The Other Side of Evangelical Politics

Seth Dowland

This semester I’m supervising an independent study for James Lambert, a senior religion major at Duke. James is working on an article about progressive evangelicals and the debate over nuclear weapons in the early 1980s. Recently we read portions of dissertations by Brantley Gasaway (Ph.D., Religious Studies, UNC 2008) and David Swartz (Ph.D., History, Notre Dame 2008). Gasaway’s dissertation, “An Alternative Soul of Politics: The Rise of Contemporary Progressive Evangelicalism,” argues that progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider privileged an emphasis on the common good and in so doing provided evangelicalism with an “alternative soul” of political engagement. Gasaway is currently revising the book manuscript for publication. Swartz’s work, “Left Behind: The Evangelical Left and the Limits of Evangelical Politics, 1965-1988,” points to the fact that a discernible evangelical left emerged almost a decade before the Christian right and contends that its absolutist rhetoric and contentious tactics actually prefigured the religious right. Swartz is working on a manuscript under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press.

After reading these dissertations, James formulated the following questions for the two authors. We sent these to Gasaway, now assistant professor of religious studies at Bucknell University, and Swartz, now a postdoctoral fellow at Notre Dame. I thought it would be interesting for Religion & American History readers to see their responses.

1. I think there is a rhetorical difference between progressive and conservative evangelicals. Progressives talk more about the "common good" whereas conservatives talk more about individual rights. Does this characterization seem accurate, and if so, do you think this rhetoric makes it hard for progressive evangelicals to connect with an individual-focused American culture?

BG: Yes, your characterization seems accurate. In promoting their public theologies, progressive evangelicals have adopted the language of “the common good” as a way of emphasizing that people have not only individual rights but also collective responsibilities. “Because our communal nature demands attention to the common good,” Ron Sider has written, “individual rights, whether of freedom of speech or private property, cannot be absolute.” He has thus argued that we must “balance personal rights with the common good.” Likewise Jim Wallis has insisted that “individual rights are always seen in the context of promoting the spirit of community.” Indeed, progressive evangelicals’ promotion of justice as the highest ideal of public life stems from their attempts to balance individual rights and the common good. “Justice identifies what is essential for life together in community and specifies the rights and responsibilities of individuals and institutions,” Sider has declared.

Progressive evangelical leaders themselves have regularly acknowledged that their ideals and rhetoric of community clash with the individualistic ethos of American culture. And, while their difficulty in “connecting” is hard to measure, public agendas prioritizing individual rights surely appear more winsome to most Americans than those promoting communal responsibilities.

2. What has hindered progressive evangelicals politically? Where (and when) have they found political success?

DS: With the possible exception of some political influence on issues such as anti-nuclear proliferation in the 1980s and school vouchers in the 1990s—which Ron Sider and the Reformed-oriented Association for Public Justice endorsed—progressive evangelicals have enjoyed very little political success. The “consistent life” ethic, borrowed from Cardinal Joseph Bernadin and many American Catholics, held the most promise for resonance with a broader coalition. It linked nuclear proliferation, human rights, and abortion in a “seamless garment” of life. But by the time the evangelical left began to champion this approach, the Right had already co-opted pro-life rhetoric solely for abortion. The religious right, also politicizing in the 1970s, enjoyed more success with a growing cadre of televangelists than the evangelical left did with its more cerebral style. The religious right’s populist style, aided by a receptive Republican Party, rapidly evolved from an apolitical to an activist conservatism, a process catalyzed by the issue of abortion. By the time folks like Sider, Jim Wallis, and others got around to embracing a pro-life stance in the early 1980s, they had been left behind by the Right.

The political Left, suspicious of the new coalition’s conservative theology, remained unimpressed and indifferent toward the evangelical left. Progressives in the postwar era, despite precedents of links between conservative religion and progressive politics, failed to recognize the diversity in evangelical politics. Met with apathy and hostility, when they were recognized at all, the evangelical left was held at arms length from the progressive coalition, which refused to make a case for progressive politics in the combination of moral and religious terms that would have appealed to evangelicals. The liberal coalition in fact seemed to go to great lengths—by promoting a libertine sexuality and giving a very prominent voice to activist secularists—to alienate a potentially helpful segment of theological conservatives. By the early 1980s pro-life Catholics and Protestants such as Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Jesse Jackson were forced into endorsing Roe v. Wade. Others were forced out of the Democratic Party altogether. Progressive evangelicals were left politically homeless, fitting neither in the Democratic or Republican parties.

BG: While agreeing with David that progressive evangelicals have had little direct political success, I want to suggest that they have nevertheless had a significant influence upon the broader evangelical movement over the past four decades. They have consistently challenged all evangelicals to think about issues of injustice, inequality, and suffering. To be sure, conservative evangelicals continue to disagree with progressives about both political priorities and the means for creating a just society. But few evangelicals still dispute that they have a religious responsibility to address issues such as poverty, racism, and hunger. Evangelical organizations ranging from World Vision and Compassion International to countless local ministries and faith-based organizations work to address social needs. Mainstream leaders such as Rick Warren and Bill Hybels have championed campaigns to address poverty and HIV/AIDS. In 2004, the National Association of Evangelicals issued a document that urged evangelicals to address a broad range of issues that transcend partisan politics: “We call all Christians to a renewed political engagement that aims to protect the vulnerable and poor, to guard the sanctity of human life, to further racial reconciliation and justice, to renew the family, to care for creation, and to promote justice, freedom, and peace for all.”

Nevertheless, several factors have hindered progressive evangelicals’ political success. As David outlines, their devotion to a “completely pro-life” and multi-issue agenda has placed them on the margins of partisan politics. But on a practical level, progressive evangelicals have failed to build prominent institutions, promote popular spokespersons, and develop perceptible media. As a result, they have struggled to compete with the more conspicuous representatives of the Christian Right. How many evangelicals knew that Jim Wallis and Sojourners were offering an alternative public theology to that Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority? How many encountered the political priorities of James Dobson while remaining oblivious to those of Ron Sider? One need only compare the organizations and publications of Sojourners or the even smaller Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) to those of Focus on the Family to see how progressive evangelicals have struggled to match the institutional development of evangelical conservatism. While I agree with David (in his answer to question 3) that “significant cleavages within the movement” played a role in “subvert[ing] the potency of a coherent alternative” to the Christian Right, I also think that there is a yet untold story behind the greater financial resources of Christian Right organizations. Some scholar needs to take Deep Throat’s advice and “follow the money.”

DS: In addition to money, the religious right's promotional techniques have been much more effective than the evangelical non-right. So many in the evangelical left have been academics making their case in a nuanced, cerebral style. This print culture, while vibrant and influential in its own corner of the evangelical ghetto, simply hasn't fared well in broader circles when pitted against the media-savvy televangelists and radio kings of the right.

3. What major differences do you see between Jim Wallis and Ron Sider (and other leaders of progressive evangelicalism)? Is it problematic to lump them into the same movement?

DS: That’s a great question. It’s very problematic to lump them together, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Jim Wallis, a veteran of Students for a Democratic Society, has felt more comfortable with the prophetic posture and radical language of the New Left. Sider has always embodied a more liberal, centrist political approach. He read American history critically but less negatively than evangelical New Leftists. Holding policy positions in the mainstream of Democratic politics, he nurtured an instinct of reform rather than revolution. Most importantly, Sider spoke the language of mainstream evangelicalism. That’s why Sider, in many ways, was an ideal leader for the emerging evangelical left in the early 1970s.

Things have changed since then. Back in 1976 he was a virulent critic of Jimmy Carter for being a liberal sell-out. Now he’s a centrist and good buddies with Carter, Obama, and the Democratic mainstream.

There’s a larger point here about diversity within the evangelical left. In addition to the progressive-radical dichotomy, there were several other significant cleavages within the movement. Rifts between men and women, black and white, Anabaptist and Calvinist—and countless permutations—subverted the potency of a coherent alternative to the coming religious right. By the late 1970s women were cordoned off in the Evangelical Women’s Caucus, African-Americans in the National Black Evangelical Association, Anabaptist progressives in Evangelicals for Social Action, Anabaptist radicals in Sojourners, and Calvinists in the Association for Public Justice. Identity politics, a powerful impulse in American society more broadly, profoundly damaged the progressive coalition. Evangelicals’ engagement of diverse politics—including New Left, progressive New Deal, and right-wing politics, all since the early 1970s—suggest the volatility of evangelical politics and its susceptibility to co-optation, sudden shifts, and identity politics.

BG: Here is one area where it appears that David and I disagree a bit. I find it less problematic to see Wallis and Sider as part of the same movement, especially in the late 1960s and 1970s. To be sure, David rightly notes their very different backgrounds and Wallis’s more strident criticism of the United States. Yet the two became the most visible leaders of the movement to forge and to promote an evangelical public engagement that prioritized peace and justice. For more than thirty-five years, Wallis and Sider have supported each other’s organization, efforts, and writings. While they have not always agreed on particulars, they have consistently sung from the same hymnal.

Yet Wallis and Sider have developed very different styles and strategies. Perhaps this is what David had in mind by emphasizing how Wallis embraced a “prophetic posture” and “radical language” while the more irenic Sider “spoke the language of mainstream evangelicalism.” Wallis has preferred to work from the margins of evangelicalism, denouncing the perceived failures of the Christian Right and the calling the wayward (indifferent?) back to “faithful” public engagement. As a result, Wallis and Sojourners found allies among Catholic social activists and mainline Christians who agreed with their political agendas if not necessarily their theology. The publications of Wallis and Sojourners tend to mute evangelical distinctives in favor of more ecumenical and politicized messages. In contrast, Sider has intentionally sought to work from within the evangelical movement and to shepherd participants to embrace social justice as a biblical imperative (he and other leaders have consciously retained the name Evangelicals for Social Action).

I agree that there has always been diversity within the progressive evangelical movement. In addition to the “rifts” noted by David, fissures especially occurred as Sojourners, ESA, and The Other Side (the earliest progressive evangelical magazine that folded in 2004) wrestled with how to respond to abortion and homosexuality. Sojourners and ESA both adopted a “completely pro-life” position, though they differed with respect to criminalizing abortion. Likewise, both differentiated homosexual orientation from same-sex behavior, concluding on biblical grounds that God did not condone the latter. (Sojourners retreated a bit on this stance without renouncing it in reaction to the outcry among their constituency.) The Other Side, however, declared abortion a matter of deep ambiguity and refused the pro-life and pro-choice label. In addition, they welcomed and affirmed gays and lesbian Christians. While the progressive evangelical movement readily united against issues of racism, sexism, economic injustice, and violence, it could not escape the divisiveness caused by the “culture wars” issues of abortion and homosexuality.

DS: Brantley caught me overstating their differences. Sider and Wallis both clearly viewed themselves as part of the same evangelical left. That said, they also nurtured different political sensibilities in the early 1970s--in fact different enough that they and other evangelical left leaders had trouble keeping their nascent movement together. Sider has always felt comfortable calling himself a progressive. Wallis, however, most certainly would not have in the 1970s, though now he engages the Democratic mainstream.

4. How do progressive evangelicals explain the Old Testament in light of their strong anti-war stance? Do they ignore it or say everything changed with Jesus?

Interestingly, antiwar evangelicals did not address this question often in the 1970s. Mostly because they were preoccupied with the specific case of Vietnam, which evangelicals of all stripes could denounce on just-war grounds.

Principled pacifists generally argued that Christians cannot kill because Jesus instituted a new ethic of love, which precludes killing someone. Theologian John Howard Yoder would have agreed that “everything changed with Jesus,” that the example of Jesus ought to be central to Christian social ethics. Typically though Anabaptist evangelicals argued in universal terms that could appeal beyond their hermeneutic style. Sider—and Reformed evangelicals such as Richard Mouw, Richard Wolterstorff, and Jim Skillen—also opposed Vietnam (and many, if not most, American wars) on the grounds that it violated just cause, proportionality, and last resort demands of classic Augustine theory. Mark Noll for instance has suggested that even the American Revolution is nearly impossible to justify.

5. What is your perception of the scholarly literature on the evangelical left? How does your work fit into existing scholarship? And are there facets of the movement that you'd like to see other scholars explore?

DS: In the 1970s several works noted the emergence of a politicized evangelicalism on the left and center. Richard Quebedeaux’s Young Evangelicals and Robert Fowler’s New Engagement, while helpful and suggestive, mostly gossiped and blandly catalogued its parts.

For good reasons, scholarship coming out of the New Left or liberal academia has utterly ignored their evangelical “allies.” There weren’t enough evangelical progressives for them to notice. In addition, the chronology was disordered. Evangelicals on the left—from groups like Sojourners and the Christian World Liberation Front—didn’t really emerge until the late 1960s and early 1970s. And then they were bitingly critical of the contemporaneous New Left. They objected to its new openness to violence. They thought that SDS had abandoned participatory democracy in favor of the enforcement of an ideological conformity not unlike the “fascist right.” In short, there was some chagrin on the part of radical evangelicals, a wistfulness that they couldn’t join the earlier New Left represented by the 1962 Port Huron Statement. Just as some evangelicals began to adopt New Left critiques of “the man,” the New Left had abandoned its ideals of nonviolence and participatory democracy, both ideals that the evangelical left was unwilling to discard.

Brantley Gasaway’s forthcoming book (which you’ve read, I hear) about evangelical progressives and the “common good” should do a lot to fill the historiographic void.

BG: In addition to the works mentioned by David, Jason Bivins devoted a chapter to Sojourners in The Fracture of Good Order (2003) to demonstrate how progressive evangelicals—like the Christian Right— rejected the assumptions of classic political liberalism that religion must remain in the private sphere.

I hope that my and David’s complementary projects provide good starting points for future work on progressive evangelicals. While David’s work assesses the place of the evangelical left within the broader evangelical movement and the questions it raises about evangelical identity, I attempt to analyze the ways in which progressive evangelicals have translated their public theology into political agendas over the past four decades. Yet our focus on prominent leaders leaves unexplored questions about how “ordinary evangelicals” (in the language of Christian Smith in Christian America?) responded to and participated in the movement.


Anonymous said…
Steven P. Miller said…
Thanks for posting this, Seth. Great questions, James. The discussion of Sider-Wallis was very interesting, as they so often get grouped together. I remember reading in Michael Lindsay’s book (Faith in the Halls of Power) that Sider voted for GWB in 2000. Rather surprising, but suggestive, I think, of how the language of “compassionate conservatism” drew from/co-opted the evangelical left. At least in 2000-2001.
Paul M. said…
Excellent discussion! I look forward to reading your upcoming book.

Popular Posts