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Reviewed by David R. Swartz


Leveling the Playing Field?

A report on the evangelical Left.

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Thus the bid to build a coherent evangelical Left collapsed in a few short years, not unlike the late 1960s self-immolation of the New Left. By 1980 the Religious Right had swamped an evangelical Left already reduced by identity politics. The Washington Post's prediction five long years before that the Declaration "could well change the face of both religion and politics in America" now seemed laughable, if it was remembered at all.

In retrospect, the fragmentation of the evangelical Left underscores an important reality about evangelicalism as a whole: its malleability. Rooted in the 16th-century Reformation and "democratized" in the 19th century, evangelicalism still nurtures an anti-authoritarian impulse. Lacking a coherent hierarchy and willing to assume innovative cultural shapes, evangelicalism continually evolves to fill many fissures in American society. While this feature has contributed to its considerable growth, it also keeps evangelicalism from speaking with one voice. Consisting 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. Evangelicals' engagement of diverse politics—including New Left, progressive New Deal, and right-wing politics, all since the early 1970s—suggests the volatility of evangelical politics and its susceptibility to co-optation, sudden shifts, and identity politics. The politicization of evangelicalism has exposed the limits of evangelical politics.

Insiders noticed these limits even before the rest of the nation awoke to exaggerate evangelicals' potential. Carl F. H. Henry, who wished that a "vast evangelical alliance might arise in the United States to coordinate effectively a national impact in evangelism, education, publication and sociological action," concluded that his mission had failed. "There is a lack of a sense of body in the evangelical community. It is fragmented," bemoaned Henry in his 1976 jeremiad Evangelicals in Search of Identity. This elegy, written after two decades of frenetic and ultimately unsuccessful efforts by Henry to impose the label "evangelical" on a diverse group of Christians and to coordinate their energies, points to the essential reality that 20th-century evangelicalism was never as coherent as secular critics and evangelical triumphalists seemed to think. The failure of the Religious Right and the initial emergence of the evangelical Left, sounding its minority political voice with surprising resonance, proved Henry's point.

This context is important in evaluating Sullivan's stories of evangelical progressive vitality in the first decade of the 21st century. The Party Faithful ends with a meditation on a 2007 CNN forum that highlighted the religious fluency of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards compared to Republican candidates (with the important exception of Huckabee). Sullivan happily describes a Sojourners organization flush with new money. After thirty years of poverty, Wallis was able to stage an event televised by CNN and littered with Democratic operatives. "In the VIP section down front," Sullivan writes, "a reunion of religious Democrats giddily embraced and seemed slightly stunned that their once-quixotic cause was now the subject of an hour-long televised special." Sullivan's description of this new "level praying field" is compelling, largely because of her journalistic ear for the apt anecdote.

Chronicling the vicissitudes of the evangelical Left in the period between the Chicago Declaration and that 2007 CNN forum, however, might have sensitized Sullivan to the persistence of evangelical differentiation within young evangelicalism—and chastened her bubbly forecast. If clashes between African American and white progressive evangelicals have become less spectacular, they have only simmered into an uncomfortable and distant détente, according to Christian Smith and Michael Emerson. Ecclesiastical and theological loyalties remain too. Collin Hansen's Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists reveals a surging, often strident "neo-Calvinism." The new movement enjoys a deep presence in the blogosphere, where it regularly skirmishes with adherents of neo-Anabaptism, the Emergent movement, and the New Monasticism. Divergent political strategies emanate from white, black, Anabaptist, and Calvinist sectors of evangelicalism even as many nurture a common antipathy toward the Religious Right.

Moreover, it is not at all clear that evangelicals disillusioned with conservative politics will flock to the Democratic Party. Sullivan herself admits in the book's closing pages that "for now, evangelicals fleeing the GOP are labeling themselves independent." A recent study by Corwin Smidt of Calvin College confirms her suspicions. The number of young evangelicals identifying as Republicans dropped from 55 to 40 percent from 2005 to 2007. But only one-third of them now call themselves Democrats. The rest are independents. Rick Warren, for example, who Sullivan cites as a harbinger of the greening of evangelicalism, is far from identifying as a Democrat, despite Obama and Clinton appearances at Saddleback and his new interests in the African AIDS epidemic, the environment, and poverty.

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