David R. Swartz is a postdoc fellow at Notre Dame and has an upcoming book on the history of the American evangelical left. This is the second and final part of his interview at Withered Grass:
If you had to pinpoint the “high water mark” of the evangelical left, what/when was it and why?
The height of the evangelical left probably took place in the mid-1970s, which was tragic since its adherents thought it was just beginning. The Chicago Declaration, a document lambasting evangelical conservatism and apoliticism, had just been written in 1973. Many evangelicals were buying into the idea of a progressive evangelical, namely Jimmy Carter, running for president. Identity politics had not yet fragmented the nascent movement.
David, you use “identity politics” (gender, race, and denominational/theological) and generalized discouragement towards Jimmy Carter as your framework for analyzing the evangelical left’s fragmentation in the late 1970s. Given the counterfactual of a second Carter administration, do you think the evangelical left’s trajectory in the 1980s would have looked the same?
I think it largely would have looked the same. Unless, that is, Carter had embraced a pro-life position on abortion. That he did not, of course, propelled many evangelicals toward Reagan in 1980. The “consistent life” ethic, first embraced by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin and many American Catholics, held the only hope for the evangelical left to mobilize large swaths of evangelicalism. Ron Sider–and then Jim Wallis and Sojourners–tried, but by then pro-life rhetoric had been co-opted by the political Right.
Your description of “third way” evangelicals and their 1970s community-based approaches in connecting political advocacy, social activism and evangelism will sound to many Withered Grass readers like an early form of the “emerging church” or “missional church” phenomenon. To what extent would you agree with this characterization?
You’re absolutely right to notice the “emerging church” resemblance to the “third way” of the 1970s. Each nurtured a healthy skepticism of electoral politics. The failure of mass politics in the 1960s to fix social problems disillusioned third way evangelicals in the 1970s. Many emerging church adherents were similarly disillusioned by the failure of the New Right in the 1980s and 1990s, which saw the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition flame out without the impact on national politics suggested by conservative evangelical triumphalists or secular critics.
Second, both movements–as well as the related New Monasticism–have been profoundly shaped by Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. The Politics of Jesus outlined their case for a profoundly counter-cultural approach to politics. The primary social structure through which the gospel works to change other social structures, wrote Yoder, “is that of the Christian community.” He suggested that the Church serve as a model for the public sphere by feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, and by speaking prophetically on behalf of the oppressed. Servanthood, grassroots action, and persuasion, not coercion, should characterize Christian politics. Yoder’s Anabaptism seems to be a recurring element in both the third-way and emergent movements.
What does the near future of the evangelical left look like, especially in light of the Obama administration?
Anecdotal evidence, gathered from some friends at half a dozen evangelical colleges across the country, suggests a stirring in the evangelical political soul. There seems to be a growing non-rightist temperament on issues as diverse as the environment, health care, and war. Folks such as David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times ["The Evangelical Crackup," 28 October 2007], Amy Sullivan in The Party Faithful, E. J. Dionne in Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right, and Jim Wallis who in a provocative essay in Time magazine [in 2007] proclaimed that “The Religious Right’s Era Is Over,” are onto something of a shift. I’m less convinced, however, by the sometimes-bombastic forecasts from some of these pundits about the demise of the religious right and the rise of a dominant evangelical left. In their haste to announce a new movement, they often fail to acknowledge the limits of evangelical politics.
The simultaneous existence of the evangelical left and the religious right reflects the decentralized, malleable structures of evangelicalism. Rooted in the sixteenth-century Reformation and “democratized” in the nineteenth century, evangelicalism still nurtures an anti-authoritarian impulse. Lacking a coherent hierarchy and willing assume innovative cultural shapes, evangelicalism adapts itself to fill many fissures in American society. While this feature has contributed to its considerable growth, it also disrupts political coherence. American evangelicalism consists of hundreds of denominations and thousands of para-church organizations with constituents from disparate geographies, socio-economic statuses, and ethnicities. Few evangelical leaders speak for large numbers of constituents. Given its ecclesial diversity, faith in intuition, and simplistic biblicism, evangelicals have had difficulty constructing political theory, especially compared to American Catholics. Evangelicals’ engagement of diverse politics—including New Left, progressive New Deal, and right-wing politics, all since the early 1970s—suggest the volatility of evangelical politics and its susceptibility to co-optation, sudden shifts, and identity politics.
So to answer your question: I forecast continuing incoherence. The evangelical left is likely to grow, but not likely to dominate. The religious right is likely to decline, but not precipitously. Religious voters will merely encounter a wide range of options as they cast their ballot. Many structural limitations of evangelicalism that keep the movement differentiated still remain. Continuing theological, denominational, and racial loyalties will keep evangelicalism from speaking out in one voice.
David, many, many thanks for taking time out of your schedule to give this interview. I’ll be highlighting your book here at the blog once it arrives. Until then, for those who are interested in more of David Swartz’s work, you can (a) read his articles in Mennonite Quarterly Review; (b) listen to his presentation at Rosedale Bible College’s November 2007 Evangelical Anabaptist Symposium ["True Evangelical Faith"] and (c) keep an eye on future issues of Christianity Today’s Books and Culture.