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.