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Fall 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 2 · pp. 273–275 

Book Review

Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

David R. Swartz. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 376 pages.

Reviewed by David M. Warkentin

The story of evangelicalism in North America is fraught with complexity, confusion, and at times, conflict. In an era when the news media aim for the sensational, perceptions of evangelicalism are drawn mainly from isolated or extreme examples, usually in some form of fundamentalism (e.g., Westboro Baptist). Add to that the visible influence of right-wing evangelical groups like the now defunct Moral Majority and evangelicalism is often described as a uniform group: theologically, politically, and socially conservative.

In this book, David R. Swartz seeks to balance the scales, tracing the lesser known, yet no less influential, side of evangelical identity in the twentieth century: the evangelical left. With definitions of evangelicalism varied and at times contested, such a story is a welcome addition to the discussion.

Moral Minority opens by taking the reader to Chicago in 1973 when a group of socially progressive evangelicals met “nearly a decade before the height of the Moral Majority . . . strategizing about how to move the nation in a more evangelical direction through political action” (1). Individuals and groups signed the Chicago Declaration—a “manifesto for a new evangelical left” designed to forge commitment and unity around evangelical political engagement. Swartz deftly combines historical analysis and biography in tracing the role and influence of the evangelical left within the broader evangelical culture before and after this pivotal moment in its history.

According to Swartz, the movement went through three distinct periods in the latter half of the twentieth century. Part I outlines the context from which the evangelical left developed in the 1950s and ’60s, highlighting the stories of such key players as theologian Carl Henry (founding editor of Christianity Today), activist Jim Wallis (founder of the Sojourners Community), Senator Mark Hatfield, and communitarian Sharon {274} Gallagher. Together this group offered an “alternative to the superpatriotism of sectarian fundamentalists and the more typical mid-century posture of passive conservatism among many mainstream evangelicals” (3).

Part II explores the growth and collaboration of the evangelical left leading up to the Chicago Declaration of 1973. During a socially tenuous time in America (for example, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War) the evangelical left rallied around progressive political action as a direct extension of their evangelical convictions. From Ron Sider’s pointed critique of materialism to Richard Mouw’s nuanced belief in the validity of politics as a vocation, the account of this diverse and united group highlights how the 1970s was indeed “a time of great expectations” for the evangelical left (184).

Part III describes how expectation and idealism quickly became mired in conflict as the movement was “fragmented along gender, racial, ideological lines” (6). Several failed attempts in the 1970s to align and influence the political landscape, particularly with the presidency of Jimmy Carter, only accelerated its declining influence. Whatever public prominence the evangelical left possessed was quickly eclipsed by a growing mobilization of the evangelical right, signaled by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and typified by movements such as the Moral Majority.

Swartz argues that despite its own lack of success, the evangelical left paved the way for evangelicals to engage politics—the success of the evangelical right in the 1980s being the prime example. The movement stirred a political imagination that persists to this day with groups like Sojourners and the New Monastics. From these past and present examples, Swartz concludes that the evangelical left played a key role in determining evangelicalism’s ongoing and diverse political engagement in America today.

Swartz makes a compelling case for the influence of the evangelical left. His thorough historical analysis, clear writing, and engaging stories provide a clear account of its political influence in America. Swartz does well to avoid generalizations, offering instead detailed accounts of popular figures and organizations to illustrate how the movement developed. For instance, in tracing Ron Sider’s rural Anabaptist upbringing and subsequent education, Swartz provides valuable insight into the life of one of the evangelical left’s most influential activists.

Moral Minority provides an important contribution to defining evangelical identity. Refusing to accept the Moral Majority of the 1980s as typical of the movement, Swartz’s account reminds us that evangelicalism is “characterized historically by great diversity in both political method and theory” (264). Similarly, the book highlights the ongoing relevance of the evangelical left’s message today. From challenges to individualism, to {275} engaging issues of race, to confronting religious patriotism, the evangelical left’s legacy of political engagement provides an example for addressing these ongoing issues.

Whereas the presence and influence of the evangelical left is clear, Swartz does not clarify precisely how the evangelical left was integral to the success of the evangelical right. For example, he highlights how the evangelical left provided a “model of political mobilization” for the evangelical right but beyond a footnote (231) does not provide specific instances where this is clear. The parallels in political engagement are obvious from Swartz’s analysis, but the degree to which the evangelical right relied on the example of the evangelical left is more speculative than concrete. Perhaps beyond the scope of this book, expanded analysis of the footnoted research could substantiate this intriguing suggestion.

Overall, the Moral Minority provides valuable insight into contemporary evangelical identity and politics. For Anabaptists, a group often in a tenuous relationship with evangelicalism, an account of the evangelical left should provide inspiration not to give up on participating in the broader evangelical community—a message particularly relevant to Mennonite Brethren and our declared Anabaptist-evangelical identity. To anyone interested in evangelical identity, particularly related to its public role in society, Moral Minority will be well worth the read.

David M. Warkentin, MCS (Regent College)
Praxis Director
Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C.

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