Mark Lempke is a visiting instructor at the University at Buffalo–Singapore. This interview is based on his new book, My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write My Brother’s Keeper?
ML: When I was an undergraduate at Houghton College- an evangelical school in New York’s Southern Tier- I wrote a research paper on the 1972 election for one of my history classes. I was just curious how anybody could lose forty-nine states—especially to Nixon! In the process, I discovered an intriguing tidbit: George McGovern’s father, a Wesleyan pastor, had been an early alum of Houghton. Back then, it felt like every evangelical I had encountered was a conservative Republican, so it seemed very strange to me that perhaps the most leftist figure ever nominated by a major party had ties to that tradition. Over many years, curiosity gave way to research, and I found that George McGovern’s life could serve as a useful narrative arc to study the fortunes of Christian social justice in American politics.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of My Brother’s Keeper?
ML: Despite its reputation for secularism, left liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s was deeply indebted to a religious tradition rooted in the social gospel and ecumenical activism. George McGovern’s use of the prophetic tradition on the campaign trail acted as something of a conduit, channeling support from both mainline and evangelical Protestants concerned with social justice.
JF: Why do we need to read My Brother’s Keeper?
ML: My Brother’s Keeper tries to shed some light on the question of why a “Christian Left” has been so elusive. One of the big differences between the postwar “Christian Right” and the “Christian Left” is that the latter views its activism as essentially prophetic in nature. That means eschewing nationalism while supporting the vulnerable and marginalized, but it also means a willingness to strike it out on your own as well. You can’t very easily tell a prophet what to do or who to vote for! In electoral politics, there is no such thing as a “caucus of prophets;” it’s a bit like herding cats.
Each faction of a theoretical Christian Left had its own understanding of what it meant to speak prophetically against injustice. And the problem was made worse by the longstanding political, cultural, and theological disagreements between mainline and evangelical Protestants. I spend a chapter on McGovern’s visit to Wheaton College during the ’72 campaign as an act of evangelical outreach. One reason why the visit is unsuccessful is because McGovern insisted on speaking as a theological liberal. When he used words like “redeem,” he purely meant social redemption, not redemption of the soul. Even evangelicals at Wheaton who were sympathetic to McGovernism would have found that message difficult to swallow. So when the Evangelical Left took shape under Jim Wallis and Ron Sider soon after the campaign, they went to considerable lengths to distance themselves from the mainline. They often cast liberal theology as backsliding and heretical, even if they shared many of the political priorities of Clergy and Laity Concerned or the National Council of Churches. In a way, it was a form of identity politics, with evangelicals viewing themselves as a historically disadvantaged group that was just now learning to take pride in what made them distinctive.
As readers of TWOILH are probably aware, we’re had an outpouring of great scholarship on postwar social justice evangelicals recently, with David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway leading the way. Mainliners, too, have seen a revival of top-notch work—just look at Elesha Coffman, Kristin Du Mez, David Hollinger, Jill K. Gill, and many others. Each of these historians produced insightful scholarship that influenced my own, but I came to understand that the mainline and evangelical stories needed to be told in tandem. Their mutual distrust toward one another goes a long way toward explaining why Progressive Christians have struggled to be effective in the public square.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
ML: Like most eventual historians, I was a pretty strange kid. When the Mini Page children’s newspaper published a special edition on the U.S. presidents when I was five, I took to memorizing the presidents and interesting facts about them. It was fun to learn, but it was just a cool parlor trick that my grandparents loved showing off to their friends. As I grew older, some great teachers helped me see the value of a more thorough understanding of the past. My social studies teachers in high school, Jeff Jennings and Danielle Hugo, pushed me hard to make connections and explain my reasoning. When I took a class at my local community college, the late Bill Barto mesmerized me with his compelling lecture style and strong focus on narrative. At Houghton, Cameron Airhart ran the First Year Honors Program, where two dozen or so undergrads spent a semester of their freshman year abroad learning the gamut of Western history using the city of London as a resource. When you have such sharp, incisive mentors in your life, it’s hard not to want to emulate them. Once I learned that history wasn’t just facts—it could be debated, observed, touched, or turned into a story—I knew it was the career I wanted to pursue.
JF: What is your next project?
ML: After all this time in McGovernLand, I think I would like to work outside of my immediate field for a short while. My next project will explore the questions that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame raises for public history. I think that one of the great challenges of our time is the seeming contest between populism vs. intellectual expertise. Every year, music industry insiders nominate and induct a set of rock and roll artists, usually from a diverse range of subgenres that include R&B, rap, alternative, and even disco. And just as surely, every year rank-and-file rock and roll fans are angered that their favorite bands have been snubbed, believing in their hearts that it is a travesty that Grand Funk Railroad or Styx isn’t in the Hall. There is a very public debate over who controls rock and roll which taps into the anti-elitism that seems so rampant today. While some common themes do emerge, this is certainly a very different project from George McGovern and the Christian Left!
JF: Thanks, Mark!