Keith Pavlischek December 4, 2012
It is hard to understand the Evangelical Left without understanding Jima Wallis. (Photo credit: Wordpress)
Just as no history of the Evangelical Right could be written without telling the story of Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition and the “700 Club,” no history of the Evangelical Left can be written without telling the story of Jim Wallis and his People's Christian Coalition/Post-American/Sojourners Community and Sojourners Magazine. In Moral Majority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism David Swartz takes up Wallis' story in the third chapter titled, "Jim Wallis and Vietnam."
My own long-held view of Robertson and Wallis is that they both are the prime examples from the starboard and port side of the political spectrum respectively of what Mark Noll called the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The political views of both can fairly be described as Manichean and at times downright kooky. Robertson flirted with crackpot conspiracy theories hatched in the fever swamps of the John Bircher right, while Wallis and his comrades embraced conspiracy theories hatched by the New Left. "Drinking deep from the wells of revisionist history and New Left sociology," Swartz reports, "evangelical radicals eyed conspiracy at the highest levels of the United States Government." I would go so far as to suggest that if a young evangelical wants to learn how not to engage in political and public life, they should study the activism of Robertson and Wallis. Swartz, however, seems generally sympathetic to Wallis and Sojourners, but in simply telling his story, Wallis' Manichean view of politics is readily apparent.
Swartz tells us of Wallis' conversion as a child in an evangelical church in the early 1950s, that he abandoned his faith while at Michigan State in the late 60s, how he became a leading activist in the radical left-wing Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). "He was a key organizer in the national student strike in the Spring of 1970." But, according to Swartz, Wallis "watched in horror" when Weathermen and his SDS colleagues smashed the East Lansing City Hall." Wallis became disillusioned "as the movement descended into violence and fragmentation."
Swartz doesn't tell us how--as late as 1970!-- a key organizer in the SDS could possibly be shocked and surprised at the violent tendencies of the Weatherman, the SDS and parts of the New Left "movement." Was it naiveté? Was it self-deception? In any case, he tells us that Wallis and other "evangelical leftists were left utterly alienated by the 'days of rage' that engulfed the movement in Chicago, Berkeley and New York at the turn of the decade." Wallis, as the story goes, turned back to "his abandoned childhood faith."
Wallis re-found Jesus, who turned out to be very much a New Left ideologue and activist, apart from the violence, of course. But not minus "nonviolent direct action." Wallis and his fellow "Post-Americans" were impatient with "traditional politics and their search for authenticity borrowed explicitly from the New Left." Moreover, their protests reflected the New Left's "demonstrative methods, such as guerilla theater, picketing, leafleting, and direct confrontation, marked by a profound departure from evangelical quietism." This is enough to make one yearn for the days of evangelical quietism.
These days Wallis is the first to plead for "civil discourse," in public life, particularly when he perceives those on the starboard side of the political spectrum are being too "judgmental." But it wasn't always so:
The Post-Americans thus readily appropriated radical rhetoric and activism toward both evangelical and leftist ends. Wallis, in fact, sought to integrate the two movements. He envisioned a mass of evangelical activists filling the ranks of the fragmenting and increasingly violent New Left.
Swartz maintains that it was not merely an evangelistic ploy when Wallis and other evangelical radicals appealed to Jesus over Marx, Mao and the Weatherman. "Even as evangelical radicals tried to convert secular leftists, they made common cause with leftists on issues such as the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation." Swartz tellingly adds, "Their multiple agendas blended together, blurring lines between politics and faith. This was precisely the point--to tie the sacred to the temporal so closely that the two were indistinguishable" [emphasis added].
Toward the end of his chapter on Wallis, Swartz makes two rather insightful observations. First, he notes how all this noisy left-wing activism prefigured the activism and rhetoric of the New Evangelical Right--the Randal Terry's the Jerry Falwell's and the Pat Robertsons-- when it emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He cites Pat Robertson, who declared at the 1984 meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals "we must be prepared for radical action against the government." Swartz quotes an evangelical left-wing activist as asking, "How is it that respectable Evangelicals can be flirting with radical activism?" The answer in part, ironically enough, lay with the "absolutist, moralistic" style of activism introduced by the Post Americans on the other side of the political spectrum.
Swartz's second point is subtle, easily missed but revealing about what it says about the political ideology of many evangelicals in major institutions. Historiography of the New Left, he suggests, has missed a large part of the story. "The literature's preoccupation with the declension of certain 'pure' forms of the New Left often leaves out many leftists who, after the disintegration of SDS, did not join the Weatherman, drop out or face co-optation by the right. Many worked in such unlikely sites as business and professional circles, non-elite universities, small towns and mainline religious denominations." Who can doubt it?
But Swartz sees a similar phenomenon with what happened to the Evangelical Left., noting:
As the Post Americans coupled New Left sociology with Christianity Today theology, they enjoyed surprising resonance within evangelical institutions. Fellow travelers at Wheaton College, Calvin College, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and Fuller Seminary shared Wallis' critique of Christians "whose God is American, white, capitalist, and violent; whose silent religion and imagined neutrality goes hand in hand with 'nigger' and 'napalm.'"
Who can doubt it?
[Update 6:00 PM]: Read Keith's previous articles about Moral Majority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism here, here, here, and here.
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