9/4 Flashback: Don’t call it a comeback

9/4 Flashback: Don’t call it a comeback September 4, 2022

From September 4, 2015, “‘Can the Evangelical Left Rise Again?’ No. But thanks for asking.”

At The New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Breunig asks, “Can the Evangelical Left Rise Again?

Short answer: No.

Look, I appreciate all the attention the so-called “evangelical left” has been getting lately from pieces like this, and from books like David Swartz’s Moral Minority and Brantley W. Gasaway’s Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice. That’s been nice. Thank you.

This was my tribe, after all — the Tony & Jim & Ron show. I was a bit-player in that mini-movement, and while I now cringe at some of what we wrote and endorsed and supported during my years in that work, there’s far more that I think of with great pride. A quixotic witness is a kind of accomplishment in itself, I suppose, even if we can’t point to much else in the way of accomplishment.

But there’s a reason that articles like Breunig’s all sound like the presenter giving out a Lifetime Achievement Award to some emeritus trustee at some local nonprofit’s annual dinner, or like someone dedicating the historical marker to honor some worthy, but largely forgotten, event from the past. That tone — fond, but past-tense, a bit like an obituary — is entirely appropriate.

Last night, in their final preseason game, a bunch of players who won’t make the final roster of the New York Jets outscored a bunch of players who won’t make the final roster of the Philadelphia Eagles. Those young men are all talented athletes who played with heart and skill. They’re better at the game of football than 99.9 percent of the world will ever be. But they’ll be getting cut today — heading to the practice squad, or to the arena league, or putting away the pads for one last time.

There’s no shame in that. They worked hard and gave it their best shot, and for a brief moment there they were — wearing official NFL uniforms on the field in front of a roaring crowd at Giants Stadium. They almost made it.

That “almost” tinges the rest of that sentence with a note of sadness. “Almost” can be a very sad word. But when the thing you’re trying to achieve is staggeringly difficult and implausible, then “almost” can also be a badge of honor.

That’s a bit like how I feel about whatever legacy there might be from the so-called “evangelical left.” It almost accomplished some wonderful and very difficult things.

Part of the problem, of course, was that this evangelical left was never quite sure or clear about what, exactly, those wonderful and very difficult things were supposed to be. It was always a bit too evangelical to ever really be progressive, and a bit too progressive to ever really be evangelical. On a small scale, it could be concrete and specific, and so it was able to accomplish many great things on that small scale. But on the larger stage it drifted into abstraction, pulled its punches, and squandered its energy seeking the approval of the very same ideologies it was trying to critique.

But I don’t intend this post to be my own book-length history of the moral minority of progressive evangelicals. Here I’m just trying to answer Elizabeth Stoker Breunig’s question: “Can the Evangelical Left Rise Again?”

The answer is no.

And I don’t think that’s a Bad Thing.

We don’t need the old “evangelical left” to rise again. We need something else.

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