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.