In the Iowa caucuses of 1976, The New York Times reported on the surprising impact of a new force in American politics. This force propelled a relative unknown to victory in Iowa and eventually earned him the nomination of his party. The candidate was Jimmy Carter, the party Democratic, and the new political force evangelicals.
Carter's shocking victory in Iowa would propel him to the Democratic nomination, and in the general election Carter would benefit from the active support of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jimmy Allen, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in his defeat of Republican Gerald Ford. Four years later evangelicals would prove to be a key plank in a Religious Right's effort to defeat Carter and elevate Ronald Reagan to the presidency. A new book tells the dramatic story of the grassroots movements of the evangelical left that formed in the '60s and '70s and helped pave the way for Carter's stunning victory, and explains the forces that would leave those movements in ideological retreat in the '80s and '90s. It's a complicated story told with great skill and clarity by David R. Swartz in Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (University of Pennsylvania Press).
Swartz, assistant professor of history at Asbury University, did his studies at Notre Dame under the tutelage of first George Marsden and then Mark Noll, and his writing reflects the decades of careful evangelical scholarship that those two have pioneered. Swartz has produced a must read not only for those interested in American religion and politics, but also for students of global Christianity. In relatively short order (the book's main text comes in at 266 pages), Swartz gives a richly textured narrative of some of evangelicalism's brightest thinkers, most creative activists, and most controversial provocateurs.
In these pages legendary, now-deceased figures like Carl F. H. Henry, Mark Hatfield, and Francis Schaeffer come alive again in fresh perspective and telling anecdotes. Other individuals who are still with us—like John Perkins, Jim Wallis, and Samuel Escobar—are helpfully placed in the broader context of global events and evangelical controversies. And major evangelical institutions like InterVarsity, Calvin College, and Fuller Theological Seminary are woven into the story with a care and sensitivity sure to educate even their most dedicated supporters. The end result is a book that is both a pleasure to read and a conversation to join, regardless of the political or religious convictions of the reader.
Rise to Prominence
Swartz tells the story of what he terms the "Evangelical Left" in three parts, looking first at its emergence, then at its broadening, and finally at its seeming retreat. In the first two parts Swartz uses a very effective technique of centering each chapter on a particular individual and social issue. There are, for instance, chapters on "Jim Wallis and Vietnam," "Richard Mouw and the Reforming of Evangelical Politics," and "Ron Sider and the Politics of Simple Living." These chapters make for engaging reading, as Swartz weaves biographical details, institutional histories, and broader secular trends into explanations of important developments in evangelical social thought. It is clear that Swartz is sympathetic to the characters but not uncritical of the choices they make and the directions in which their movements proceed.