The Moral Minority

The Moral Minority October 11, 2012

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.

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