs to write a book on Tom Skinner, who figures in both Swartz’s book and John G. Turner’s book on Campus Crusade.

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