Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

Synopsis

In 1973, nearly a decade before the height of the Moral Majority, a group of progressive activists assembled in a Chicago YMCA to strategize about how to move the nation in a more evangelical direction through political action. When they emerged, the Washington Post predicted that the new evangelical left could "shake both political and religious life in America." The following decades proved the Post both right and wrong--evangelical participation in the political sphere was intensifying, but in the end it was the religious right, not the left, that built a viable movement and mobilized electorally. How did the evangelical right gain a moral monopoly and why were evangelical progressives, who had shown such promise, left behind?

In Moral Minority, the first comprehensive history of the evangelical left, David R. Swartz sets out to answer these questions, charting the rise, decline, and political legacy of this forgotten movement. Though vibrant in the late nineteenth century, progressive evangelicals were in eclipse following religious controversies of the early twentieth century, only to reemerge in the 1960s and 1970s. They stood for antiwar, civil rights, and anticonsumer principles, even as they stressed doctrinal and sexual fidelity. Politically progressive and theologically conservative, the evangelical left was also remarkably diverse, encompassing groups such as Sojourners, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Evangelicals for Social Action, and the Association for Public Justice. Swartz chronicles the efforts of evangelical progressives who expanded the concept of morality from the personal to the social and showed the way--organizationally and through political activism--to what would become the much larger and more influential evangelical right. By the 1980s, although they had witnessed the election of Jimmy Carter, the nation's first born-again president, progressive evangelicals found themselves in the political wilderness, riven by identity politics and alienated by a skeptical Democratic Party and a hostile religious right.

In the twenty-first century, evangelicals of nearly all political and denominational persuasions view social engagement as a fundamental responsibility of the faithful. This most dramatic of transformations is an important legacy of the evangelical left.

Excerpt

Evangelical activists, proclaimed the Washington Post, sought to “launch a religious movement that could shake both political and religious life in America.” This prediction referred not to efforts in 2000 to elect George W. Bush to the White House, nor to the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s during which the president once famously told a gathering of evangelical pastors, “I know you can’Thendorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you.” Rather, the Post was reporting on what has become a mere footnote in the history of evangelical politics: a gathering at a run-down ymca Hotel on South Wabash Street in downtown Chicago led by a young, unknown evangelical named Ron Sider. the year was 1973, nearly a decade before the height of the Moral Majority, and the assembled activists were strategizing about how to move the nation in a more evangelical direction through political action.

That intended direction, however, was to the left, not the right. in front of a national audience, Sider and his colleagues condemned American militarism, sexism, economic injustice, and President Richard Nixon’s “lust for and abuse of power.” the ymca itself was a fitting venue for this new evangelical progressivism. Its spare interior suggested simple living, and its urban location indicated a commitment to the nation’s poor. As Calvin College professor and congressional candidate Paul Henry declared that evangelicals “dare no longer remain silent in the face of glaring social evil,” the echoes of stray gunfire from outside rang through the hall. After several days of intense discussion, the group emerged from the ymca with “The Chicago Declaration,” a manifesto for a new evangelical left.

The following decades proved the Washington Post both right and wrong in its forecast. Anticipating most news outlets by half a decade, the Post correctly suggested that evangelical participation in the political sphere was intensifying. in fact, the incipient progressive movement launched in Chicago, along with a rising religious right, itself seeking to mobilize a significant . . .

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