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Keith Pavlischek October 18, 2012
David Swartz's Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism is a fine introduction to the personalities, organizations and key events surrounding the rise of the Evangelical Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s, its subsequent crack-up due to internal fighting in the mid-1970s, and the eclipse of whatever parts of the "movement" were remaining by the rise of the Moral Majority and the religious right in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I suspect Moral Minority will be an indispensable resource for scholarly research on evangelicalism in general and the Evangelical Left in particular for years to come.
The book is being promoted as the first comprehensive scholarly study of the Evangelical Left and for the most part it is to the good that it has been written by a young evangelical historian. Swartz is a graduate of Wheaton College (1999) and teaches at Asbury College, both evangelical institutions and he was mentored by America's two most prominent evangelical historians, George Marsden and Mark Noll, as a graduate student at Notre Dame.
Although he identifies himself as part of the evangelical sub-culture he is too young to have been personally involved in the nastier in-fighting, theological battles and identity politics between the leaders and organizations of the Evangelical Left. Because he was not personally involved with the fights between the evangelical conservatives (or the "Christian right") and the Evangelical Left that were particularly nasty during the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, he came to his study with a certain distance from the personalities and organizations that he discusses in the book. On the other hand, as a part of the evangelical sub-culture, he is close enough and has ready access to the personalities and even organizations that were hanging on through the 90s and beyond.
As is readily evident from his website and blog that is promoting the book and providing commentary, Swartz has rather strong sympathy toward his subject. Swartz describes himself theologically as Anabaptist and thus he self-identifies with a particular subculture, specifically the "peace church" tradition within the evangelical subculture. Since important key leaders either came out of the "peace church" tradition or were profoundly influenced by it, Swartz already came to his subject matter with a certain degree of familiarity and sympathy. He is not merely a more "detached" secular historian, or even a less sympathetic evangelical from a non-pacifist ecclesiastical or theological tradition.
I'm inclined to think that the book could have been improved had Swartz taken a slightly more critical approach toward his subject along the lines of Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll was highly critical of much of the thoughtless political activism of the Christian right. And after reading Swartz' book one can hardly fail to conclude that the general temptation to simplistic activism and mindless moralism is hardly the exclusive province of evangelicals on the starboard side of the political spectrum. Swartz does a fine job of detailing the "identity politics" that led to the rapid crack-up of the organizations and that made up the Evangelical Left coalition, almost immediately after they were formed. However I was particularly anxious to see if he would account for those who initially started out as identifying with the Evangelical Left. This group came to reject the Left not merely because of "identity politics" but because they found its political theology and activism vision to be theologically and morally wanting.
The evangelical landscape is littered with activists and academics who would have readily identified with Sojourners and Jim Wallis, or Evangelicals for Social Action and Ron Sider, or with Evangelicals for McGovern and Tony Campolo and so forth in their younger years, but later became among the Evangelical Left's harshest critics. Swartz gives us no insight into their reasons for rejecting and repudiating the movement on which they cut their theological and political teeth.
A careful study of what happened to the personalities and organizations after their decline, particularly those who were once part of the movement but came to reject it would have given better insight into the organizations, personalities, and political weaknesses that made up the Evangelical Left. This is not a serious flaw in an otherwise fine piece of scholarship. I'm aware that I may be criticizing the book that Swartz did not write. At the same it is a not mere quibble either, which is an analysis for another time.
Structurally, Moral Minority is well organized into three major sections. Part One: "An Emerging Evangelical Left" consists of five chapters focusing on "Carl Henry and Neo-Evangelical Social Engagement," John Alexander and Racial Justice," "Jim Wallis and Vietnam," "Mark Hatfield and Electoral Politics," and Sharon Gallagher and the Politics of Spiritual Community. Part Two: "A Broadening Coalition," consists of four chapters, "Samuel Escobar and the Reforming of Evangelical Politics," Richard Mouw and the "Reforming of Evangelical Politics," and "The Chicago Declaration and a United Progressive Front." Finally, Part Three consists of three chapters: "Identity Politics and a Fragmenting Coalition," "The Limits of Electoral Politics" and "Sojourning."
In future posts I will review each section in turn.
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