Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Politics and Culture in Modern America)
David R. Swartz
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012
384 pp., $47.50
John G. Turner
More persuasive is Swartz's assertion that the evangelical Left deserves substantial credit for the fact that young—and some not-so-young—evangelicals have embraced a variety of progressive causes. The evangelical Left, Swartz suggests, "carved out space for the rhetoric and activism of social justice—both on the left and on what became a much larger right." Many of the ideas articulated by the signers of the Chicago Declaration gained much broader adherence in the evangelicalism of the early 21st century. Even if they continue to vote Republican, large numbers of evangelicals express great concern for the environment, for efforts to fight poverty, and for racial justice. Broader cultural trends and the ideological atmosphere of American campuses also contributed to the more progressive outlook of young evangelicals, but the activists highlighted in Swartz's narrative surely helped convince some young Christians that they could be both progressive and evangelical.
Swartz mostly avoids "reading tea leaves," but he points to recent data suggesting that younger evangelicals might chart a different political course from the one embraced by their parents. At the same time, he correctly suggests that serious obstacles stand in the way of any sweeping evangelical political realignment. More likely, he hazards, evangelicals may simply grow less partisan. After four decades of political stillbirths, however, even a mere decoupling of evangelicals from the Republican Party seems unlikely. A whopping 78 percent of white evangelicals in 2012 voted for Mitt Romney (nearly the same percentage as supported Richard Nixon 40 years earlier), even though Romney was hardly evangelicals' first choice among the Republican candidates. After displaying an unusual interest in competing for evangelical votes in 2008 and even striking a somewhat more moderate tone on abortion, the Democratic Party of 2012 showed that it could cede the vast majority of white evangelical votes to the Republicans and still win.
The Republican stranglehold on the white evangelical vote belies so much of what we thought we had learned about evangelicalism over the past ten years. Young evangelicals tell pollsters that they dissent from much of the Republican Party platform, including on issues such as gay marriage. Why hasn't this generational discontent dislodged more white evangelical voters from the GOP?
There are several possible explanations. Despite a progressive stance on some issues, young evangelicals generally still oppose abortion. It may also be that young evangelicals simply do not vote in large numbers. It is also possible that many progressive evangelicals reach a point at which they no longer identify as evangelicals. Finally, most discussions of American evangelicalism only have white evangelicals in mind. The Democratic Party is presumably winning a much higher percentage of Latino evangelical votes, as well as the votes of theologically conservative African Americans.
At times, Swartz may overstate both the potential and the influence of the evangelical Left. Nevertheless, Moral Minority is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the recent history of American evangelicalism. Swartz's portraits of the key figures in his book, ranging from Carl Henry's ultimately vague endorsement of social engagement to Doris Longacre's ability to make "theology in the kitchen" through the More-with-Less Cookbook, are concise and informative. The writing throughout is clear and eloquent, and Swartz takes no potshots at his subjects, regardless of their politics. One detects Swartz's admiration for progressive evangelical activists, but he neither deifies them nor demonizes their more conservative opponents. Many Americans associate evangelical Christianity with gay-bashing southern Neanderthals and hypocritical politicians and televangelists. If they read Moral Minority with an open mind, they will learn of a much richer, more intellectually vibrant and politically diverse religious movement.
The world of American evangelicalism would have been greatly impoverished—theologically and culturally—without the men and women who populate the pages of the Moral Minority. Consider this description of Ron Sider: "Into the 2000s Sider and his wife Arbutus, a family therapist, still practiced simple living. They cooked out of the More with Less cookbook, by then in its 47th printing. They purchased most of their clothes at thrift stores and maintained a modest home in a mostly black neighborhood of Philadelphia." At their best, the activists of Moral Minority were prophets who called on their fellow evangelicals to take a look beyond the comforts of their suburban American to inner-city neighborhoods, prisons, warzones, and developing-world slums. And, yes, to the world of politics, one vehicle to combat the many injustices of our world.
John G. Turner is assistant professor of religious studies at George Mason University and the author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Harvard Univ. Press).
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