The Moral Minority

The state of the church when we came of age often becomes our perception of far more than that period. Two examples: there are many young evangelicals who simply don’t comprehend — mostly because of the perception issue already mentioned — how diverse evangelicalism was in the era of Billy Graham and John Stott. And, to be perfectly fair here, that is my perception of the period of Graham and Stott, or it is how I experienced that era. Evangelicalism included the Calvinist and the Arminian, the charismatic and the cessationist, and the Anglican and the Anabaptist. My second issue, and the one on which we will camp a bit today, is that many today don’t perceive how up-for-grabs evangelicalism was when it came to politics.

What do you remember about the politics of the evangelical 60s and 70s? Do you see these as the major voices? What does this story tell us about contemporary evangelical politics?

Enter a wonderful new book by David Swartz, called The Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. So far this is the best book I have read this year, and it is a book that sheds light on evangelicalism in a way many, many need to read. It is an academic book but so well written anyone with an interest will find it engaging. He examines the left tilt of evangelicalism in the days from Carl Henry — yes, you read that right, Swartz sees it all set off by Henry’s famous Uneasy Conscience of a Modern Fundamentalist — through the days of Sharon Gallagher and then to the days of Ron Sider. Swartz takes as his crucial event the famous Chicago Declaration of 1973 at which many evangelicals took their stand on the American Way and on the need to return to the moral vision of the Bible.

The reason this book deserves careful reading is that the story Swartz tells is too often either forgotten or ignore. A viable, and I have to confess that when I was “there” in those days I thought it was not only viable but the path we would all take, approach to the evangelical approach was what is now become the evangelical progressive approach. Leading lights of the 60s and 70s tilted left and that voice was strong, attractive, and “we almost had it all” (to quote Adele). But the story shifted and the whole boat shifted right, we got the Moral Majority, the Moral Minority was ignored, sometimes vilified, its story has not been told, but the principal leaders are either still at work or have now passed on. Here’s the story Swartz tells in the first part of the book:

1. Carl Henry’s book got evangelicals off their seats and into the fray. Evangelicalism, or better yet, fundamentalism, was politically disengaged and Carl Henry said it’s time for evangelicals to become intellectually respectable and to influence every sphere of American life. Henry had little when it came to specifics but instead though redeemed people in the public sphere would influence the public life. Henry’s approach, it must be noted, was first get ‘em saved and then get ‘em sanctified and they will influence America. But Henry was no political activist.  His leaning — but not a strong and overt approach — created the Moral Majority.

2. John Alexander put on the docket that the gospel and justice belonged together; he shifted from Henry’s get ‘em saved first approach to a more holistic approach.  Trinity College guy. He became the leading light at The Other Side magazine, an influential left-leaning evangelical magazine. Alexander is tied to Tom Skinner and the importance of the racial issues at work in evangelicalism.

3. Jim Wallis put Vietnam on the evangelical table. He forced it on to the table. The story of Wallis more well-known than Alexander’s, but Wallis began at Michigan State, went to TEDS, made the student body more activist (I’ve got stories to tell though Jim was already in DC by the time I got to TEDS in the Fall of 76), created the Post-American movement (a favorite of Swartz’s approach), moved to DC and Wallis led this to the now well-known Sojourners community and magazine and website. Jim was against the violence of the radical SDS but thought the message of Jesus was radical enough to challenge the life style and culture of evangelicalism. Wallis led American evangelicals from their quietism into a public boycott-stapled activism.

4. Mark Hatfield is the politician for the Evangelical Left. He was a conservative theologically and spiritually but a left-leaning, progressive, justice-oriented politician — the sort of Republican that can emerge as a leader for Oregon. Hatfield annoyed the conservative Moral Majority leaders time and time again: he was too unpredictable; he was not consistently pro-right. He was a real Third Way guy. He revealed a troubled vision among evangelicals, though it would soon tilt Right. I have always seen Hatfield’s approach to be consistently Christian, whether it is consistently (typical) evangelical or not (which it is not).

5. Sharon Gallagher, at the Christian World Liberation Front in Berkeley, is the final early leader of the Moral Minority. Her approach was to shape an evangelicalism that denounced materialism and individualism by forming Christian communities, and one of my friends and golfing buddies, David Gill, figures in her story and this chp. The CWLF figured prominently in the public debates of the 60s and 70s in Berkeley.  She became the editor of Right On which eventually morphed into Radix. This movement was shaped early by Campus Crusade, tilted too far left for CC, was influenced notably by Francis Schaeffer and combined a genuine evangelical spirituality with a more radical approach to life together and public activism. Their approach, then, was to form micro-societies.

Those were the days, my friend, I thought they’d never end. They did, but the story deserves to be told. And yet, if I were to guess now what will become of evangelical politics in the next 30 years I’d say these early voices will become more paradigmatic for American evangelicalism. I see a withdrawal from political activism on the part of the NeoPuritan/Reformed crowd and an increasing number of young evangelicals who are more committed to a leftist approach.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://cramercomments.blogspot.com D C Cramer

    Got my copy and am looking forward to diving into this period of history over Christmas break. Swartz also has a fascinating chapter in the volume The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism specifically on the neo-Anabaptist influence on the evangelical left in the 70s, describing how John Howard Yoder, Ron Sider, Doris Longacher, and a number of Mennonite feminists influenced the evangelical left at this critical stage. Worth checking out along with Moral Minority. [Full disclosure: I co-edited this volume and have a vested interest in people "checking it out."]

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    I recently read an article that said that younger evangelicals, those just emerging into voting age I believe, are rather solid right, and pretty much a voting bloc for the Republican Party. I do think you can make a case that there may be more openness among some of the younger evangelicals toward more of a centrist position. But I’ve seen more older evangelicals along with myself, to be among those who lean left, though we’re certainly still a minority in that camp as well.

    Couldn’t find the article I first mentioned, to share here.

  • kierkegaard71

    Scot, I have always been intrigued by and had a certain appreciation for Mark Hatfield. Just curious, in what way(s) would you say that he was not a “consistent” American evangelical?

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    It sounds like a fascinating book and I will have to get it. I wonder if anyone is thinking what I am thinking when it comes to the moral majority? Many people concluded about them that they were neither the majority or neccesarily moral in their viewpoints or how they came up short on justice issues. As a long-time Evangelical who has seen it moving towards the left from my view (even if there are some institutions that have moved to the right or continue to fire good academic people), I wonder if the Evangelical left is more a majority than they realize and how will later generations view them? (moral or something else?). And here is something for Scot or anyone else, if we continue to define ourselves as “right” or “left” which follows the more polemical form of our American politics, won’t both sides end up being overly polemical and extreme as groups?

  • http://rdhudgens.blogspot.com Ric Hudgens

    To any of us whose faith was formed and shaped during this era and by these people this is a great book. I have no idea how it connects with a younger generation. I remember the 1976 Time magazine cover on the “year of the evangelical” and it didn’t mean the right wing evangelicals! Heady times.

    Ironies abound of course. The Moral Majority accomplished what the Minority only aspired to – they put votes in the ballot box and voices in the government. And if anything they were the true heirs of people like Carl Henry and Francis Schaeffer. The example the conservative “Majority”s success later led some astray (dare I note “Jim Wallis”?). Donald Dayton’s book Discovering an Evangelical Heritage was a key piece of work providing an alternative genealogy outside the mainstream accounts (and directly countering Bernard Ramm’s The Evangelical Heritage).

    More crucial perhaps than Carl Henry was the civil rights movement. Many in this generation were first introduced to social activism marching the streets and later even the Moral Majority would try to co-opt this legacy.

    Finally, I might note that I once wrote an embarrassing letter to Sharon Gallagher which I hope she doesn’t remember; but if she’s free for coffee I’d be happy to pick up the tab . . . : )

  • http://blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor/ Marty Troyer (The Peace Pastor)

    Scot, I loved it as well. Thrilled to see you write about this time period, and for your personal perspective as someone who lived it, wanted it to continue to live forever, and is still working out of the same basic core principles. You can read my review of Moral Minority, which I wrote for the Houston Chronicle, here: http://blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor/2012/10/the-evangelical-left/

  • Tim Hallman

    Alas I grew up in the 80′s. Part of the very Right Evangelicals. Tony Campolo was revered by my family, maybe for his humor? But he was my portal in college in the 90′s to Sider. Nowadays it’s Wallis and Claiborne also, who inspire me on the Left. I’m still in detox from the influence of the Moral Majority.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Here’s the article I was looking for, which if true, might challenge to some extent what you’re thinking, Scot: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/joecarter/2012/10/the-myth-of-the-liberal-young-evangelical/

  • Percival

    An Evangelical politician that I remember from those days was Iowa Governor/Senator Harold Hughes.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Hughes

    And about his work against alcoholism.
    http://www.cleanandsobernotdead.com/recoveryhero/hughes.html

  • http://charityjilldenmark.wordpress.com Charity Jill

    This has kept coming up in conversation for me this week! An older friend told me that she thinks the Lord is giving my generation a chance to “pick up the mantle” of, I think she meant, the Spirit-filled peacemaking Christians of the 70s, who she said “sold out” in some ways. It certainly is important for my generation to know about the diverse foundations of evangelicalism, so we don’t get tricked into pridefully thinking that we have some sort of special and ultimate revelation of who God is…I see this a lot in my generation (and myself) and yeah, it’s really immature.

  • EricW

    Interesting counter-review at Amazon.com:

    1.0 out of 5 stars Facts or Fiction?, October 5, 2012
    By
    Jay E. Hakes
    This review is from: Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Politics and Culture in Modern America) (Hardcover)
    I am familiar with parts of this story and, in fact, am mentioned in the book. Although I can’t check all the facts, I know enough of them are made up to regard this as more a work of fiction than a historical narrative. The right and the left both have historical narratives they want to believe, but all sides need to do their research and let the chips fall where they may. In my own research, I often find that my research forces me to change the theories I started off with. In this book, the terms “Evangelical” and “Left” are used rather indiscriminately to make a point. If someone wants an accurate study of this issue, they should look elsewhere.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    I was born in 1959. Grew up during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Raised in a Church of the Nazarene home. Did college at a Nazarene U from 1977-1980. I would describe my folks as New Deal Democrats. I think my Dad voted for Nixon in ’68 and ’72. Both my folks were Jimmy Carter fans. I don’t know if my dad has voted Republican since. I can’t imagine my mother having voted for any Republican candidate but she might have. I remember their particular disdain for Falwell and the Moral Majority, particularly from my mother. My dad was a scientist with a big interest in energy and the environment. He spent summers at Oak Ridge, TN, studying nuclear power and he eventually went into studying how to get coal to burn cleaner and more efficiently. I spent the summer of 1978 in his employ as he was building his own passive solar house in Champaign, IL. With all that said, I recall my parents as being rather apolitical when it came to my upbringing. Our faith was much more about personal character than politics.

    There was a decidedly conservative bent at Mid-America Nazarene College (now University) in the ’70s and it was considered then to be one of the most conservative of the eight denominational schools. Still, the three professors I identified with the most … one each in philosophy, sociology, and history … were all democrats. I remember reading Arthur Gish, E. F. Schumacher, Ron Sider, and the Other Side in college. I also became acquainted with Francis Schaffer and the L’Abri work (spent a month at Southboro in 1983). However, I had issues with aspects of Nazarene theology and parochialism. I remember that when Jerry Falwell was brought into a mandatory chapel meeting in 1980, to do a Moral Majority political rally, that I realized I needed to think about a new home. In 1983, I joined a Presbyterian Church, USA, congregation.

    I went to sociology grad school at Kansas State University. Despite sharing many of the political leanings of those in the department I was ridiculed and mocked for my Christian background. It took a year before I earned enough respect to be considered an included member of that “tolerant” academic community. Coming out of grad school, my work focused on urban poverty issues, as I worked for a United Way. That interest took me to Eastern University from 1987-1989, to get a MBA in economic development. Eastern was home to Campolo and Sider. But it was also home to some very good economics folks that “ruined” me forever. ;-) After a decade of studying and working on poverty issues I had a mounting discomfort with the bureaucratic centralized solutions, and after a decade of seeing that lefties (Christian or otherwise) were no more tolerant and caring than others, a number of things began to click for me as I studied economics. I began to see the importance of private sector, decentralized, efforts to address poverty but with these efforst needing a solid economic foundation. I was drawn to the Jack Kemp part of the Republican party, where I saw some innovative possibilities, but in my estimation that Kempsonian vision has largely vanished from the scene in the last decade or so. While still Republican leaning, I don’t have a strong affinity for politics.

    As I became aware of the emerging church movement in 1998 (before it was even called that) I had high hopes of original things emerging. But after a few years it became apparent to me that most emerging church folks were refugees from a Moral Majority, thoroughly Republican, infused Evangelicalism that was not my story because I distanced myself from Evangelicalism two decades earlier as this movement was only taking root. Some took an Anabaptist approach or a new monastic approach, but for a great many, because Evangelicalism had become synonymous with conservative Republican, to be post-Evangelical was to be a political progressive, Brian McLaren being the poster child. I think my Evangelical upbringing was much more eclectic in the 60’s and 70’s. Religion and political ideology were more decoupled. It was that diverse tension that I think has led me the place I am today where I don’t feel very at home with today’s Evangelical right or left. It is also why I’m in constant tension with the pervasive social progressivism of my PCUSA world. I thought highly of Mark Hatfield’s independent streak and I see less of that from most Evangelicals with a platform today.

    I’ll shut up now. ;-)

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    In my epistle above, I forgot to mention Yoder. Yoder was big when I was in college as well.

  • EricW

    Great post, Michael W. Kruse! Please don’t shut up!

  • http://www.debatingobama.blogspot.com Greg Metzger

    It is a great, great book. Very important and illuminating. A must read. I have a review coming soon as well. So glad Scot is highlighting it.


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