The Author’s Corner with L. Benjamin Rolsky

the rise and fall of the religious leftL. Benjamin Rolsky is an adjunct instructor in the History and Anthropology Department at Monmouth University and a part-time lecturer in the Religion Department at Rutgers University. This interview is based on his new book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?

LBR: During my PhD program at Drew University, I stumbled upon the work of the non-profit organization People for the American Way. I knew that the organization was founded by television icon Norman Lear, a figure I was interested in already as a possible dissertation subject, but I had little to no idea of its origins. I later found out that it was formed in direct opposition to the “electronic church” and the televangelists who occupied them. To Lear and others, including Martin Marty and Father Theodore Hesburg, such evangelistic methods violated the very tenants of the faith the television preachers supposedly stood for. I also happened to stumble upon some primary material from The Christian Century and Christianity Today that included Lear in surprisingly provocative ways. In many respects, Lear lead the charge into the public square, and many mainline and evangelical church leaders knew it.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?

LBR: I argue that television icon Norman Lear’s career in American media represents the most important characteristics of the Religious Left in both negative and positive senses. Dominant cultural influence ultimately came at the expense of political and electoral successes as progressives continue to find their rhetorical footing in the age of alternative facts and fake news.

JF: Why do we need to read The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left?

LBR: I think scholars of religion and American religious historians would benefit from reading this text because it both periodizes and theorizes the Culture Wars. It does so by foregrounding media in its tale of televisual conflict played out in primetime. It also applies an interdisciplinary approach in order to examine liberal and conservative actors and social movements in relation to one another. In these ways, interpreters of the recent past would better understand how cultural warfare has characterized American public life since the 1960s.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LBR: I was drawn to history as a high school student in Cave Creek, Arizona. I was encouraged by my AP History teacher, L. Mark Sweeney, to think about pursuing American history on the college level. He was also the first one to use my name and work alongside “an ivy.” From there, I worked on American history and religious studies as a double major at Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College. I then went on to do coursework at the Claremont School of Theology as well as Yale Divinity School in American religious history, politics, and public life. My present work as a historian is very much in the vein of a “history of the present,” or at least the recent past, in my attempts to better understand how liberal and conservative politics have shaped the last half century of American religious life. 

JF: What is your next project?

LBR: My next project is going to explore the ways in which conservative political interests took advantage of the latest marketing and advertising consultants in the 1970s to remake both the GOP and the nation at large. They did so through a fundamental restructuring of American conservatism itself as William F. Buckely and Firing Line were replaced in the conservative mind by the likes of George Wallace, Strom Thurman, and ultimately Ronald Reagan.

JF: Thanks!

Thanks to Elizabeth Bruening for Reminding Buttigieg Fans that the Religious Left is Not New


Some of you may recall my recent post, “Pete Buttieig: What is All the Fuss About?” Here is a taste:

[Buttigieg] seems to be following some pretty well-established progressive/liberal/Democratic Christian political candidates, including George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, Joe Lieberman (if you move beyond Christianity), Hillary Clinton and, of course, Barack Obama. I might even put my former Senator Bill Bradley in this group.

Perhaps it is time that we stop getting so excited about Democratic candidates who can talk about religion. They have been around for a long time.

I am glad to see Elizabeth Bruenig make a similar point yesterday at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste of her piece, “Talk of a rising religious left is unfounded. It already exists“:

Right-wing pundits were apoplectic — Fox News host Laura Ingraham called him “sanctimonious and self-righteous” — but the effect was even greater on the center-left. “Buttigieg is a symbol for a rising Christian left,” one CNN op-ed enthused. “Buttigieg is telling Democrats that they should concede nothing to Republicans on the topics of faith and values . . . because Democrats advance policies that happen to be consistent with our deepest faith traditions,” The Post’s Jennifer Rubin declared. Even Mayor Pete himself seemed to embrace the talk of a revitalized religious left with real electoral power. He told The Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “I think there’s an opportunity hopefully for religion to be not so much used as a cudgel but invoked as a way of calling us to higher values.”

The religious left — perhaps a bloc of Democratic voters waiting to be mobilized, perhaps a segment of faithful people waiting for a leftward awakening — is always just about to happen. It lingers, always, on the horizon, a shadow cast by the electoral power and political clout of the religious right. Will it ever arrive? And what would it look like if it did?

Talk of a rising religious left is puzzling in part because there is an already existing religious left — it just lacks the money, numbers and partisan leverage of the religious right. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that roughly 59 percent of registered Democratic voters described themselves as Christian, with the single largest bloc inside the Christian set being black Protestants. The presence of these religious voters in the Democratic coalition is probably why so many presidential candidates do engage in faith-talk: Setting Buttigieg aside, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have also been vocal about their Christian faith on the stump this season. (Indeed, Booker, too, was once hailed as an emblem of the rising religious left.)

Read the entire piece here.  (Thanks to John Haas for bringing it to my attention)

Is Pete Buttigieg’s Religious Rhetoric Any Different Than the Rhetoric of the Christian Right?


Peter Wehner makes a pretty good case at The Atlantic.  Here is a taste:

..And yet, precisely on the question of religion as an instrumental good, there is real cause for concern about Mayor Pete. His insistence that “Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction” is a bright-red flag, and ought to worry Christians regardless of their politics.

To say that Christianity points you in a progressive direction is in effect to say that Christianity and progressivism are synonymous. They aren’t. Neither are Christianity and conservatism. Christianity stands apart from and in judgment of all political ideologies; it doesn’t lend itself to being put in neat and tidy political categories. That doesn’t mean that at any particular moment in time a Christian ethic won’t lead people of faith to more closely align with one political and philosophical movement over another. But the temptation, always, is to politicize faith in ways that ultimately are discrediting.

Read the entire piece here.

Wehner’s piece is similar to the argument of James Davison Hunter in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.  Hunter calls out both the Religious Right and the Religious Left for turning to electoral politics to advance their missions.  He offers another way defined by “faithful presence.”

Pete Buttigieg’s Faith: What’s All the Fuss About?


Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s excellent Washington Post piece on Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg‘s progressive Christianity is getting a lot of attention.  I think its cool that Guttigieg studied early American religious history in college. But his progressive approach to religion and politics is nothing new.  Here is a taste of Bailey’s piece:

Now Buttigieg wants a “less dogmatic” religious left to counter the religious right, an unofficial coalition of religious conservatives that for decades has helped get mostly Republicans into office.

“I think it’s unfortunate [the Democratic Party] has lost touch with a religious tradition that I think can help explain and relate our values,” he said. “At least in my interpretation, it helps to root [in religion] a lot of what it is we do believe in, when it comes to protecting the sick and the stranger and the poor, as well as skepticism of the wealthy and the powerful and the established.”

He thinks President Trump has found favor among many white evangelicals and white Catholics because of his opposition to abortion, he said. But Buttigieg said he believes the president is behaving “in bad faith” and said there’s no evidence that he doesn’t favor abortion rights deep down.

“I do think it’s strange, though, knowing that no matter where you are politically, the gospel is so much about inclusion and decency and humility and care for the least among us, that a wealthy, powerful, chest-thumping, self-oriented, philandering figure like this can have any credibility at all among religious people,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

I am not sure there is anything new here beyond the fact that Buttigieg is gay.  He seems to be following some pretty well-established progressive/liberal/Democratic Christian political candidates, including George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, Joe Lieberman (if you move beyond Christianity), Hillary Clinton and, of course, Barack Obama.  I might even put my former Senator Bill Bradley in this group.

Perhaps it is time that we stop getting so excited about Democratic candidates who can talk about religion.  They have been around for a long time.

Progressive Values, Secular Values, Religious Values


Over at The Atlantic, Delaware Senator Chris Coons is the latest Democrat to urge his party to embrace religion.

Here is a taste:

A pro-life church can still work with progressive groups to defend and welcome immigrants. An environmental organization that wants to fight climate change can team up with a faith-based organization that shares that goal, even if their members disagree on other issues. Jews, Muslims, and Christians can unite with Americans who practice no faith to march against a discriminatory ban on refugees.

The Democratic Party has to recognize that progressive values can’t be just secular values. It needs to see that we can only solve our nation’s most urgent problems and shape a more equitable America if we trust each other, listen to each other, and engage with those who are traveling along secular and scriptural paths.

Democrats welcome and celebrate our differences. Whether it’s race, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation, we are fighting for a country that is open, tolerant, and accepting—and we shouldn’t yield an inch in that fight.

But we also need to recognize when we aren’t living up to our own admirable standard. We need to acknowledge when our own disagreements or beliefs keep us from engaging and working with those who might see the world differently.

Social progress is not a zero-sum game. Democrats can open our arms to new allies even if we don’t share all of their views. If we do, I suspect we won’t just move our party closer toward achieving our policy goals—we’ll move our nation closer to the promised land of civility, compromise, and progress.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Mark Lempke

My brothers keeper.jpgMark 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! 

Why Didn’t Hillary Reach Out to White Evangelicals?


Clinton at Messiah College in 2008

Two days before the 2016 presidential election I wrote a piece in the Harrisburg Patriot News titled “Here’s What Hillary Clinton Has To Do To Win Over Evangelicals.” In this piece I argued that Clinton has said very little to win over white evangelicals concerned with abortion and religious liberty.

My piece was written very late in the election cycle.  At the time I wrote it was clear that Clinton was not really trying to win over white evangelicals during the campaign.  As journalist Ruth Graham writes in a fascinating piece at Slate, Clinton seemed to almost ignore white evangelicals.

Here is a taste of Graham’s piece:

In 2008, candidate Barack Obama sat down for an interview during the primary with the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. He spoke about his conversion, his longtime church membership, and his belief in “the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” He said abortion should be less common and that “those who diminish the moral elements of the decision aren’t expressing the full reality of it.” The interview was a valentine to evangelicals, and inside it read: “I’m listening.”

This election cycle, Christianity Today made multiple attempts to request an interview with Hillary Clinton, according to Kate Shellnutt, an editor there. The campaign never responded. Of course, campaigns turn down interview requests all the time. But the Clinton campaign was the only one that didn’t reply at all. And this wasn’t the only sign this year that the Democratic candidate had no interest in speaking to evangelical Christians. She spent little energy explaining her views on abortion to them and little time talking about religious freedom. She didn’t hire a full-time faith outreach director until June and had no one focused specifically on evangelical outreach. She didn’t give a major speech to the evangelical community and never met publicly with evangelical leaders. Religious publications reaching out to her campaign with questions were frequently met with silence. Some evangelical insiders are now asking: Why didn’t Hillary Clinton even try to get us to vote for her?

White evangelicals make up about one-quarter of the electorate, a huge group to ignore in an election that turned out to be won by very narrow margins in a handful of key states. In the end, according to exit polls, only 16 percent of that cohort voted for Clinton, compared with Obama’s 26 percent in 2008 and 20 percent in 2012. Trump’s share of the white evangelical vote, 81 percent, exceeded that of Mitt Romney in 2012 (78 percent), John McCain in 2008 (74 percent), and George W. Bush in 2004 (78 percent). “Not to have anyone reaching out to a quarter of the electorate is political malpractice,” the Obama campaign’s 2012 faith outreach director, Michael Wear, told me. Wear, whose book Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned from the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America will be published in January, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post recently that argued that the “simple difference between Obama’s two presidential campaigns and Clinton’s 2016 campaign is that Obama asked for the votes of white evangelicals and Clinton did not.”

Read the entire post here.

Clinton campaign did not seem to learn anything from John Kerry’s failed 2004 presidential run.  In the wake of Kerry’s loss, the Democrats found religion. They turned to progressive evangelical Jim Wallis to help them develop a faith-based strategy.  Wallis, who had been toiling for faith-based progressive causes in relavative obscurity during the 1980s and 1990s, suddenly became a religious celebrity.  His 2005 book God’s Politics became a best-seller and unofficial blueprint for the Democratic appeal to religious voters.  During the 2008 primaries Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama made appearances at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California and at Messiah College.  In 2008, Obama won nearly 25% of the evangelical vote.  No such forums took place in 2016.

Clinton’s failure to reach out to white evangelicals continues to baffle me, especially when this election was so close.

The Historiography of the Jesus People


Over at Religion & Politics, University of Tennessee religion professor Mark Hulsether examines several books on the Jesus People and the evangelical left.  He uses Shawn David Young’s Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock  as a way of framing his discussion.

Here is a taste:

Evangelical hippies in the 1970s were known for flashing their “one-way” sign—an index finger pointing upward that signaled an alternative to the counter-cultural peace sign and black power fist. Their gesture was quite often interpreted as approximate support for the moral agendas of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” and the emerging Christian right. Shawn David Young’s book on the trajectories of Protestant youth culture, Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, evokes such memories—but it also seeks to undermine the stereotype that these 1970s evangelicals were on a path toward buttoned-down conservatism. Young suggests that evangelicalism has been less like a one-way street leading to the right, and more like a street with two-way traffic, carrying many people leftward. Gray Sabbath features a full-scale commune, along with hard-core hippies who cleaned up their lives and became righteous social activists through Jesus People discipline—plus the world’s most influential rock festival (at least by evangelical standards). Most of this made its members gradually less, not more, conservative. We might ask, though, whether Young’s study is more than a groovy flashback to the 1970s. Can it really serve, as Young says, as a “counternarrative” that can “point to a new kind of evangelical”?

Talk of a counternarrative naturally provokes a question: counter to what? The common wisdom presumes that evangelicals have been groomed to fight on the right flank of emerging culture wars. It assumes there is a spectrum from the Christian right at the conservative end, through progressive evangelicals and mainline Protestants in the center, shading toward the recent growth of “nones,” or people who do not claim a religious affiliation. Common wisdom also takes for granted strong boundaries between mainstream liberal Protestantism (typically assumed to be in decline during these years) and evangelicals, including those drifting leftward. The story of Jesus People USA (JPUSA) is both fascinating on its own terms and illuminating because it unsettles these assumptions.

JPUSA emerged when two veterans of the West Coast Jesus People scene formed a Milwaukee commune with a touring music ministry. (JPUSA’s Rez Band became the Led Zeppelin of early CCM—its hard rock innovator.) Their group grew large enough to split in 1972, and eventually a splinter led by John and Dawn Herrin put down roots on the north side of Chicago, where it began an active social ministry. Eventually they acquired an old hotel, which they used for living space and low-income housing for the elderly. JPUSA generated income from several businesses, notably a roofing company, and ran a homeless shelter and soup kitchen. In 1989 they became a congregation and de facto mission project of the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Young follows JPUSA to the present, thriving long after kindred communes folded. He contends that its outward-looking service orientation and a strong but not-overly-rigid organizational structure were keys to its success. The group came to occupy a political and theological position that may seem anomalous. On most socio-political issues the group skewed left-of-center, with a partial exception for abortion, but it maintained relatively conservative evangelical teachings. As everyone knows, the most famous evangelicals since Nixon’s time have favored a conservative populist stance harnessed to voting Republican. Many scholars have argued that conservative Christian groups like the Calvary Chapel movement or Bill Bright’s Campus Crusade for Christ recruited youth into ranks of the Christian right. However, Young presents JPUSA as an exception to this rule. For him, JPUSA blurs the lines between evangelical conservatism and other kinds of Protestantism. Young writes of the Jesus People finding “their way to a political middle ground—the gray space between black and white”—hence the title of the book. 

Read the entire piece here.

James Kloppenberg on Barack Obama and Progressive Christianity

Check out Tiffany Stanley‘s interview with Harvard intellectual historian James Kloppenberg.  
Stanley is the managing editor of Religion & Politics, a web magazine published by the Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.  Kloppenberg is the author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition.

Here is a taste of the interview:
“R&P: How did you decide to write Reading Obama, a project analyzing the president’s own writings and speeches and archives?  

JK: I was in England teaching at the University of Cambridge as the Pitt Professor of American History. Part of holding that professorship is accepting invitations to visit universities to give talks. I was working on a big history of democratic theory in Europe and America. I had a couple of talks in place that I would propose to people, then I would say, “Well I know there’s a lot of interest in the new president. Would you like a papaer on eighteenth-century democratic theory, or would you like me to talk about Obama?” And almost everybody asked me to talk about Obama. When I was coming back to the U.S. for a symposium on the presidential election, knowing I would be giving talks on Obama, I reread Dreams from My Father on the way here and read The Audacity of Hope on the way back. I was impressed by how good those books were, so I began looking around to find what analyses had been done of his writings. I found almost nothing. The assumption was that Dreams from My Father was just something you would do if you had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, which is what they call the editor of the review, and that The Audacity of Hope was a campaign book of the sort that every politician writes. I’ve read a fair number of those campaign books. The Audacity of Hope is very different. The depth of analysis, the self-awareness that was present, the understanding of the issues of American history—in the way that academic historians understand American history—all of that struck me as extraordinary. I began looking more into Obama’s intellectual formation, and by the time I got back to the U.S. at the end of my year in Cambridge, I was committed to doing something more than just a version of the talk I had given a number of times. At that point I began interviewing the people who had taught Obama, the people who had worked with him, the people who had known him at different stages in his life, and this picture of him as this deeply thoughtful moderate who saw all sides of all issues began to fall into place. I kept hearing the same thing from people who had known him in many different situations and many different stages of his life. At that point, I thought, I’ve got something to say that I haven’t seen in anything else that’s been written about him.”
Read the rest here.

Pally on "Evangelicals Who Have Left the Right"

According to New York University scholar Marcia Pally, author of The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good, about 20% of American evangelicals “do not identify with the religious right.”  In her recent essay at Immanent Frame, “Evangelicals Who Have Left the Right,” she identifies some major changes in American evangelicalism.  The so-called “new evangelicals”:

  • defend the separation of church and state and religious freedom for all, including Muslims.
  • criticize government when they believe it is unjust, upholding what might be called the “prophetic” role of the church in society.
  • are “civil society actors”…who advocate for their positions through public education, lobbying, coalition-building, and negotiation.
  • are altering their business practices toward economic justice.
  • use their profits to “redistribute resources in less developed regions” to support education, the fight against substance abuse, the homeless, and environmental protection.
  • engage in humanitarian aid abroad without pressuring locals to participate in religious activities.
  • oppose anti-gay discrimination in housing, education, and non-religious employment
  • may believe that homosexuality is a sin, but also believe that democracies “do not punish people for their sins.”  (Should the state “rescind civil rights for the commission of other sins, such as heterosexual adultery–why should it then for homosexuality?”).
  • oppose gay marriage, but their opposition to gay civil unions is decreasing.
  • oppose abortion, but one-third of them believe abortion should be legal.
  • “aim to provide accessible, realistic alternatives” to abortion, including medical, economic, and emotional support during pregnancy.
  • vote Republican because of the Democratic position on abortion.
  • vote Republican because they believe in small government and the “Protestant and evangelical emphasis on self-responsible striving for moral uplift.”

I know many of these “new evangelicals.”  I go to church with them and I teach them. While they do vote Republican, most of them are not entirely comfortable doing so.  They really like Barack Obama and think that his heart is in the right place, but they just can’t get over his views on abortion.  Some have decided to hold their nose and vote for Obama because of his moral vision for the country, but others just can’t do it with a good conscience.

So what does this all mean?  It seems that as much as evangelicals are changing in their approach to gay civil unions, the environment, social activism, and humanitarian justice, abortion still remains the dominant issue.  I am convinced that these new evangelicals would vote for a staunchly pro-life economic populist from the Democratic Party whose views border on socialism (a William Jennings Bryan-type?) before they would flip the lever for a pro-life champion of the free market and libertarianism. (A case in point is the 2006 U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania where Bob Casey, a pro-life Democratic, trounced pro-life, big business Republican Rick Santorum).  Unfortunately this will never happen because the Democratic Party has made it clear that it will not nominate a pro-life candidate.  Too bad, such a race would be fun to see.

So would a race in which a pro-life, big-government Democrat ran for president against a pro-choice, small government, pro-business, libertarian Republican.  What would evangelicals do?

George McGovern: Christian Historian

Like Jonathan Rees, one of my first political memories centers around McGovern’s 1972 bid for the presidency.  My first or second grade teacher had mentioned that Richard Nixon had failed to end the war in Vietnam.  As a six-year-old I thought that this was a horrible thing and became convinced that I needed to encourage people to vote for McGovern.

I remember telling my grandfather (still alive today at the age of 102), a lifelong Democrat, that if I were old enough I would vote for McGovern.  I will never forget the big affirming smile that came across his face as we sat in the living room of his house in Parisppany, New Jersey.

As I read the obituaries and blog posts about McGovern’s death and legacy, I am reminded that he was both a Christian and a historian.

McGovern was the son of a Wesleyan Methodist pastor in South Dakota who had ties to evangelical Houghton College in upstate New York.  It seems that George’s liberal politics was informed by his Christian faith, especially the Social Gospel.  He attended the Methodist Garrett Theological Seminary and served several churches as a visiting supply minister.  (Check out Chris Gehrz’s post at the Pietist Schoolman).

In the last weeks of the 1972 campaign, McGovern began to talk openly about his Christian faith.  This was particularly the case at a campaign stop at evangelical Wheaton College where he invoked John Winthrop’s 1620 “City on a Hill” sermon (“A Model of Christian Charity”).  We need to know more about the relationship between faith and politics in McGovern’s life.

In his recent post at the blog of The Historical Society, Rees reminded me that McGovern was also a historian.  After receiving an M.A. in history at Northwestern, McGovern returned to his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University, to teach history and political science.  He eventually got his Ph.D from Northwestern (he studied at Northwestern under Arthur Link, another Christian historian) in 1953. He wrote a dissertation on the Colorado Coal Strike of 1913-1914.  The dissertation was eventually published as The Great Coalfield War

Here is a taste of Rees’s excellent and informative post:

In 2004, my department, along with the Bessemer Historical Society—the people who are working to save the archives of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, the largest firm that employed those strikers—invited McGovern to campus for a fundraiser.  He not only accepted, he cut his usual speaking fee by two thirds.

Me and a colleague from the Political Science department picked McGovern up at the airport.  Then we drove him to Peterson Air Force Base so that he could pick up his granddaughter.  Then he took us all to lunch at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs (famous, among other reasons, for being the place where George W. Bush decided to give up drinking).  That remains the only time that I have ever eaten at the Broadmoor.  Then we dropped off his granddaughter back at the base and drove to Pueblo.

We all chatted almost the entire time.  Of course, the same way that Elton John will have to sing “Crocodile Rock” well past his dotage, McGovern talked about the 1972 election.  His lines were interesting. (They included, “I would rather be me right now than Richard Nixon.” and “Nixon was incredibly intelligent, but completely amoral.”)  I could tell these lines were also very well rehearsed.

When the conversation turned to history, however, McGovern’s eyes lit up.  He began to talk about Arthur Link, and how he had suggested the Colorado topic because, “There’s this huge strike that happened and nobody’s covered it before.”  He talked about doing research in Colorado during the early 1950s, and how he went to the movies in Denver once and the entire audience (but him) booed a newsreel when they saw Mother Jones.  We talked about Consensus History and the New Social History.  I think he liked talking about Colorado History with me and at our fundraiser because nobody asked him to do so very often.

It would be a shame if the historical profession makes the same mistake in the wake of his passing.  After all, George McGovern was a historian before he was ever a politician. 

The Moral Minority: A New Book and a New Blog

Congratulations to David Swartz of Asbury University.  In September the University of Pennsylvania Press will publish his much-awaited, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.  (I love the cover, David!).  As far as I know, this will be the first major historical treatment of the evangelical left.  The book focuses on characters such as Sharon Gallagher, Samuel Escobar, Richard Mouw, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, Rachel Heidi Evans, Jonathan Merritt, Matthew Soerens, and Shane Claiborne.  I am looking forward to reading it.

Along with the book comes an impressive new website by the same name.  Head over to “Moral Minority” and see what Dave is blogging about in anticipation of the book’s release.  I have already added “Moral Minority” to my regular cycle of blogs that I read as I prepare my posts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Brantley Gasaway on the Sojourners LGBT Flap

In the last few days Jim Wallis’s organization, Sojourners, has been taking some heat from the LGBT community and progressive Christians for refusing to run an ad on its website by Believe Out Loud, a group the promotes LGBT inclusion in Christian churches.

I think the ad does a nice job of portraying the kind of homophobia often found in churches today.  It also does a wonderful job of portraying the kind of love and grace that the church must extend to all of God’s children, regardless of sexual orientation.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with gay marriage, homosexuality, or other LGBT issues, it is hard for a Christian to disagree with the message presented in this ad.

Why did Sojourners, an organization devoted to progressive Christian causes, reject this ad?  Brantley Gasaway, the author of a forthcoming book with North Carolina University Press on the evangelical left, a religion professor at Bucknell University, and a regular reader of this blog, provides some historical context over at Religion in American History (where he is a new contributing editor). 

Here is his conclusion:

Thus, the disillusionment of religious and political liberals among Sojourners’ supporters is understandable. Many who define full equality for LGBT individuals as vital to social justice are angered. Few find credible Wallis’s and Sojourners’ desire to promote social justice but allow for different standards within the church. And many would even question Wallis’s ostensible commitment to LGBT civil rights since he supports civil unions rather than same-sex marriage.

Ultimately, this controversy illustrates why the progressive evangelical movement has remained small over the past four decades. Leaders like Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo have been too politically progressive for most evangelicals but too theologically conservative for most political liberals. Wallis may consider his political positions “prophetic,” but he no doubt wishes they would remain more popular.

Why Can’t Liberals Get the Religious Vote?

Responding to Tiffany Stanley’s recent article in The New Republic (we blogged about it here), historian Michael Kazin offers his take on why the Democrats have failed to attract religious voters.  Here is a snippet:

Religious conservatives are having their own problems attracting young people who don’t want to be preached to about the sinfulness of their sex lives or anyone else’s. But the Christian Right remains a potent force in the Republican Party and in the larger political culture—as witnessed by the huge audiences Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin attract. Its acolytes are passionate, united, and mobilized by two political issues that nearly everyone in the country has an opinion about: opposition to abortion and to gay marriage. What similarly kindles the fervor of religious liberals? Fighting poverty, establishing a living wage, stopping capital punishment, ending the war in Afghanistan? Each of these issues appeals to a cluster of pious activists, but none stirs the sense of mission that would attract masses of new people to give up their leisure time for the cause and draw the attention of major media and leading politicians.
So it should not be a surprise that Obama and the Democrats have failed to organize a major effort to attract religious voters. If the president did “articulate the moral-religious values that permeate his policies,” as Stanley advocates, who would echo his words and what would they do about them? Alas, until there is a movement of religious Americans willing to act on the injunction in Matthew 25 (“whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”), liberals will mostly be singing to the same, diminished choir.

Blacks, Hispanics, and the Return of Jesus

Charles Blow started yesterday’s column with a couple of paragraphs that really caught my attention:

Which political party’s members are most likely to believe that Jesus will definitely return to earth before midcentury? The Republicans, right? Wrong. The Democrats.

This was revealed by a report issued last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

According to Blow, and he seems to be right, this trend can easily be explained by the fact that African-Americans and Hispanics are very religious. They also vote Democrat.

Blow concludes:

On the one hand, unlike John Kerry before him, Barack Obama made a strong play for the religious vote on his march to the White House. It worked so well that it’s likely to continue, if not intensify, among Democratic candidates. On the other hand, the religious left is not the religious right. The left isn’t as organized or assertive. For the most part, it seems to have made its peace with the mishmash of morality under the Democratic umbrella, rallying instead around some core Democratic tenets: protection of, and equality for, the disenfranchised and providing greater opportunity and assistance for the poor.

The unanswerable questions are whether these highly religious, socially conservative Democrats will remain loyal to a liberal agenda as they become the majority of the party and their financial and social standing improves. Or whether Republicans will finally make headway in recruiting them. The future only knows.

Then again, the world as we know it may not have much of a future if, as these Democrats believe, a deity will soon descend from the sky.