My Interview with David Swartz on the Evangelical Left

Since overhauling this site, I have pulled in a few posts from 2012 (when I was adding material regularly.) I did this interview back then but David’s book remains an important read. In fact, after reposting this and before I even had this new site finished, it had already received three new post “likes.”

Moral minorityDavid Swartz, a friend of mine who teaches history at Asbury University has just published Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism with the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Recently I asked David about the book, his goals for writing it, and what other evangelicals could learn from his research:


Jared: How did this book materialize? How does it connect to you personally?
David: Professionally, it was important that I find both archival materials and a gap in the scholarship of American religious history. When I read a piece by Ron Sider online suggesting that some “enterprising graduate student” take a look at the Evangelicals for Social Action archives, I knew immediately that I had a project.

On a more personal level, this project was an attempt to figure out my own parents (all history is ultimately autobiography, right?). They had grown up in the 1970s. They ran a pretty egalitarian marriage. They sang “They Will Know We Are Christians by our Love” during worship services and would have been dismayed by an American flag in the church sanctuary. I ate food my mother (and father!) cooked out of More-with-Less, a cookbook with lots of vegetarian recipes. And I knew many like them, people who were not comfortable with the idea of American as a Christian nation, with a budget that prioritized the military over poverty, a punitive criminal justice system, and the like. And yet they shared their faith and lived out the kind of warm piety so common within evangelicalism. This was an idiosyncratic combination that I never read about in news reports and scholarly books. So I dedicated my research to learning about non-rightist evangelicals. How common were they? Why did they seem so marginalized?

Jared: What are a couple goals you would like this book to accomplish?
David: I wrote this book with several audiences in mind. For non-evangelical scholars and observers, I wanted to complicate perspectives on theologically conservative Christians. So many of my research subjects have had to qualify their evangelical identity by saying things like “I’m not that kind of evangelical!” There are millions and millions of evangelicals who won’t vote for Mitt Romney (because they’ll vote for Obama or not vote at all) or won’t otherwise resonate with politically conservative sensibilities. I want to promote awareness of evangelical cultural, racial, and political diversity.

For evangelical readers, I want to offer a sense of context. Just about everyone, folks on the right and the left, seem so certain that they’re correct, that there’s a direct line from the Bible to the ballot box. But everyone comes to faith and political commitments out of a particular history. Given different historical and cultural circumstances, we could have very different views about poverty, war, capital punishment, and gender roles. This ought to inculcate a profound sense of humility—and hopefully an instinct to conduct more civil discussions.

Jared: Considering that many American evangelicals would see themselves on the Right, why should they take this topic (the Evangelical Left) seriously?

David: First, there are more evangelicals on the left and center than most people realize. In most elections, between 25 and 35% of evangelicals vote Democratic (and many more are comfortable with progressive positions, but vote Republican primarily because of abortion). That’s a minority of evangelicals, but still a lot of people!

Second, there’s nothing inevitable about evangelicals taking conservative positions on a multitude of issues ranging from poverty, economics, capital punishment, and war. In fact, historically evangelicals often have been quite progressive in the United States. And globally evangelicals often scratch their heads at the American evangelical alliance with the Republican Party. The story of the evangelical left (and why it couldn’t keep pace with the religious right) helps make sense of why political conservatism is so closely tied to evangelicalism.

Third, the evangelical left helped broader evangelicalism to think structurally and socially. An excerpt from the last paragraph of the book articulates this point: “If a unified politics continued to elude evangelicals, political involvement itself did not. Evangelicals agreed by the end of the first decade of the new millennium—in far greater proportion than fifty years before—that the Gospel calls for holistic, not just personal, transformation. Followers of Jesus, evangelicals say almost in unison, must take up cultural, social, even political responsibilities. The evangelical left, representing one of the most serious postwar attempts to mobilize evangelicals for organized political action, hastened this broader plunge toward a sense of corporate obligation and activism, electoral and beyond. It carved out space for the rhetoric and activism of social justice—on both the left and on what became a much larger right. Even if evangelicals did not agree precisely on what the public good looks like, they no longer had to legitimize participation in debate over the public good itself.”

Jared: Why do those on the evangelical Right and the Evangelical Left find it so hard to get along? What can all evangelicals do, no matter their politics, to promote more irenic coexistence?

David: Speaking now self-consciously as a Christian, I suggest actually doing church together. The Mennonite church I attend in Lexington, Kentucky, contains the full spectrum of political involvement (and non-involvement). We occasionally talk politics, but our primary interactions revolve around worship, discipleship, eating food together, and serving the community together. Because we spend a lot of time together and because our focus is on churchly activities, it seems like passion for electoral politics inevitably diminishes. Face-to-face, embodied relationships (as opposed to Facebook debates) breed empathy. Jonathan Haidt, one of the most perceptive commentators on the contemporary culture wars, has offered a similar suggestion for Congress. He writes, “Other changes would work more gradually by making it easier for politicians to recover the sort of human relationships that have always lubricated the gears of government. For example, in 1995 Newt Gingrich changed the legislative calendar to encourage House members to keep their families in their home districts, rather than moving to Washington where they often fraternized with the enemy. Nowadays, all business is conducted midweek. Many members fly in on Tuesday morning and fly home Thursday evening, leaving few possibilities for meeting members of the other party off of the battlefield and out of sight of the press.”

Context also matters. When we understand the religious and cultural circumstances out of which our political enemies (and ourselves) emerge, we also learn empathy. Thinking narratively helps us to think less in terms of winning an argument and more in terms of finding common ground and cultivating spiritual virtues. Evangelicals would do well to follow the advice of St. Peter: “make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.”

Jared: What is the relationship between those we might call “neo-Anabaptists” and the evangelical left? Wouldn’t a truly Anabaptist ethic mean that one would need to resist identifying with either the Left or the Right?


David: Before answering the question, I should discuss briefly the dilemma I had in what to call the subjects of my research. There were several options. Were they progressives, moderates, leftists, or consistent-life practitioners? Well, they were all of the above—some quite conservative on certain issues and quite progressive on others. I actually thought about using the inelegant term “evangelical non-right.” That wouldn’t have sold many books, but it was probably the most accurate since my research subjects occupied just about every position on the spectrum, sometimes multiple positions on the spectrum simultaneously. Where do you place on the left-right continuum someone who is against abortion and capital punishment?
All that said, many neo-Anabaptists populate the evangelical left. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they had much loyalty at all to the broader American Left. Take, for instance, the Post-Americans (the group that would eventually be called Sojourners). Seeing their primary identity as global Christians and committed to the Church, they were suspicious of any temporal structure or political label. It probably would be most accurate to call them New Leftists, and as such, they critiqued liberals and conservatives alike. They thought the idea that liberalism’s essentialist creed of equality would gradually end segregation and achieve military victory in Southeast Asia was naïve and ridiculous. Only direct protest could end segregation. They saw big government as oppressive in its global imperialism. Similarly, they saw the conservative commitment to big business as economically oppressive.

Progressive social action outside of electoral structures, practiced by neo-Anabaptists and many others, stands as one of the principle legacies of the evangelical left. Its political relevance goes well beyond its marginal influence on the Democrats or Republicans. It has helped to launch engagement around a much broader array of issues—from African poverty to peacemaking to simple living—to which neither party pays much attention. In fact, third-way action outside electoral politics may be the future of evangelical social action, which may fit their idiosyncratic interests and views. Researchers at Baylor found that evangelicals who read the Bible every day are more likely to favor more humane treatment of criminals, to be more concerned about issues of poverty and conservation, and to more clearly oppose same-sex marriage and legalized abortion than evangelicals who do not. Evangelicals, anti-confessional and revivalist in sensibility, are more religiously and politically creative than the electoral structures that try to contain them.

Jared: Many CCCU schools, such as Grace College (where I teach), are what George Marsden has described as “post fundamentalist.” Is there any hope that we can eventually reflect the kind of diversity that exists in the broader evangelical landscape given our fundamentalist past?

David: The short answer is “Yes—eventually.” Some evangelicals, for reasons I discuss in the book, are now tied to conservative politics and the Republican Party through identity politics. That is, they vote Republican because their parents did and because the media says they should. But historically and globally, evangelicalism has shown the capacity for stunning diversity. And in the United States now, even within the Republican Party, more young evangelicals are talking about peace, poverty, and caring for God’s creation.
A lot depends on outside conditions. Prior to the 1970s the Republican Party was arguably less pro-family and pro-life than the Democratic Party. But activists pushed the Democrats decisively in a pro-choice direction. The structural conditions that brought down the evangelical left in the 1970s and 1980s might be changing. More and more Americans are becoming pro-life on the abortion issue. If that trend continues and anti-abortion views become more common across the political spectrum, the Democratic Party may be forced into reconsidering its pro-choice orthodoxy (though that seems a bit hard to imagine after this year’s convention!). And, in turn, some evangelicals who hold progressive stances on economics and diplomacy may feel released from Republican identification because of the abortion issue.
That said—and I’m speaking more as a theologian than a historian now—I’m not entirely certain that success, at least in the way that the religious right “enjoyed” it, is something that any Christian should want. Its success depended largely on money, coercion, and demonization of “the other” (which, to be sure, is a temptation for each side)—all elemental political realities that Jesus clearly warned against. I worry that those who identify very closely with one political party—whatever party it is—will be tempted to compromise their faithfulness and their ability to speak out prophetically on issues that matter to us as disciples of Christ.

One thought on “My Interview with David Swartz on the Evangelical Left

  1. Pingback: Check Out Jared Burkholder’s New Blog! – The Pietist Schoolman

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