“The Evangelical Left Oxymoron or Opportunity?” Lectured by David Swartz

Last week I attended a lecture at Gordon College given by David Swartz entitled, “”The Evangelical Left Oxymoron or Opportunity?”
He just released a book called, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.
Here are some of the notes I took – below is the accompanying reflection:

Limits of evangelical politics
1. Acting out culture war scripts
2. Preaching real politick
James Davidson Hunter’s idea of both sides can be manipulative and jockey for power.
3. Proclaiming Nationalism
4. Consuming stuff –
Unintended reformation: What unites the West is no longer Christianity but consumption.
We traded the “pursuit of good” for the pursuit of goods.

In light of all this, the evangelical left (and right) can come across as an oxymoron.

1. Recovering a consistent life-ethic.
Populace group – progressive on social issues, conservative towards family.
Moving away from Republican party but not necessarily towards Democratic
2. Recovering a Local identity
Faithful witness/presence – James Davidson Hunter
3. Recovering a global identity
4. Recovering the Church
– humble posture for the common good
– serve the common good
– avoid triumphalism and retreat
– religion can function powerfully (Ghandi, MLK, the Koinonia Community in GA)

“Those who carry crosses do so carrying the grain of the universe.” – John Howard Yoder


Like many others, I don’t find the terms Evangelical Right or Left or Republican or Democrat to be that helpful. Further, I avoid identifying myself with either or with any other party. Instead, I generally talk about my values (wishing for all to live, protecting the unborn, freeing the trafficked and caring for the diseased, impoverished, and marginalized).

In short, I think most people get some things right because I believe it’s extremely difficult to be wrong about everything. Feel free to disagree but I bet you there will be something here you agree with. So naturally, I find agreement with certain aspects of the Evangelical Right, the Evangelical Left, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. The problems we face are complicated, I’d like to limit further complexity.

So when I walk into a lecture implying the Evangelical Left may be an oxymoron, I’ve already resolved that it’s not and am excited to hear about the opportunity. On a side note, I would venture to say that even at what I consider a general conservative Christian school, most people who walked into that auditorium at Gordon College also knew the E Left was not an oxymoron.

The strength of Swartz’s lecture was chronicling the recent history of Evangelical engagement in politics. He dedicated a good but of time to the Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and contrasted with Ron Sider’s efforts with pro-life rallies, peaceful demonstrations, and his attempt to start a political organization representing the Evangelical Left.

We would wonder why Falwell was significantly more influential in the 80’s than Sider. Was Falwell simply better on the mic and a better strategist? Was Sider too far ahead of his time for church folk? Was Falwell using tradition and tactics of fear (however unintended) to drum up millions of voices and dollars that became quite a political force that decade?

Now as you might know, I went to Falwell’s school, Liberty University, and had a mixed experience there. Most days I like to think I wouldn’t have change a thing other days, well, I’m not so sure (“I should have went to Gordon!” ;) I am however extremely grateful to have met my wife there and pleased to tell you the maxim “Love conquers all” is true and includes fundamentalism.

Now I know I’m not the only undergraduate to have attended a school with a founder remembered in controversy, both beloved and critiqued by many and who confused just about everyone. Further, I am not hating everything Falwell and the Moral Majority stood for. My frustration has always stemmed from how their adversaries were treated. If this is something that really interests you, check out the book Blinded By Might by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson. Their words came quickly after so the MM dissolved, pretty interesting stuff.

It would likely lead to an endless and unnecessary debate if those on the Evangelical Left were any more loving. If in heaven they enjoy a bigger crown for that, fine by me. But here’s what I care about today. I am more interested in finding unity in the nuance, truth in the gray, bringing friends to the middle to serve the common good as I see that as part of the Kingdom Jesus is building.

As Swartz was speaking, I couldn’t help but wonder why must there always be political losers in our society? Why did the Evangelical Left have to be so small and lack influence in the 80’s and why do those today on the Right have to be so hated? We could argue who deserves what until we are blue in the face but the real losers are all of us. The longer we are divided, the worse off we are.

I understand we have some extremely significant differences in opinion. The topic of abortion would be an obvious example. I would love to see in my lifetime the terms “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice” become obsolete and focus our energies on supporting women with unplanned pregnancies and saving children’s lives. There have been over 50 million abortions since 1973 which is about a sixth of our country’s population and about a third of my generation. At least among evangelicals, we generally agree this is tragic.

Because of some of Falwell’s bizarre and incredulous statements, not many people will ever know that he founded a godparent home for single mothers who choose to keep their babies. Many of us feel this was among his greatest contributions. For all I know Ron Sider has founded 50. But regardless I know he has contributed profoundly to the common good.

This makes me wonder if the real opportunity is transitioning the word “Evangelical” from a modifier for the Left or the Right and simply a noun describing a particular group of people committed to following Jesus and sacrificially contributing to the common good. This is what Swartz seems to be talking about in reclaiming the church.

You can read more about Davids Swartz’s work here:

David Swartz’s Blog

Swartz in Christianity Today

His book review on Evangelicals For Social Action

His lecture might end up on Gordon College’s Chapel YouTube page

And here’s a great piece on Ronald Sider from Patheos. “Ron Sider: Pioneer of the Evangelical Left”


Speak Your Mind