The right story told at the right time can make all the difference. Knowing this, great storytellers take as much care in selecting the right story as they do in crafting its telling. David Swartz, author and historian at Asbury University, has done just that in his newly released book, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.
This is a story many of us didn’t know we wanted and needed to read, a story many didn’t know existed. It’s a story “chronicling the rise, decline, and legacy of the evangelical left.”
But it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of what it looks like to merge progressive politics with deep personal piety; the story of “holistic concern for both evangelism and social action;” the story of a full 1/3 of evangelicals who do not find their voice in the religious right; the story of an awakening to social concern and the presence of social evil; it’s the story of evangelical politics which very much could have taken a profoundly progressive shape; it’s the story of a deeply diverse evangelicalism unwilling to fit neatly into caricatures; and its the story of what it might look like to love both God and neighbor with equal abandon.
This is a good story.
Swartz does an excellent job of faithfully defining “the evangelical caricature,” before allowing it to implode upon itself. He recognizes what many feel and think to be true, “evangelicalism is a monolithic political bloc energized by only a few conservative political issues.” Many would recognize evangelicals for their anti-abortion, anti-gay, pro-family stances today.
SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS AND CONSCIENCE
Swartz wonderfully, and graciously, helps his readers to see how dramatically limiting that stereotype is. He starts in 1973, with a gathering of socially minded evangelicals who together wrote “The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.” Swartz calls this still stunning document “a manifesto for a new evangelical left.” In witnessing this event and its Declaration the Washington Post boldly proclaimed that evangelicalism had woken from its apolitical stance and was set to “launch a religious movement that could shake both political and religious life in America.”
The Declaration drips with lament for the church’s complicity in our social brokenness and is thoroughly evangelical, accepting Jesus’ “claim on our total discipleship until he comes.” The document called the church to address racism, “economic rights of the poor and oppressed,” “the maldistribution of the nations wealth and services,” “the imbalance and injustice of international trade,” “the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might,” and “that we have encouraged men to prideful domination and women to irresponsible passivity.” As solid evangelicals, they did so never loosing sight of the need for personal transformation and relationship to God.
After providing such a tantalizing setting for the story, he unfolds the plot with this question, “From where did this progressive evangelical social consciousness and conscience emerge?” Indeed. As already mentioned, this is not the evangelicalism most of us know. The bulk of the book seeks to sort this out, weaving individual and organizational narratives into the whole, with chapters on Carl Henry and Neo-Evangelical Social Engagement, John Alexander and Racial Justice, Jim Wallis and Vietnam, Mark Hatfield and Electoral Politics, Sharon Gallagher and Spiritual Community, Samuel Escobar and the Gblobal perspective, Richard Mouw and Evangelical Politics, and Ron Sider and Economics. Each chapter, itself a story, is fantastic.
His chapter on John Alexander and Racial Justice was particularly helpful for me in Houston, as I’ve tried to navigate our own entrenched racialized landscape. Indicative of the larger story, this chapter develops a slow-coming shift from defining racism in strictly personal terms to a broader socialized definition. In addressing racism in the US and in evangelical churches, they found that “converting souls by itself could not sufficiently level the terrain.” It was time to start “tackling racism on a structural level.”
So why is it that we do not associate “evangelicalism” with progressive social concern? The last third of Swartz’s book tells of their decline, and of how the Washington Post was so “profoundly wrong.” These 3 chapters, though sad, were not disheartening. From Identity Politics to Finances, the evangelical left imploded and was left behind by the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, and the evangelical coalitions that enabled President Bush to be elected.
THIS IS OUR STORY
Like all good stories, Moral Minority allows you to see yourself it its pages. After all, the Houston church today continues to dialogue (or debate!) on incredibly similar lines. This is our story, unfolding (again) before our eyes. And in doing so, it becomes deeply meaningful.
Houston’s population explosion and demographic changes have brought awareness of social issues, immigration, the stunning gap between rich and poor, the global effects of US policy and war right to our front door. Many churches have found it impossible to ignore the felt social needs of their changing neighborhoods, and have engaged in creative new ministries moving beyond charity.
Our recent explosion of justice ministries (particularly regarding Human Trafficking) has found evangelicals leading the way.
The “missional church” movement, with its insistence that we move from “attractional” models of church to socially engaged churches pursuing the common good, continues the story Swartz captures so well of Anabaptists and Reformed theologies-of-culture in dialogue pushing us to action. It’s Houston stars: Chris Seay, Jim Herrington, Ken Shuman, Rudy Rasmus will benefit greatly from understanding where we’ve come from and where we are in our larger story.
Healing the Brokenness, a ministry in Houston’s 5th Ward, continues to consistently define racism systemically, garnering overwhelming praise from the Black community as well as evangelical sociologist Michael Emerson. But who also continues to experience pushback from many in largely white evangelical communities.
FaithWalking, a new discipleship culture offered by Mission Houston, has experienced phenomenal growth worldwide. It’s core goal of merging the personal with the social is like an epilogue to Moral Minority, though clearly their own perspective will continue to be sharpened as they live into this new mental model.
Ultimately, the evangelical left is not gone, it’s redeveloped.
Swartz, in what was for me quite helpful, concludes that “Evangelicalism is not inherently conservative, nor universally fixed to individual solutions to social problems.” He goes on to inspire hope that we may find “fundamentally unstable” the current evangelical alliance with all things politically conservative. All of this leaves me craving a new question, What if the church were more known to be for Houston than it was known for what it was against? Perhaps we still can be.
With Moral Minority, our story has been told. And with it, perhaps we’ll remember why we’re here.
Marty Troyer is pastor of Houston Mennonite Church: The Church of the Sermon on the Mount. You can follow his work on his blog or via Twitter at @thepeacepastor.