How the Evangelical Left Lost Control to the Moral Majority

Adopting progressive politics as a political platform and a Chicago YMCA as a venue, the Evangelical Left in the seventies unsuccessfully sought to move the nation in the opposite direction of the Moral Majority.
By David R. Swartz
May 2013
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“Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism” tells the tale of a religious left in the not-so-long ago American landscape and how its movement was suppressed by the rise to prominence of the religious right.
Cover Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Press


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In 1973 the Washington Post predicted that the evangelical left could alter the structure of politics and religion in America. In the end, it did not. While progressive evangelicals shaped the culture and living habits of millions, it did not take shape electorally in the way that the Moral Majority did. In Moral Minority (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), the first comprehensive history of the evangelical left, David R. Swartz explains why.  

Evangelical activists, proclaimed the Washington Post, sought to “launch a religious movement that could shake both political and religious life in America.” This prediction referred not to efforts in 2000 to elect George W. Bush to the White House, nor to the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s during which the president once famously told a gathering of evangelical pastors, “I know you can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you.” Rather, the Post was reporting on what has become a mere footnote in the history of evangelical politics: a gathering at a run-down YMCA Hotel on South Wabash Street in downtown Chicago led by a young, unknown evangelical named Ron Sider. The year was 1973, nearly a decade before the height of the Moral Majority, and the assembled activists were strategizing about how to move the nation in a more evangelical direction through political action.

That intended direction, however, was to the left, not the right. In front of a national audience, Sider and his colleagues condemned American militarism, sexism, economic injustice, and President Richard Nixon’s “lust for and abuse of power.” The YMCA itself was a fitting venue for this new evangelical progressivism. Its spare interior suggested simple living, and its urban location indicated a commitment to the nation’s poor. As Calvin College professor and congressional candidate Paul Henry declared that evangelicals “dare no longer remain silent in the face of glaring social evil,” the echoes of stray gunfire from outside rang through the hall. After several days of intense discussion, the group emerged from the YMCA with “The Chicago Declaration,” a manifesto for a new evangelical left.

The following decades proved the Washington Post both right and wrong in its forecast. Anticipating most news outlets by half a decade, the Post correctly suggested that evangelical participation in the political sphere was intensifying. In fact, the incipient progressive movement launched in Chicago, along with a rising religious right, itself seeking to mobilize a significant sector of apolitical pietists in the 1960s and 1970s, helped politicize the nation’s 75 million evangelicals. But in the end it was the religious right that built a viable movement that would come to shake political and religious life in America. And so the Post also got its prediction profoundly wrong, misidentifying which evangelicals would ultimately move the nation’s electorate, and in what direction.

This miscalculation, however, should not obscure just how plausible the Post prediction was from the perspective of the early 1970s. The evangelical left, especially from the 1973 Chicago meeting through the early years of the Jimmy Carter administration, seemed promising indeed amid the cacophony of a diverse and fluid evangelicalism that was politically up for grabs. Competing political interests, institutions, and activities—ranging from the right, center, and left— rolled across the evangelical spectrum amid the ferment of the Cold War. The Post, observing the scene at the Chicago YMCA, could suggest with a straight face that these “young evangelicals,” as they were dubbed in the 1970s, might be the wave of the future.

A close look at metropolitan Chicago in those years reveals the full dimensions of politics and piety at work in the nation. Outnumbering both evangelical progressives at the YMCA and right-wingers in the suburbs, many evangelicals in the early 1970s nurtured a passive cultural conservatism. Moody Church, for example, located on the northern edge of downtown just a short bus ride away from the YMCA, had long sustained a single-minded focus on soul-winning. While inclined toward political conservatism and punching their ballots for Republicans if they voted, Moody members did not mobilize politically. They instead sought to nurture personal holiness as quiet, upstanding citizens. Not surprisingly, its members had been aghast at the events of the 1968 Democratic presidential convention in Chicago. There, the participatory democracy and peaceful protests of the New Left had devolved into outrageous displays of anti-Americanism, free love, violence, and drugs. The disorder of Grant Park, which marked the disintegration of a long-presumed liberal consensus in American politics built around poverty relief, civil rights, and economic growth, would go on to inflame right-wing evangelical mobilization in subsequent years.

Both Moody Church and Grant Park, so geographically proximate to the coming-out party of the evangelical left, cast long shadows over the YMCA. Participants at the gathering, however, sought to transcend these stark polarities of the emerging culture wars by merging progressive politics and personal piety. Or, put negatively, befitting the meeting’s oppositional tone, they sought to repudiate the passive conservatism of Moody Church and the anarchic profanity of leftist protests. In an era often, but mistakenly, considered the Reagan Revolution-in-waiting, many evangelicals stood for antiwar, civil rights, anti-consumer, communal, New Left , and third-world principles, even as they stressed doctrinal and sexual fidelity.

The rise of the evangelical left raises important questions about the contours of twentieth-century American politics. From where did this progressive evangelical social consciousness and conscience emerge? What motivated these young activists to repudiate the Vietnam War when most of their pastors preached obedience to authority? What motivated some of their leaders to preach simple living and to criticize unfettered capitalism? And last, but hardly least given its initial promise, why did the evangelical left not take substantial shape electorally? Why, in the dawn of the twenty-first century, is evangelicalism now so closely identified with conservative, rather than progressive, politics?

This book seeks to answer those questions by chronicling the rise, decline, and legacy of the evangelical left. Part I describes the emergence of the evangelical left in the years leading up to the 1973 Chicago Declaration. Chapters on the ascent of neo-evangelicalism, civil rights, Vietnam, electoral politics, and intentional community, each organized around biographical sketches of key delegates at the YMCA meeting in Chicago, highlight important sociological, cultural, and ideological changes within evangelicalism following World War II. These changes—and the figures they produced—offered a sharp alternative to the super-patriotism of sectarian fundamentalists and the more typical mid-century posture of passive conservatism among many mainstream evangelicals.

Carl Henry, a journalist and theologian, embodied the growing cultural maturity of evangelicals. Following the Scopes Trial in 1925 and defeats in mainline denominations during the 1920s, many fundamentalist evangelicals largely withdrew from social engagement. Henry, however, repudiated fundamentalism’s closed subculture in a 1947 treatise entitled The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Over the next decades Henry then drove the cultural re-engagement of “neo-evangelical” institutions such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Christianity Today, Wheaton College, and Fuller Theological Seminary. Evangelicals associated with these institutions enjoyed the white, middle-class benefits of Eisenhower prosperity. Their gains in education and wealth left them poised to engage mainstream American politics.

John Alexander, a white fundamentalist Baptist turned civil rights activist, emerged as one of the first visible practitioners of Henry’s call for social engagement. In the mid-1960s he founded Freedom Now. Alongside African-American evangelicals Tom Skinner, Bill Pannell, and John Perkins, Alexander regularly indicted white evangelicals for not joining the civil rights movement. Freedom Now also echoed liberalism’s social scientific approach to race and poverty and followed, in a lagged chronology, the broader movement’s trajectory from racial integration to Black Power.

Evangelical antipathy toward the Vietnam War followed close on the heels of evangelical civil rights activism. Jim Wallis, a child of suburban Detroit and the youngest delegate at the Thanksgiving Workshop, reflected the alienation felt by some evangelical youth over their tradition’s refusal to reject the war. Participation in the Michigan State University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society exposed Wallis to the New Left critique of liberalism. At Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1970, he founded the Post-American community, which melded the rhetoric and activist style of New Left politics with evangelical piety and theology.

If Wallis represented the New Leftist, anti-liberal impulse of some in the evangelical left, his unlikely friend, Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, embodied the revitalized evangelical interest in electoral politics. Hatfield, who enjoyed a meteoric rise from Oregon state legislator to two-term governor to U.S. senator to vice-presidential contender, confounded critics with his progressive politics and evangelical piety. This nationally prominent politician—a fiscal and moral conservative who came out in favor of civil rights, against the Vietnam War, and opposed to capital punishment—illustrated the relative fluidity of party politics and evangelical practices before both hardened in the 1970s.

Sharon Gallagher, an influential member of the Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF) in Berkeley, California, represented the communitarian impulse within the evangelical left. In the wake of increasingly violent New Left tactics in the late 1960s, CWLF emerged as an alternative (and in Berkeley, a rival) to Students for a Democratic Society. Gallagher suggested that the New Left was neglecting the resources of orthodox religion in its efforts to reconstruct a failed liberal society. CWLF merged the evangelical piety of the Jesus People and the communitarian, “small is beautiful,” anti-technocratic ethos of the seventies.

Part II follows how the political impulses represented by Gallagher, Hatfield, Wallis, Alexander, and Henry broadened out considerably through the efforts of ethnic evangelicals. Previously on the margins of American evangelicalism, non-Anglo groups—including Dutch Reformed, Swiss-German Anabaptists, Latin American Christians, and other third-world evangelicals—joined a growing chorus of voices on the left. They contributed significantly to the coalition of evangelical progressives that met at Chicago’s YMCA.

Samuel Escobar, an evangelical church worker from Peru, reflected the influence of the non-Western world on North American evangelicals. One of a triumvirate of evangelicals instrumental in establishing the Latin American Theological Fraternity, Escobar leveled devastating critiques at laissez-faire capitalism and American imperialism. At the Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization in 1974, Escobar condemned North American conservatives as “well-behaved middle-class people” who were ignoring the “exploitation, intrigue, and dirty political maneuvering done by great multi-national corporations.” These critiques, especially prevalent in Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship’s worldwide networks, mirrored the global dimensions of the New Left and the third-world origins of liberation theology.

Richard Mouw, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, represented another important ethnic constituency of the evangelical left. The child of recent Dutch Calvinist immigrants, young Mouw joined Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. After growing disillusioned with the increasing violence of the New Left, Mouw returned to a more conventional politics rooted in the Reformed theology of Calvin College. Seeking to bring all things under the “Lordship of Christ,” Mouw espoused gradualism and pragmatic avenues toward social justice.

Ron Sider promoted a Swiss-German Anabaptist strain of progressive evangelicalism. Author of the best-selling book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Sider espoused an ethic of simple living and service to the downtrodden that extended the critique offered by third-world evangelicals. He also followed Senator Mark Hatfield’s lead into electoral politics. In 1972 Sider founded Evangelicals for McGovern, a group that campaigned on behalf of Democratic candidate George McGovern. This effort led directly to the first organized gathering of the evangelical left.

Except for Mark Hatfield, who still sent a supportive telegram from his Senate office, all these individuals—and several dozen more—met together in downtown Chicago on November 23, 1973. The Thanksgiving Workshop for Evangelical Social Action attracted urban, educated evangelicals committed to progressive political reform. As they looked to take the lead among their fellow evangelicals, optimism soared. The press—both evangelical and secular—took note of their growing numbers, proliferating literature, and political mobilization. It seemed plausible that this small but dedicated group of evangelical activists, like abolitionists who had successfully protested the slave trade two centuries before, could spark great social change. Newsweek magazine’s famous “Born Again! The Year of the Evangelicals” cover story noted that “younger believers are re-examining the social teachings of the Bible . . . in the hope of closing the gap between private and public demonstrations of faith.” Citing Mark Hatfield, Sojourners, the Chicago Declaration, and Evangelicals for Social Action, the article implied that evangelical politics could take a progressive shape.

The coalition, however, failed to live up to its initial promise. Part III charts the declining fortunes of the evangelical left. Identity politics sabotaged this nascent progressive coalition of evangelicals, despite their remarkably similar theological convictions, religious cultures, and critiques of conservative politics. 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.

Political displacement exacerbated the corrosive effect of identity politics. The postwar political left, suspicious of evangelicals’ conservative theology and sexuality, remained unimpressed and indifferent toward the Chicago Declaration. The nation’s liberal coalition, in fact, seemed to be trying hard—by exercising a libertine sexuality and giving a more prominent voice to activist secularists—to alienate a potentially powerful constituency. At the same time, the religious right, stirred by the abortion issue and encouraged by the Republican Party, enjoyed greater visibility in the wider evangelical world. President Jimmy Carter and the broader evangelical left were “left behind” by both the political left and the religious right.

The precarious position of the evangelical left continued through the 1980s. Two energetic campaigns—an attempt to promote justice in Nicaragua and an attempt to promote a consistent life ethic—ran aground when progressive evangelicals refused to conform to political orthodoxies on abortion. The movement found itself politically homeless, obscured by a burgeoning religious right and an unfriendly progressive coalition. In stark political terms, the evangelical left had suffered debilitating defeat. Its political heroes—George McGovern, Mark Hatfield, and Jesse Jackson—failed to take the White House. Its anti-heroes—Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush—meanwhile enjoyed political success. To be sure, the evangelical left did not disappear. It occasionally had real political impact, and a significant grassroots movement shaped the culture of millions of moderate evangelicals on issues such as poverty, women’s rights, the environment, and inequities in the global economy. But most evangelicals populated the right. Leaders of the evangelical left were never able to inspire its constituents and millions of evangelical Democratic voters into a movement as coherent, organized, and politically powerful as the religious right. Evangelical progressives, whose story speaks powerfully to our understanding of American political culture generally and of evangelical social activism in particular, ended the Reagan years with a whimper, cowed by the conservative movement’s decisive claim on a constituency they had hoped to count for themselves.

Decades after the Chicago Declaration, the evangelical left of the 1970s had been largely forgotten. As culture wars raged, scholars understandably rushed to describe the self-immolation of the New Deal coalition in the 1960s and the surge of conservatism in the 1980s that swept Ronald Reagan into power. Many journalists, covering the highly visible Moral Majority of the 1980s, Christian Coalition of the 1990s, and evangelical networks that elected George W. Bush in the 2000s, created a caricature of evangelicalism as a monolithic political bloc energized by only a few conservative political issues. More recently, historians have carefully tracked the rise of the religious right from well before mid-century. Covering activism on the other end of the political spectrum, scholars have also ably charted religious progressivism within mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Quaker circles.  But in implicitly suggesting an irrevocable dichotomy between social gospel mainliners and rightist fundamentalists, these discrete historiographies obscure connections between progressive politics and evangelicalism.

Those connections were—and are—startlingly substantial. Even as progressive evangelicals were being upstaged by the religious right during the Reagan Revolution, a significant minority of white evangelicals voted Democratic. Into the twenty-first century, a surprisingly strong faction of non-rightist evangelicals persisted. Forty-five percent of all evangelicals called themselves moderates and 19 percent liberals in a 2000 Prince ton University survey. To this day, moderates and progressives—as represented by groups such as Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and the Association for Public Justice—comprise roughly a third of American evangelicals and point to the tradition’s remarkable political, theological, and cultural diversity. Moreover, new figures, such as Emergent Church pastor Brian McLaren, former National Association of Evangelicals policy director Richard Cizik, activist Shane Claiborne, and mega-church pastor Bill Hybels, suggest the possibilities of revitalized evangelical activism on poverty, the environment, and human trafficking. This legacy of the Chicago Declaration underscores the persistence of a progressive impulse in an evangelical tradition oft en portrayed as uniformly traditionalist and politically right.

The reality of a politically diverse and fluid evangelicalism is, in fact, embedded in the tradition’s very structure. Rooted in the decentralized church structures of the Reformation and in early American democratization, evangelicalism is fundamentally fragmented and nonhierarchical. The National Association of Evangelicals consists of dozens of denominations and thousands of parachurch agencies. The anti-hierarchical nature of evangelicalism offers helpful context for scholar Gordon Spykman’s 1975 observation: “Evangelical Christians look much like a gathering army of recruits without strong leadership or clearly understood marching orders.” Thus the concurrent emergence of the evangelical left and surge of the religious right into electoral politics should have come as no surprise.

The evangelical left, in fact, contributed to the broader politicization of evangelicalism. Characterized by a complex mix of fundamentalist rightwing politics, populist agitation, and passive conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s, a new evangelical political culture began to flex its muscles in the 1970s. To be sure, a fundamentalist fringe and some neo-evangelicals—including J. Howard Pew, co-founder of Sunoco; John Conlan, a Republican politician; and Walter Judd, a strong anticommunist Congressman—were politically active during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, especially in southern California. But many did not mobilize self-consciously as evangelicals. Nor did most mobilize electorally and nationally across a spectrum of political issues. According to historian Curtis J. Evans, even Billy Graham, the pastor to presidents, maintained a “dour view of social transformation” and urged Christians to “devote themselves to missionary work and not get distracted by undue attention to political and social issues.” Out of this pietistic context, the evangelical left helped open the world of politics and the language of social justice to a wider spectrum of non-fundamentalist evangelicals. If the roots of the religious right and their level of partisanship can be attributed to the demographic boom of the suburbs, the legalization of abortion, and battles over school prayer in the South, its methods and mobilization can also be tied to progressive evangelicals. The evangelical left’s expansion of its conception of morality from the personal to the social, for example, both reflected and accelerated mainstream evangelical participation in political activism. Now evangelicals of nearly all political and denominational persuasions view social engagement as a fundamental responsibility of the faithful.

The Washington Post prediction that the evangelical left might herald a transformation in American political and religious life thus turned out to be remarkably—if ironically—prescient. To many observers, evangelical politics had triumphantly, even inevitably, emerged in conservative form. But the path of postwar evangelical politics also passed through a moral minority. Ron Sider, one of the authors of the Chicago Declaration, recognized this complexity, quipping that “we called for social and political action, [and] we got eight years of Ronald Reagan.” The following narrative attempts to explain how.

Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism by David R. Swartz is published and excerpted with permission by University of Pennsylvania Press, Copyright © 2012.  


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