Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

by David R. Swartz
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012
376 pages, hardback

A review essay by Mark William Olson

Click here to purchase this book from Amazon (EEWC-CFT receives a portion of your purchase price!)In one way or another, I suppose that we all tend to live in worlds of our own making: little worlds that feel like big worlds. We draw lines, claim labels, create identities. We imagine that these identities reflect objective, hard-and-fast realities. But more often than not, our identities are illusions. We use them for our own ends.

Sadly, others sometimes use these identities for their ends as well.

David Swartz’s new book—with its abundant references to people who have had an impact on Christian feminism, as well as on numerous other topics—is fundamentally about identities. That’s partly its strength. That’s partly its weakness.

I met David a few years ago. He and I are both graduates of Wheaton College. He and I were both actively involved in student journalism at Wheaton. He and I are both married to sociologists. We have things in common. Our “identities” intersect.

We got together in South Bend, Indiana. David took me on a walking tour of Notre Dame, where he had recently finished his doctoral work in history. He’s the kind of person you can’t help but like: gentle, curious, compassionate, a person who seems to have been shaped by a genuine faith.

I tracked him down because his dissertation had made numerous references to The Other Side, the magazine with which I was associated for twenty-five years. The dissertation had likewise included a number of references to myself, as well as quotes from things I had written, even things written during my student days at Wheaton.

Philip Harnden, with whom I had worked closely at The Other Side, had helped me identify scores of factual errors in the dissertation, largely because David, not knowing how to reach either of us, had relied heavily on what turned out to be serious errors in other people’s dissertations. Historical errors, like the identities that we so carefully construct for ourselves and others, have a way of perpetuating themselves, even when they reflect little objective reality.

David was receptive, truly appreciative of the more accurate information that Phil and I were able to provide. His dissertation, however, had already been approved. It was already making its way into library archives, where, unfortunately, as he and I both realized, its errors could end up misleading future researchers.  This situation isn’t unique to David’s dissertation. I’m sure it happens all the time. The histories we trust, like the identities we create, aren’t always as reliable as we think.

It was at that meeting in South Bend that I learned that David was working on a book that would focus on a handful of those individuals and organizations that were involved in fashioning the 1973 “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern” and its various follow-up statements and actions. Some of the “foremothers” of today’s Christian feminism had tried to play a role, as had John F. Alexander, the editor of The Other Side with whom I began working during that same pivotal year.

David’s very worthwhile volume appeared in print in 2012, bearing the title Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. The book has garnered a fair amount of media attention, partly, I suspect, because of the way in which it challenges some of the mass media’s more naive assumptions about “evangelical” history and identity. As he writes at one point in his book, “The legacy of the Chicago Declaration underscores the persistence of a progressive impulse in an evangelical tradition often portrayed as uniformly traditionalist and politically right.”

David, now an assistant professor of history at Asbury University, has established a similarly named web site and blog (moralminoritybook.com). I love some of the e-mail entries that he sends out. Clearly he is someone who wants to encourage a higher level of moral concern among those people of faith whom he calls “evangelical.” I applaud him for that.

But there are some things about the book—much like the era that David himself describes—that I find fundamentally disturbing.

Women and Feminist Concerns

In personal interactions with me, David has described himself as both a feminist and a pacifist. Those seem to be important faith values for him.

Nevertheless, in reading his narrative, you may find yourself thinking that women and feminist concerns are getting short shrift. On one level, of course, that’s simply a truthful reflection of what happened at the 1973 “Thanksgiving Workshop” that created the “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.” It reflects what happened at various follow-up meetings as well. Men ran things. The concerns of women were regularly pushed aside because they simply didn’t match the agenda of the dominant males. As David’s book honestly acknowledges, nervous, self-serving men sometimes rushed to bury feminist concerns, fearing that other leaders in “the evangelical world” would write off the larger effort if they thought it was giving support to women’s ordination—or some other apparent “outrage.”

In that sense, it’s a rather tragic story.

(Historian Nancy Hardesty, who was at that first “Thanksgiving Workshop” as well as succeeding ones, shared her personal, careful account of those days in a plenary address at the 2004 EEWC Conference, and a text of her address is available on the EEWC web site.)

Nevertheless, to be fair, David Swartz does mention the efforts of a number of important women, though they often appear as relatively minor figures in his larger narrative. For example, if you pick the book up, you’ll read at least a little about the pioneering role of Nancy Hardesty, Letha Scanzoni, Anne Eggebroten, Lucille Dayton, Virginia Mollenkott, and others.

Revealingly, however, the woman who gets the most attention is Sharon Gallagher, a coeditor of Right On, later called Radix, who was an influential member of what was once known as the Christian World Liberation Front. Sharon nicely fits David’s narrative framework because she devoted most of her energies to the “larger,” non-feminist issues that he personally seems to value most highly.

John Alexander and The Other Side Magazine

I can’t judge the accuracy of all the thousands of “facts” that appear throughout David Swartz’s volume. I know that there is much here that is useful and true. It’s a story that needed to be told. But several important details concerning The Other Side still seem garbled. And David treats Daughters of Sarah, a wonderful publication from those early days, as an official journal of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus, which it wasn’t. So I suspect that there are small factual errors throughout the book, just as there are in every book of “history.”  (The book includes more than 80 pages of footnotes, but because each footnote’s abundant references are to a single paragraph that was likewise packed with much information and interpretation, it’s sometimes hard to know which details are clearly documented and which are not.)

Some of the book’s more obvious confusions concerning The Other Side are in a paragraph that alludes to John F. Alexander’s 1984 resignation from the staff. David asserts that this was due in part to internal staff differences over homosexuality. The paragraph proceeds from that erroneous assertion to a reference to the magazine ceasing publication in 2004. A casual reader might wrongly interpret the flow of the paragraph as suggesting that the magazine’s outspoken support for all of God’s children, including those who are lesbian or gay, somehow led to John Alexander’s “forced” departure from the staff and that this, in turn, led to the magazine’s demise.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I fear that in this case, David has confused multiple stories and somehow allowed his mind to lump them into one. When David and I spoke in 2011, I no doubt told him about Fred Alexander, John’s father, who had pastored for a time in churches that proudly called themselves “fundamentalist.” Fred had courageously started the magazine in 1965. He had lost countless friends because of the magazine’s outspoken, biblically based critique of racial injustice. Over the years, Fred had continued to suffer because of other “unpopular” stands he was willing to take. Perhaps that’s why the magazine’s 1977 decision to begin supportively addressing gay and lesbian issues was just too much for him. To the dismay of us all, Fred (the senior Alexander) responded to that issue by severing his connections with the magazine he had founded.

But neither homosexuality nor John’s father’s earlier exit from the magazine had anything whatsoever to do with John Alexander’s own departure from the staff seven years later. Nor did John’s departure even represent a full break with the magazine. He continued writing his usual column, and he continued serving as an editor-at-large. Thus, contrary to how some might read the relevant paragraph in Moral Minority, John’s departure from the staff in 1984 had nothing whatsoever to do with the magazine’s unfortunate and completely unrelated demise in 2004, two decades later.

I’m sure that anyone connected with the period that David Swartz is describing could point out a multitude of similar inaccuracies. But perhaps these various errors aren’t the point. Books such as David’s are never strictly a collection of “facts.” They are primarily an interpretation of their own reconstruction of what happened.

Measuring Success by Political  Status and Influence

Like every author, David has a distinct slant on the era that he describes.

He concludes, for example, that although it had some cultural and spiritual successes, the “evangelical left” (as he likes to call it) largely failed in one of the major realms in which some people desperately wanted it to succeed, namely the realm of electoral politics.

Ironically, when I was at The Other Side, achieving respect, status, or influence in the electoral realm was the last thing many of us cared about. In fact, we were inclined to view anyone who was pursuing that kind of “success” as someone who was engaging in a moral sell-out. The political world needed to be addressed, but we were convinced that to gain enduring power in that realm, you would, of necessity, first have to sell your soul to the devil (or whatever its modern equivalent might be).

Yes, there were those who seemed to be pursuing political “success,” including many at our sister journal, Sojourners, and certainly at Ron Sider’s otherwise admired Evangelicals for Social Action (the group whose perspectives and disappointments David’s book seems to reflect most closely). But many of us at The Other Side viewed their dreams as little more than destructive delusions.

In many of our minds, such efforts at religious and political “acceptance” were leading to the deliberate suppression of unpopular but important biblical values, including the full equality of women in church and society, the loving embrace of all people, both gay and straight, the absolute immorality of war and human violence, the abolition of prisons, the need for open international borders, an undiluted championing of the weak and impoverished, suppression of unfettered capitalism, and a deeper care for our cruelly ravaged earth. In the place of these vital, gospel-based concerns, we saw the promotion of so-called “family values” or the misguided endorsement of legal restrictions on abortion—both of which seemed to many of us as being in direct contradiction to scripture. We couldn’t imagine why any thinking Christian would be promoting those things unless it were to curry favor among those who were more tied to the ways of Judas than to the ways of Jesus.

After reviewing the period of the 1970s and early 1980s,  David Swartz essentially concludes that politically speaking, “the evangelical left” was a failure. He argues that because it didn’t take the particular approach that many would have preferred, it “hastened the arrival of the religious right and encouraged its intensity.” He blames this on “the evangelical left’s continuing inability to coalesce around a viable identity”—those italics are mine—“and to build a substantial constituency.”

Again and again, David criticizes “the evangelical left” for theological and political “fragmentation.” He talks about the very real—and definitely differing—theological frameworks of those who came from Anabaptist versus Reformed traditions. He accurately points to the ways in which academically trained “progressive evangelicals” (not incidentally, most of them male) could spend way too much time arguing about—and agonizing over—things that amounted to little more than moral minutiae.

“Identity Politics”

But ultimately it is “identity politics” (a convenient ideological construction, if there ever was one) that he blames most seriously. “Identity politics sabotaged the nascent progressive coalition of evangelicals,” he writes. “Following its secular counterpart, the evangelical left fragmented along gender, racial, and ideological lines. Female, African-American, Anabaptist, and Reformed evangelicals created separate institutions when the Thanksgiving Workshop movement failed to construct a common language and political philosophy. This failure deprived the broader movement of momentum and much-needed resources.”

David blames “identity politics” for the movement’s failure to achieve what he himself has defined as one major form of “success.” Yet his whole book is itself grounded in “identity creation” and an “identity” agenda. What, for example, is an “evangelical”? Or what’s a person with “progressive social concern”? He never says. In each case, it’s an undefinable label, an “identity” with ever-shifting boundaries. Self-serving lines are drawn by those who either want to mark themselves as “in” or mark others as “out.” What we so often fail to see is that these are worlds of our own making, completely lacking in any objective reality.

He says that “identity politics” is what “sabotaged” the movement that he calls “the evangelical left,” the tenuously constructed heritage about which he writes. It was “sabotaged,” he says, by those who put too much focus on women or African Americans or their own unique theological tradition. What he seems to mean is that these emphases—particularly the emphasis on women—undermined the movement’s identification with the shadowy, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t very humanly created world of “evangelicalism,” an illusory, self-defined realm whose members see it as the only realm that matters.

When I say that this is what he seems to mean, it’s because that’s how the book itself came across to me. Yet I would be less than truthful if I didn’t also tell you that in a personal conversation with me, David Swartz rather adamantly insisted that he considers himself both a feminist and a pacifist. I didn’t question him about what those terms mean to him, but despite how I might have read his conclusions, he insisted he is no “political Machiavellian.” Nor would he himself, he said, have ever been willing to “throw women, blacks, and Anabaptists under the bus to get the right politicians elected.”

Incidentally, as David’s book indirectly suggests, there were no expressions of LGBT identity among those who crafted the 1973 “Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. That isn’t the “identity politics” that he is talking about. It was three years after that declaration that Letha Scanzoni first wrote an article for The Christian Century in which she discussed attitudes of conservative Christians toward gay men and lesbians, and it wasn’t until the next year (1977) that The Other Side published its own groundbreaking issue on the topic. Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, the significant and  still-influential book by Virginia Mollenkott and Letha Scanzoni, didn’t appear until 1978.

Positive and Negative Labeling

One of the things that worried me throughout David’s book was his use of labels and adjectives that will inevitably contribute to the creation of positive and negative identities in the minds of almost every reader. Labels often engender “realities” that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

Take John F. Alexander, with whom I worked for so many years at The Other Side, and whose memory I treasure so deeply. John had a profound effect on my life, and I will always be thankful for that. But I was startled in reading Moral Minority to find him repeatedly labeled as a “civil rights activist.”

That’s a beautiful image. It’s great to imagine that one of the many people who had a hand in the Chicago Declaration was a “civil rights activist,” but John was no such thing. He would have been appalled to be labeled as such. Did he care deeply about racial justice? Sure. Did he write with some passion about it? Yes. Did he think that racial justice was an imperative concern of Christians? Absolutely. Was he himself an activist, out on the front lines agitating for social and political change? No way. He was a writer. He was a thinker. It might feed our ego to create a more exalted identity for him, but that’s an illusion. That’s a construction with no basis in reality. Let’s be honest: most of those people of faith who truly made a difference for civil rights and racial justice not only had skin that was much darker than John’s but also had never even heard of “evangelicals”—and wouldn’t have recognized one if they saw one.

Negative labels appear regularly in David’s book as well. They, too, are easily used (by any of us and all of us) to create realities that are little more than figments of our imagination. In David’s case, I fear that they are sometimes unconsciously used to enhance or advance his otherwise unsubstantiated interpretation of events.

I wish I had counted, for instance, how many times David uses the adjective “fiery” in front of someone’s name or in describing a particular article or letter or written communication. It’s way too often, and because of the word’s connotations in many people’s minds, it can be taken to mean that here is someone who is engaging in the wrong kind of “identity politics,” a person who is perhaps forcefully defending a viewpoint that is going to undermine the right kind of “identity politics,” the kind that people like Ron Sider (bless his well-meaning heart) and others have always seen as important.

For me, perhaps the most startling example of the “fiery” label was in a reference to the groundbreaking book, All We’re Meant to Be. David describes Letha Scanzoni as a “pious and quiet but tell-it-like-it-is feminist” while inexplicably describing her coauthor as “the fiery Nancy Hardesty.” I knew Nancy both before and after publication of All We’re Meant to Be, and I can’t imagine anyone calling her “fiery,” unless by that you mean that she knew what she believed and was quietly but firmly willing to stand up for it. In my experience, she was a woman of great dignity, great intellect. I never saw her as “fiery.”

Unfortunately, David’s book, perhaps reflecting the perspective of some of his primary sources, is especially prone to using the word “fiery” for those females who refused to lie prone before the male agenda. For example, he also characterizes as “fiery” (and “strident”) a 1974 letter to Ron Sider from Evon Bachaus, who accuses Ron of a failure to “take feminism seriously,” mentioning in particular what she saw as a hesitation on his part regarding the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s ordination.

For some of the people about whom David is writing, did getting in the way of a male agenda automatically make you “fiery”? Is that where the language comes from?

Blaming Evangelical Feminists

David finds many to blame for the failure of “the evangelical left.” But he places part of the fault at the feet of “evangelical feminists,” especially those who formed the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (which became EEWC and is now largely known as “Christian Feminism Today”). “After successfully placing their concerns on the agenda of the Thanksgiving Workshops,” he writes—and those are my italics again—“evangelical feminists largely abandoned the broader movement to build instead an organization focused more directly on women’s issues.”

So let’s see now: if you really care about something—if you consider it a deep-seated moral and biblical imperative, a much-needed response to the persistent leading of God’s own Spirit—are you supposed to be happy with simply having your concerns “on the agenda” but voted down by those who fear man more than God? Or could it be, by way of alternative interpretation, that by seeking to “save” the life of “the evangelical left,” its male leaders actually “lost” the life of that movement, much as Jesus himself had warned might sometimes be the case when we seek to play it safe?

Ironically, despite how certain parts of the book come across, David Swartz has said that he agrees with me about much of this. In an e-mail communication, he has told me that he “admires” the way that Nancy Hardesty and the writer John Howard Yoder threw “wrenches” into the Thanksgiving Workshop. He has told me that merely getting deep-seated moral and biblical imperatives “on the agenda” should never have been enough for anyone. But he remains convinced that these divisions also “marginalized the movement.”

I would argue, however, that it was not the “wrenches” that marginalized the movement. It’s how those who sought to dominate the movement responded to those “wrenches” that was the problem.

Faulting Jimmy Carter

David reserves another measure of blame for the political realm.

He spends a considerable amount of time, for example, quoting those who grew disillusioned with Jimmy Carter, especially his alleged failure to speak out against both “secular humanists” in his own cabinet and against the Supreme Court’s approval of abortion under limited circumstances. And in the spirit of Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who loves to foster the illusion that the political left and political right are equally dismissive of the common good and that only Jim and folks like him are in touch with “God’s politics,” David seems to lambast the Democratic Party and “liberals” everywhere for remaining “unimpressed and indifferent toward the Chicago Declaration” and for “trying hard…to alienate a potentially powerful constituency.”

Whether this is what David himself personally thinks or not, I can’t say. But he’s right in suggesting that there were those who couldn’t understand why progressive politicians didn’t rush to embrace evangelicals after a little group of them issued a timid—and yet in its own world, courageous—“declaration of social concern.”

If the declaration had led to something more than talk, if it had been the work of more than a tiny “moral minority” who thought themselves important, if it had been broader and more encompassing, maybe it would have gotten some large bells ringing somewhere. But as it was, it was a little jingle in a little world that thought itself big. Yes, the jingle had potential. The jingle was a jingle of hope. And it could have led further than it did. But I can’t imagine that many who had been serving faithfully for decades on the front lines of justice and peace would have had much reason to notice, much less any reason to deliberately “alienate” a new group of potential supporters.

Abortion and a Well-Financed Political Agenda

As a number of writers have suggested, what did happen politically—sometime after the issuance of the Chicago Declaration and sometime after multiple unrelated threats to a conservative economic agenda—was a well-financed, deliberate cultivation of millions of politically inactive, poorly informed, highly susceptible Christians. It’s hard to prove, but based on numerous statements that I’ve read, I suspect that there was indeed a conscious effort by secular servants of Mammon, desperate to advance the power of Republicans to bring comfort to the rich (especially the male rich) while delivering increased discomfort to the poor (especially the female poor). Their conscious strategy, many have suggested, was to create an apparent moral issue—an issue that would create zero inconvenience for their own agenda and one that would likewise have minimal direct impact on the lives of those whom they were targeting.

To foment outrage over abortion was their tool, a perfect distraction tactic to hide their true agenda. Never mind that abortion is never mentioned in scripture. Never mind that the careful availability of abortion actually does much moral good. It was the perfect organizing tool, and those who stood to profit financially from this conveniently irrelevant organizing tactic were ready and able to throw mountains of money into the effort.

It worked.

Some members of the “evangelical left” (if there ever really was such a thing) tried to “get on board” what appeared to be a self-propelled gravy train. As David Swartz’s book points out, there were those who tried to start portraying themselves as having a “consistent pro-life” ethic, as if that would suddenly allow them to redirect the public’s attention to other parts of their more-worthy agenda.

But when you try to jump aboard a well-financed train that was nothing but a distraction to begin with, and when someone else has already chosen what track the train is running on, your efforts are bound to be in vain. As a result, strategists on the political “right” succeeded in blinding—and politically exploiting—both millions of Christians in the pew and some leaders of the “evangelical left.” The fake moral issue of abortion was the perfect tool for insuring the continued power of those whose agenda was about as far from Jesus’ as anyone could get.

A Continuing Journey

David Swartz might quarrel with some of my historical interpretations, just as I have quarreled with some of his. That’s fine. He’s a good person. I respect his values. He’s still learning. So am I. But as you can see, there are things about the period he is describing that really annoy me. They might annoy you, too, but I’m nevertheless glad he is attempting to tell the story. It’s a story that shouldn’t be ignored.

Actually, I’m told that an additional book by a different author, focusing on a slightly different time period and offering a differently nuanced interpretive framework, is also in the works. I’m looking forward to seeing it. Shortly before David Swartz’s book came out, I read Brantley Gasaway’s “An Alternative Soul of Politics: The Rise of Contemporary Progressive Evangelicalism,” a remarkably perceptive doctoral dissertation in religion. Brantley is now at Bucknell University. He has told me that a new version of his study will be out in book form from UNC Press by summer or fall of 2014. If it materializes as planned, that book could add to the story as well.

My hope is that books such as these will prompt a continued curiosity about what happened in a certain hard-to-define world in the latter part of the twentieth century. Hopefully they will also prompt a determination by many of us to continue that story in the future: a story of faith manifesting itself in action, a story of Light and Love emerging—even if in little ways, even if in small worlds of our own making, even where we and the world at large least expect it.

And maybe, just maybe, it will turn into something bigger. When we set aside our personal illusions, when we set aside our efforts at maintaining “credibility” within some narrow world of our own making, when we allow the spark of God’s ever-surprising Spirit to lead us ever closer to that divine “new creation,” walls will fall. Hopes will rise. And maybe, just maybe, in ways we can’t yet foresee, change will come. Maybe, just maybe, Love will prevail.

© 2013 by EEWC-Christian Feminism Today

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Mark William Olson
Mark William Olson lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and has been a member of EEWC since sometime before 1980. He is the author of Breaking Free: Bible Studies in the Liberating Call of Jesus (Judson Press) and works with A Distant Wind, which provides professional and creative services to a variety of Christian publications. Prior to 1998, he was editor and publisher of The Other Side. His wife, Joan Toms Olson, is also a long-time EEWC member. One of her reviews was posted on this site earlier.

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