Review: Moral Minority
David R. Swartz. Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. vi + 376 pp. ISBN 978-0-8122-4441-0.
David Swartz’s Moral Minority asks scholars of modern American religion to consider an alternative historical path for recent evangelical politics. Imagine what would have happened if, instead of campaigning for Republican candidates and lobbying against same-sex marriage, evangelical activists had devoted their recent political efforts to opposing America’s military ventures in the Middle East, lobbying for universal health care coverage, and demanding a more progressive system of taxation. In other words, imagine what would have happened if the evangelical left of the early 1970s had emerged as the dominant born-again Christian political voice instead of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. This scenario would have seemed plausible to many people in the early 1970s, Swartz argues. Moral Minority explains why the evangelical left began with a lot of promise, but also why it ultimately failed to attain lasting political influence.
Swartz frames his narrative around an analysis of the major figures who signed the Chicago Declaration of 1973, an early landmark statement of evangelical social concern. With only a few exceptions, most of the evangelical activists profiled in the book, such as Jim Wallis, Sharon Gallagher, Richard Mouw, and Ron Sider, grew up in conservative evangelical homes in the early postwar era, and then, like many others of their generation, embraced the politics of the left in college or graduate school during the 1960s. Their encounter with the secular social justice movements of the era convinced them that as followers of Jesus, they needed to practice the politics of nonviolent social engagement and confront the problems of poverty, war, and inequality.
The evangelical left borrowed heavily from the political agenda of the secular New Left of the late 1960s, but it remained distinctively Christian. When some New Left activists embraced the use of violence or the desecration of private property in order to make a political point, evangelical leftists refused to follow suit. They repeatedly insisted that their political activism was merely an extension of their attempt to bring Jesus’s message to the world, and that they were simply doing what Jesus would have done if he had been living in America in the late twentieth century. Yet whereas many evangelicals of their parents’ generation had viewed the call to follow Jesus in strictly individualistic, apolitical terms, the young evangelical activists believed that the gospel message was social and political, as well as personal.
For a brief moment, it appeared that the evangelical left had a chance to become a dominant political voice in evangelicalism. But almost as quickly as the movement began, it started to fragment along theological and ideological lines. Anabaptists wanted to go much further than Reformed evangelicals in opposing war and poverty. Whereas many Reformed evangelicals in the movement believed that they could work within existing political structures, Anabaptists called for an embrace of poverty and a withdrawal from political institutions. In addition to theological fissures, gender divisions also plagued the movement. Feminist evangelical women struggled to gain a voice in a movement that was dominated by men.
Ultimately, though, what marginalized the evangelical left was the growing secularism of the Democratic Party, which became increasingly uninterested in its religious constituents. The evangelical left was also hurt by its own insensitivity to some of the cultural concerns of more conservative evangelicals in the early 1980s. When the Moral Majority and other Christian Right organizations made opposition to abortion a signature issue, they succeeded in mobilizing large numbers of evangelicals in a way that the evangelical left had not, and they helped to put Ronald Reagan in the White House. For the next quarter-century, when media outlets covered evangelical politics, they nearly always focused on the Christian Right and almost forgot that there had ever been an evangelical left.
Now, though, the evangelical left may be poised for a comeback, mostly because of the interest of a younger generation of evangelicals in a more progressive form of politics. Evangelicals under 30 are much less loyal to the Republican Party than the evangelicals of their parents’ generation were, and many of them express strong concern about the environment, global poverty, and social justice. Wallis has reemerged as an influential political voice, and subscriptions to his Sojourners magazine have surged. Some young evangelical activists, such as Shane Claiborne, have been practicing a form of direct social engagement with poverty that closely parallels the social activism that Wallis and Sider pioneered nearly four decades ago.
Although Moral Minority is a magnificent study of a movement that has too often been ignored in chronicles of postwar evangelical politics, it probably underestimates the degree to which American evangelicals had already become committed to political conservatism by the early 1970s. The failure of left-leaning evangelicals to mobilize their fellow Christians for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972 demonstrated how isolated their views were, even at the movement’s inception. Evangelicals such as Wallis and Sider remained fringe voices because their brand of politics was out of touch with the evangelical mainstream. As recently published studies by historians such as Darren Dochuk, Matthew Lassiter, and Steven Miller have demonstrated, the Christian Right that emerged in the late 1970s had roots in a politically conservative evangelical culture that had been developing for decades before Falwell’s Moral Majority appeared on the scene. The evangelical left attempted to challenge the prevailing conservative political culture of its religious environment, but it ultimately failed to gain much influence. Falwell, on the other hand, tapped into this culture and, as a result, gained a much larger following.
Swartz reminds us, though, that the Christian Right never spoke for all evangelicals. In Moral Minority, Swartz has given us a superbly written, impressively researched, insightful account of a movement that historians of postwar American religion have too long neglected. Only a handful of scholarly monographs give significant attention to the evangelical left of the 1970s, and of the few such studies that do exist, Moral Minority is by far the best.