In America, white evangelicals are politically conservative. Seventy-nine percent of white evangelicals who voted in 2012, for example, cast their presidential ballot for Republican Mitt Romney, matching George W. Bush’s share of white evangelical voters in 2004. So connected in the public mind have evangelicalism and conservatism become that it’s hard for many to imagine any other state of affairs. Indeed, many white evangelicals themselves have a hard time imagining how any Christian could vote for a Democrat.
Forty years ago, that state of affairs was easier to imagine. On November 25, 1973, a group of moderate and liberal evangelicals issued “The Chicago Declaration of Social Concern,” which began with these words:
As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm that God lays total claim upon the lives of his people. We cannot, therefore, separate our lives from the situation in which God has placed us in the United States and the world.
The declaration went on to acknowledge, “we have not demonstrated the love of God to those suffering social abuses.” It critiqued American evangelicals’ quiescence regarding “the social and economic rights of the poor and oppressed,” “the historic involvement of the church in America with racism” in terms of both “personal attitudes” and “social structures,” “the materialism of our culture and the maldistribution of the nation’s wealth and services,” “the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might,” and the “prideful domination” of men and “irresponsible passivity” of women.
It ended on a nonideological, nonpartisan, and eschatological note:
By this declaration, we endorse no political ideology or party, but call our nation’s leaders and people to that righteousness which exalts a nation.
We make this declaration in the biblical hope that Christ is coming to consummate the Kingdom and we accept his claim on our total discipleship until he comes.
The Washington Post described the impulse behind the Chicago Declaration as “a religious movement that could shake both political and religious life in America.” Three years following the declaration, Newsweek declared America’s bicentennial as the “The Year of the Evangelicals,” and Americans—including a plurality of white evangelicals—elected Jimmy Carter, a born-again Baptist and Democrat, as president. But four years after that, white evangelicals formed the Moral Majority and voted for Republican Ronald Reagan, cementing the connection between white evangelicalism and political conservatism that persists to this day. Ironically, it was the religious right, not the evangelical left, which matched Newsweek’s description shook political and religious life in America.
David R. Swartz tells the story of the rise, fall, and recent renaissance of the evangelical left in his book, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. He begins in media res with the “Chicago Declaration,” then turns to chapter-length studies of individual signers whose involvement sheds light on the story.
The first of these studies is Carl F. H. Henry, whose 1947 manifesto, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, critiqued the political passivity of white fundamentalists and called for a neo-evangelical engagement of culture and politics, though he himself did not specify what that engagement might look like. Others did, however, including John Alexander of Freedom Now (later, The Other Side), who challenged American racism on biblical ground. Then there was Jim Wallis of The Post-American (later, Sojourners), who condemned America’s war in Vietnam. Mark Hatfield, the moderate Republican senator from Oregon, lent verbal support to, but did not sign, the declaration; he illustrated the possibility of evangelical influence on politics. And Sharon Gallagher of Berkeley’s Christian World Liberation Front and Right On advocated for intentional community and feminist issues.
The opposition of the evangelical left to political quiescence, racism, war, poverty, and patriarchy reflected a number of influences, sometimes contradictory. Samuel Escobar challenged white evangelical indifference to global poverty, igniting a passion for international social concern. Richard Mouw, influenced by Dutch Reformed theology, argued that the church should reform America’s cultural institutions and political structures. Ronald J. Sider, coming from an Anabaptist perspective, argued that the church should model a countercultural community based on peace and simple living.
The diversity of concerns and theological backgrounds underlying the “Chicago Declaration” was both its strength and a cause of the undoing of the evangelical left. The declaration united progressive evangelicals around certain goals, at least in the abstract: anti-racism, anti-poverty, anti-war, anti-patriarchy, etc. In succeeding years, however, when participants tried to craft a united practical strategy to attain those goals, their diversity of concerns hardened into identity politics, and their theological backgrounds exposed deep rifts in assumptions about how the church should exercise its salt-and-light influence in the world.
Additionally, the American body politic tired of the “malaise” of Jimmy Carter and worried about the radicalism—both cultural and political—and violence of the left. The non-evangelical left became increasingly secular and pro-choice, distrusting the religious inspiration and pro-life commitments of their evangelical comrades. Consequently, during the 80s and 90s, much of the evangelical left entered the wilderness, distrusted by both their fellow evangelicals and their fellow leftists. The presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama seemed to have revived the evangelical left, however, giving it occasion both to oppose war and to propose a redistribution of the nation’s wealth and a restructuring of its health and welfare systems. Though the majority of white evangelicals still lean to the right politically, a noticeable subset of younger evangelicals are leaning in the opposite direction. What this shift portends for the future of white evangelical politics is, at the present moment, anyone’s guess.
My own political commitments as an evangelical are conservative. But I appreciate David R. Swartz’s study in the political diversity of American evangelicalism during a formative period of our nation’s recent history. Good history writing such as his challenges faulty memories, shallow ideology, and easy partisanship.
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