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Reviewed by David R. Swartz

Leveling the Playing Field?

A report on the evangelical Left.

Of John Kerry's many liabilities in the 2004 presidential campaign, religion was perhaps the most debilitating. During the campaign one Kerry staffer brushed off a Catholic supporter with the comment, "We don't do white churches." Another refused to allow "Pro-lifers for Kerry" signs at campaign events. When Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis announced that he would not serve Kerry the Eucharist because of his pro-choice views, the media staked out Catholic masses in a "Wafer Watch." The candidate himself, while by all accounts a pious man, came off to voters as an imperious Brahmin Catholic uncomfortable talking about spirituality in public.

The Democratic leadership only compounded the Kerry campaign's ineptitude in dealing with religious conservatives. During the campaign Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe stuck out his hand to mega-church pastor Rick Warren, by then already anointed the new face of evangelicalism, and said with a blank look "Nice to meet you, Rick! And what do you do?" Soon after, the DNC rejected Bill Hybels, a registered Democrat and leader of Willow Creek Community Church, as a speaker at the 2004 National Convention. Kerry's sole staffer devoted to religious outreach joined a campaign armed with hard drives full of data on veterans' groups, labor unions, and leaders in the Asian American community—but nothing on evangelicals or Catholics.

Four years later, presidential candidate Barack Obama is trying to remedy Democrats' neglect of religious conservatives. While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of Obama's infusion of evangelical code language into campaign rhetoric and his forays to Rick Warren's Saddleback Community Church, this year's campaign clearly points to a new attentiveness by Democrats to a demographic long thought lost to political progressives.

Cheering on Obama is Amy Sullivan, an editor at Time magazine and author of the timely book The Party Faithful. An evangelical Democrat herself, Sullivan offers sharp words to Democrats and religious believers alike. She scolds theologically conservative evangelicals and Catholics for allowing themselves to be co-opted by the Republican Party. Forty percent of evangelicals are politically moderate, she points out. How then has Focus on the Family's James Dobson managed to set the evangelical political agenda? Sullivan also excoriates Democrats, who were arguably more conservative on issues of sex than Republicans as late as the early 1970s. Dismissing religious voters as backwoods rubes, she contends, has lost Democrats millions of religious votes in the last three decades.

Sullivan's manifesto is largely persuasive. Her proposal on abortion—essentially the Clintonian approach of substantively reducing abortion but not outlawing it (i.e. "safe, legal, and rare")—shows some promise of finding common ground between younger religious conservatives and the Democratic Party. Her analyses of the McGovern reforms of the early 1970s, Roe v. Wade, the political evolution of ethnic Catholics, and the relegation of Catholic politicians to the party's margins, while derivative of historians such as John McGreevy, shows a remarkable sensitivity to religious nuance missing from the screeds of most political pundits.

Sullivan shines too in her historical analysis of evangelicalism. Clearly attuned to the tradition's history, idiosyncrasies, and political ambivalence, Sullivan tries to broaden and texture the public's sense of what an evangelical is. She acknowledges the radical egalitarianism of the Great Awakenings and the social reform movements of the 19th century. She nimbly outlines the political impulses of fundamentalism and the new evangelicalism. She discusses the so-called "young evangelicals" of the 1970s, including groups such as the intriguing Christian World Liberation Front, a conservative Campus Crusade chapter at U.C.-Berkeley turned radical; a handful of progressive InterVarsity chapters; the Post-Americans, renamed in the mid-1970s as Sojourners; Evangelicals for McGovern, the first partisan political organization of the twentieth century formed by evangelicals to elect a president; Evangelicals for Social Action; and the Chicago Declaration.

This latter document, written in the wake of profound disillusionment with the Nixon presidency, denounced militarism, racism, sexism, economic injustice, and "Nixon's lust for and abuse of power." For several heady years, progressive evangelicals met annually at a series of Thanksgiving Workshops and enjoyed the attention of the evangelical and secular media. Sullivan makes much of this annual event, framing an entire chapter around the 1973 Workshop at which the Declaration was written.

It is at this point that Sullivan makes one of her very few missteps. Suspending her narrative of the evangelical Left to tell of Democratic hostility toward religious conservatives, she ignores an equally salient narrative—that of internal evangelical fragmentation, specifically the role of identity politics layered on top of an already diverse evangelical social agenda. There were clear signs, even in the first Thanksgiving Workshop, of deep cleavages within the nascent evangelical Left along gender, racial, and theological lines.

The first evidence of dissension at the 1973 Workshop came from African American participants who perceived hints of "evangelical triumphalism" in opening remarks by Ron Sider, the organizer of the Workshop and future author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. How could Sider justify celebratory rhetoric, they asked, on behalf of a tradition that failed to embrace the civil rights movement? Very quickly, remembers Sider, "the lid blew off." Black participants sharply attacked the committee for including only one black on the committee. Then over a separate lunch of turnip greens and ham hocks prepared "for atmosphere," they drew up an alternative statement more radical than the original. Palpable tension permeated the workshop through the first evening. When delegates entered the dark streets after the day's final session in search of a snack, they traveled in two groups, one all white, the other all black, both venting their "frustration in angry separation." The next day spirits lifted as participants approved section after section of the reworked document. By the evening, some blacks and whites went out to enjoy soul food together. Still, a divisive tone had been set.

Women also asserted their identity. In a workshop dominated by high-powered evangelical executives and scholars, one delegate felt as if "she had walked into an Eastern men's club." The men, complained Nancy Hardesty of Trinity College in Deerfield, Ill., "tended to be insensitive to women as people." Dr. Ruth Bentley was listed a participant, but as chairperson for an afternoon session she became "Mrs. William Bentley." Even worse, CWLF's Sharon Gallagher objected, women were "commanded to speak and then expected to shut up when the men felt the issue had been covered. It seemed easier for the establishment men to be gracious toward the blacks they probably rarely had to deal with, than with status changes that might affect women, their own personal house niggers." When Hardesty, co-author of the influential All We're Meant to Be, and Gallagher discovered that there was no mention of sexism in the first draft of the Declaration, they formed an emergency caucus with the only five women in attendance. While delegates in the plenary sessions mostly affirmed the caucus's demands to condemn sexism and affirm the Equal Rights Amendment, a substantial minority balked at women's ordination.

Pacifists also hijacked the Workshop. Mennonite John Howard Yoder, president of Goshen Biblical Seminary, said, "Blacks have a paragraph they can redo; women have a word they can redo; but there is nothing at all about war. It contains something about the military-industrial complex being bad for the budget, but nothing about it being bad for the Vietnamese." Yoder, supported by Sider, on faculty at the Brethren in Christ-affiliated Messiah College; Jim Wallis, editor of the Post-American; Dale Brown, former moderator of the Church of the Brethren; and Myron Augsburger, president of Eastern Mennonite College, persuaded delegates to insert the following statement: "We must challenge the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might—a proud trust that promotes a national pathology of war and violence which victimizes our neighbors at home and abroad."

These emerging sexual, racial, and theological identities only heightened. At the third Workshop in 1975, Moody Monthly reported that "the mood of many workshop participants was not amenable to 'integration' or 'cooperative ministry.' " Anabaptists—inclined toward prophetic idealism—and Calvinists—inclined toward participation in and infiltration of political structures—intensified a dispute over political methods. By the late 1970s most Calvinists had left Evangelicals for Social Action, the institutional heir of the Workshops, to form the Association for Public Justice. At the same time, black participants sharpened their separatist posture. And evangelical women began to direct most of their resources into the growth of the Evangelical Women's Caucus. EWC soon boasted a dozen regional chapters and periodic national conventions that attracted nearly 1,000 delegates.

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.

The marketing and reception of The Party Faithful further reflect the difficulties of Sullivan's hope that Democrats can do more than just cherry-pick evangelical outliers from Republican ranks—or that the new movement is anything more than a coordinated effort by elite academics and political analysts. Sullivan's book enjoyed a sympathetic review in the New York Times, a big splash in Salon, and has been excerpted in Sojourners and Time magazine. But The Party Faithful has received astonishingly little attention among evangelical bloggers, let alone from rank-and-file evangelicals. And Sullivan herself complains about the persistent contempt of liberal Democratic politicos toward her project.

On the book's dust jacket, Jim Wallis predictably praises Sullivan for perceiving "the sea change going on in faith and politics in America." It's a nice enough endorsement. But Wallis, as a good activist should, has been predicting "a sea change" —specifically the death of the Religious Right and the rise of an evangelical progressivism—every year since the 1970s. To be sure, Wallis and Sullivan have more of a case now than at any other time since 1973. And Sullivan is spot-on in pointing out shifts toward the center in contemporary evangelical politics. But given the persisting limits of evangelical politics on the Left in the past three decades, Wallis and Sullivan's hopes for a large, robust progressive movement may well be dashed again.

David R. Swartz is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Notre Dame and is working on a book, under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press, about the evangelical Left.

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