Moral Minority: Book Review

Swartz, David R. 2012. Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in the Age of Conservatism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

By: Rebekka King (Middle Tennessee State University)

David R. Swartz has invited you to party. At first glance, the party appears to be a disparate group: the well-dressed Republican senator Mark Hatfield is engaged in a deep conversation with scraggly haired Jim Wallis. Indeed, the room is filled with politically progressive evangelical thinkers, authors and activists. It is a party that is captured in Swartz’s use of Richard Mouw’s phrase the “evangelical diaspora of the ‘60s,” a group which has been regathered with “renewed piety” and a “passion for social activism” (139). As Swartz wheels you around, he takes the time to provide you with the back-story of these important figures present. He tells you about their families, educational pedigree and the major turning points that lead to their lifetime involvement in social activism, theological discernment and political engagement. “This,” he begins, “is Carl Henry.” He goes on to tell you that “no figure embodied the vital shift to political engagement more than Carl Henry, a theologian, editor, and architect of neo-evangelicalism” (15). After Henry, Swartz moves on to other prominent figures who continue to animate neo-evangelical circles. In the corner of the room, Sharon Gallagher is speaking about authenticity in the context of Berkeley’s “Christian World Liberation Front” and Samuel Escobar is reminding the group of the importance of listening to Latin American theologies and politics in order to resist the infiltration of American imperialism.

While Swartz wants to make sure that you meet the who’s who of the evangelical Left, he is also careful to ensure that you get a chance to meet the everyday hoi polloi of American evangelicalisms. As much as Moral Minority is about progressive neo-evangelicals, it also outlines the narrative of socially conservative and moderate suburban evangelicals who populate the landscapes of American evangelicalism: the readers of Christianity Today, the attendees at Billy Graham revivals, and the countless middle-class Christians who composed the social worlds that were rejected by the leaders of the evangelical Left. In part, the book tells the story of a road not taken by American evangelicals. Swartz’s argument is two-fold. First, political mobilization and engagement by evangelicals originated with left-leaning evangelicals and not with the religious Right, Reaganism and American jingoism. Second, somewhere along the way, the ground swell of the evangelical Christian Left lost its focus and failed to mobilize, leaving fertile soil for the then nascent, but financially secure, Christian Right to fill the void.

The book centers on one historic event: the drafting of the Chicago Declaration. On Thanksgiving weekend 1973, a group of thirty prominent evangelical activists coalesced to write a document that sought to turn evangelical political attentions to the plight of social sins. In his major address to the gathering, Tom Skinner noted that while evangelicals more or less “missed the Civil Rights movement” there was still time to shift their emphasis from sins of personal piety to larger social forces (179). Inspired by Skinner’s proposition, this Thanksgiving weekend workshop had the makings of a movement but it was one that Swartz tells us was disaster-prone from the start. Despite their shared identities as evangelical expats, many of the prominent signatories of the Chicago Declaration disagreed strongly with, or failed to address, core concerns of other signees (identity politics, theological alignment and reproductive rights). Swartz’s book charts both the collaboration and the dissolutions that followed.

The first two parts of the book (chps. 1-9) are comprised of an introduction to the varied cast of characters present at the Thanksgiving weekend workshop while the third section (chps. 10-12) spells out the subsequent theological and socio-political fragmentation. Swartz’s images and narrative telling are so vivid that one can almost hear the old gospel hymns playing in the background as Richard Mouw ponders whether or not to place his draft card on the altar or smell the stew cooking as evangelicals across the nation flipped through the pages of Doris Longacre’s Mennonite-inspired More-with-Less Cookbook. Alongside the history, Swartz reveals the material culture and webs of relationships that spirited the evangelical left during the 1970s and the 1980s.

As a Canadian, I would be remiss if I did not also acknowledge my delight in the fact that Swartz does an excellent job incorporating the narrative of the Canadian evangelical Left into his larger arguments. His description of the Institute of Christian Studies based in Toronto (143-148), for example, speaks to the larger cross-border networks that are rooted in (and continue to influence) Dutch Reform theology in North America—a theology which has one foot in the remnants of agrarian family values and the other in a new vision for political and social renewal. Likewise, Swartz’s chapter on Ontario-born Ron Sider speaks to the trans-border networks established in Brethren circles that promoted simple living at both domestic and international levels.

This book is likewise an important read for anyone wishing to investigate the contemporary Christian left. It dispels the myth that the current progressive turn in evangelicalism is a novel one—as if all of a sudden young evangelicals have woken-up from a name-it-and-claim-it induced hangover to concoct a new remedy of asceticism and piety. Instead, Swartz helps us locate current trends alongside the historic ones. He places the authors of the Chicago Declaration as part of a genealogy that includes a longue durée of American anti-materialist thinkers, from Jeffersonian Republicans to transcendentalists, the arts-and-crafts movement, other Progressive Era social thinkers and the environmental awakening of the 1970s that inspired President Carter’s commendation of Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. In this way, this book calls us to reconsider the predictions currently en vogue concerning the new evangelical Left as it manifests itself in movements such as the emerging church, the new monastics, the Wild Goose Festival and certain varieties of progressive Christianity. Consider, for example, the words of a press release issued by the 1972 coalition, Evangelicals for McGovern, in support of McGovern’s presidential bid. “‘A rising tide of younger evangelicals,’ asserted an early news release, ‘feels that the time has come to dispel the old stereotype that evangelical theology entails unconcern toward the poor, blacks and other minorities, and the needs of the Third World’” (172).

Following this theme of continuity, the anthropologist of North American Christianity will find Swartz’s descriptions of the fault lines within the Thanksgiving Workshop group that emerged along the lines of race, ethnicity and war to sound strikingly similar to contemporary ones. The story of fragmentation that Swartz lays out and paths that later were adopted by the Christian Right also speak to current trends emerging in conservative circles today. Does Swartz’s monograph offer insight into the fault lines that are starting to reveal themselves in the faith-based politics of conservative ideologues? While one might be tempted to read his book as prophetic in our own times, to do so does injustice to both the careful attention to context and the ingenuity in Moral Minority. Aspirations and queries by hopeful readers concerning whether or not history will repeat itself fail to account, as Swartz himself notes in his Epilogue, for shifts in demographics, politics and evangelistic practices.

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