November 18, 2012

Review of “Moral Minority” by David Swartz Part IV

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By Keith Pavlischek

If the Evangelical Left of the late 1960s largely baptized the ideology and the polarizing rhetoric of the New Left, and the broader evangelical movement was far more conservative and largely not engaged politically, how did these young activists gain the traction that they did? Part of the answer is that in an age of political ferment, protest and activism they were the only Evangelical game in town. But the larger part of the answer is that they were talking as Evangelicals about important issues in American public life, most notably civil rights and the Vietnam War and the need for tight-knit Christian communities in a mass society.

The problem with the Evangelical Left wasn’t that they were wrong in calling the broader evangelical world’s attention to these issues, but that they too often lost credibility even among those inclined to by sympathetic by going off half-cocked. It has justly been said of the early rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Right that their political modus operandi was “fire, ready, aim.”  But the Evangelical Right’s immature style of political engagement was preceded by about a decade. Swartz’s chapters on “John Alexander and Racial Justice” and “Jim Wallis and Vietnam” illustrate the problem quite well, albeit unintentionally.

One can’t help but wonder whether Wheaton College professor John Alexander’s advocacy in the cause of racial justice wasn’t hindered in the long term by an overreaction to the appalling evangelical indifference to racial discrimination and by his own white guilt.  Swartz tells us that Alexander was appalled that his fellow students at Trinity College were not interested in global poverty issues because “souls were more important than poverty.”  That may well be what motivated Alexander’s activism, and it is certainly understandable to seek to correct that particularly pernicious understanding of Christian responsibility in the world.

Swartz then tells us that following college Alexander worked with his father at a black fundamentalist college during the civil rights era. This experience “fundamentally transformed this white family’s views of the racial segregation of their Baptist heritage.” Alexander and his father joined the NAACP, renounced their support for states’ rights and Goldwater and trained their sights directly on civil rights issues. So far so good. But Schwartz tell us that Alexander later confessed that his leadership at a black institution was “tinged with racial insensitivity”  and that his attempt to teach standard English was “an act of racial oppression.” Not just “racial insensitivity, mind you, but “racial oppression.” Really?

So, what does Alexander do? In good old fashioned evangelical style he goes on a bit of a crusade. He becomes the most radical professor at Wheaton College, “where he introduced his fiery brand of racial activism to a key center of evangelicalism.” Of course,  Alexander would be disappointed that while Wheaton students tended to favor racial integration, too few of them favored “demonstrative protest.” In a 1968 chapel service he told the students to quit “thinking white,” and demanded that blacks compose 20 percent of the student body. Before you know it, Alexander’s magazine “The Other Side” urged busing white and black children to ensure integrated schools.

What specific political policies shall an evangelical activist plagued with white guilt  advocate?  Well,  what else, of course, but to embrace racial quotas and advocate forced busing of little children to achieve racial integration.  This may be the “United States of Babylon,” and we should never trust Caesar, unless of course, Caesar wants to force your children to be bused out of your neighborhood to achieve racial integration.  As we saw in our last post, Alexander bristled at the charge that he and his “The Other Side” magazine were simply adopting boiler-plate liberal social policies, and sprinkling them with a little old-fashioned Evangelical piety. But that certainly seems to be the case here.

That problem is not merely that Alexander would embrace questionable political and social policies, but like the Moral Majority would do a decade later, baptize those specific policy proposals as the evangelical position. Jerry Falwell would advocate the return of prayer in public schools in order to restore his “beloved community.” But a decade earlier Alexander would advocate the coerced breakup of neighborhood schools to achieve his “beloved community.”  Once you claim the mantle of a prophetic activist,  it is a small and quite logical step to accuse those who might reject racial quotas and forced busing to achieve the “beloved community” as being crypto-racist themselves. One can’t help but get the distinct feeling that a lot of this activism was self-righteousness masking as “prophetic outrage.”

And one can’t help but to wonder–Swartz doesn’t tell us–whether Alexander ever took time to consider reasonable counter-arguments to such policy proposals or whether he stopped to consider whether such policies might be counter-productive. Shoot, ready, aim.


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  • http://www.facebook.com/W.S.James92 Scott James

    Interesting article, but the spelling is atrocious. Makes for a more difficult read.

  • http://contextintn.wordpress.com/ dover1952

    So Mark, I take it from this article that you believe unqualified black people have been taking away jobs, scholarships, university admissions, and so forth from much more highly qualified white people for way too many years—and you would like to put an end to it—because every sane person knows that there ain’t no black man or woman in America that is smarter or more capable than even the stupidest white man or woman—and someone needs to put an end to this great injustice.

    Fortunately, we have a generation of young people coming up in the United States that loves black people, Hispanic people, and other minority peoples like no other generation in American history. For every hate monger you guys create, there will be 10, 20, or 30 of them to shout him down over the next century. The principal problem you guys have is accepting the broad-spectrum cultural reality that the many prejudicial things you believe are dying out. Like so many other things in world history—when you die—your prejudices and hatreds will die with you. Jesus is unfurling before you as you recede into the past. The admonition to welcome the stranger and so many other things in the Bible that you choose to ignore are taking over. it is the action of the Holy Spirit in our time. Everything is being reconciled to Jesus over time and to your detriment.

    Dream on guys. Christian fundamentalism is on the road to death and your own children will put the final bullets in its head. Mark my word. You just wait and see.

  • Ray Bannister

    Restrain your glee.

    Christianity is an anvil that worn out many hammers.

    • http://contextintn.wordpress.com/ dover1952

      I agree. Christianity is an anvil that has worn out many hammers—more power to it. I do not agree that Christian fundamentalism is real and true Christianity. Rather, it is a late 19th century and wholly American attempt to create a cheap K-Mart plastic version of the real thing—and we all know what happens eventually to cheap K-Mart plastic.

    • Ray Bannister

      If you think Christianity was invented in America in the 19th century, you need some really strong medication. Also, Kmart didn’t exist in the 19th century, and neither did plastic, so ask your doc for the highest dosage.

      Better yet, while waiting on your prescrition, go to the library (big building with books in it), check out this thing called “Holy Bible.” Read Book of Acts (New Testament, that’s the last third of the Bible), there are these people called “apostles” that go out and preach: repent and be saved. If Christianity is based on Jesus and the apostles (which Christians believe), then “repent and be saved” is not something to dispense with. Liberals don’t read Acts for that very reason. There’s no part of Acts that they can twist to mean “vote Democrat, hate Christians, sleep around, feel superior.”

      Liberals are the losing side – both in the long run (afterlife) and short run (liberal churches die). Liberalism is a religion for losers. They know that, hence their anger and resentment. They spew their hate for God’s people while accusing them of being haters.

      • http://contextintn.wordpress.com/ dover1952

        Ray. I think you just insulted your own intelligence. “Cheap K-Mart plastic” is a metaphor—not a historical statement. Real Christianity was invented in the first century. So-called “Christian fundamentalism,” and the more recent characteristics it has taken on over the past 40 years, are American cultural inventions. Last third of the Bible? You don’t really think that dispensational sewage in the middle of your Schofield Bible is really part of the scripture? I would otherwise think that your middle third is the Catholic Bible, but most Catholics I know are smarter than you seem to be.

        We are on the winning side because Jesus, in the context of his own day, was as liberal and radical as the day is long. If I were you, I would be more concerned about avoiding the leaven of the pharisees.

  • J S Lang

    I was attending Wheaton College in 1984, and the big “controversy” that year was the “manifesto” issued by some of the Wheaton faculty, stating that, contrary to what people might assume, the signers were NOT voting for Reagan. Can you guess which departments those non-Reagan Wheaton faculty represented? Right – psychology, sociology, drama, English, art, music. No signers from the reality-based departments like chemistry, math, biology. The author of the manifesto was the sociology department head, a 1960s relic, figured if he stayed “radical” people wouldn’t notice his bald head or sagging paunch. The college administration wisely chose not to react to the “manifesto” at all. They saw it for what it was: adult bodies with infantile minds seeking attention. The whole thing was a joke, since Wheaton is in a solidly conservative Republican district (Henry Hyde, back then), and Illinois (like the rest of the country) went for Reagan. I guess it made the manifesto signers feel so brave and holy, as if they risked being persecuted by their Republican colleagues and neighbors. In short, “liberal evangelicals” are a joke. Also an oxymoron.

  • Donnie

    The “Christian” left has replaced the God of the Bible with the twin gods of big government and self righteousness. Go to any theologically liberal church these days and you’ll hear things that sound more at home in the Unitarian Universalist “church” than Christianity. They have bad politics and even worse theology.

  • cynthiacurran

    well according to Peter Brown new book Thru an eye of a needle mentions a follower of Pelgius who wrote that society should not have the rich. Augustine was opposed to this and stated that the poor can be prideful too. Its a shame that evangelicalism doen’t have a stronger left like Catholicism does it would pushed conservatives to think about the issues more like Conservative Catholics do.

    • Donnie

      This is all true, though I’d argue all of us are “rich.” At least those of us in the first world.

      I saw an online calculator once that compared your yearly income to that of the rest of the world. Even those below the poverty line in the USA are among the richest 13% in the world. Those who make an average yearly income (after taxes) are in the richest 2% Something to think about.

  • Marco Bell

    Thank you, Dover1952 for your cogent contribution. Finally some contemporary logic!