Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

Article excerpt

Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

By David R. Swartz

University of Pennsylvania Press, 384 pp., $47.50

America had lost its way. So believed 50 evangelical Christians who convened in downtown Chicago in late November 1973. They arrived weighted down by the gravity of the nation's moral failings and yet buoyed by a palpable sense of opportunity: a social and political awakening was afoot in the churches, and if properly channeled, it could right the country's course.

No, this was not an early gathering of the Christian right. The major issues on the agenda did not include abortion or school prayer. Instead, the believers who crowded into the dingy Wabash Avenue YMCA spent Thanksgiving weekend hammering out the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. They stated--among other things--that "we deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism," "we must challenge the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might," and "we must attack the materialism of our culture and the maldistribution of the nation's wealth." The document immediately became a touchstone of the evangelical left.

In Moral Minority, David Swartz recovers the story of the unlikely coalition these progressive evangelicals forged in the 1960s and 1970s. The book unfolds as a series of engaging biographical sketches that offer a window into the diverse experiences and concerns animating the movement.

Some in the cast of characters will be familiar. For example, we meet current Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis as a much younger man, radicalized by the Vietnam War and at the helm of the "Post-Americans," a community of twentysomething evangelicals alienated from the churches of their youth, which seemed content to abide, if not outright baptize, the military campaign in Southeast Asia. The inaugural issue of the group's eponymous magazine decried the "American captivity of the church," which had "resulted in the disastrous equation of the American way of life with the Christian way of life."

Swartz introduces us to a variety of lesser-known figures as well, including John Alexander, a white, Goldwater-supporting Baptist turned devoted civil rights activist, and Sharon Gallagher, a California-raised fundamentalist whose powerful encounter with the ideal of beloved community led her to cofound an evangelical commune known as the Christian World Liberation Front.

Shifting seamlessly back and forth from the lives of such leading individuals to the wider relational and institutional networks within which they moved, Swartz persuasively shows that by the mid-1970s, though the evangelical left was undoubtedly a minority movement, it boasted surprisingly broad-based roots. It even packed an electoral punch, or so it seemed in 1976, when a groundswell of evangelical support helped a born-again Democrat by the name of Jimmy Carter to win the White House. At that moment there seemed no reason to question evangelicalism's compatibility with progressive causes and candidates.

So what happened? How was the evangelical left so quickly outmuscled by the Christian right? …