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.

| May 2013

  • Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism
    “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

  • Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

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.

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