By Keith Pavlischek
Just as no history of the Evangelical Right could be written without telling the story of Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition and the “700 Club,” no history of the Evangelical Left can be written without telling the story of Jim Wallis and his People’s Christian Coalition/Post-American/Sojourners Community and Sojourners Magazine. In Moral Majority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism David Swartz takes up Wallis’ story in the third chapter titled, “Jim Wallis and Vietnam.”
My own long-held view of Robertson and Wallis is that they both are the prime examples from the starboard and port side of the political spectrum respectively of what Mark Noll called the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The political views of both can fairly be described as Manichean and at times downright kooky. Robertson flirted with crackpot conspiracy theories hatched in the fever swamps of the John Bircher right, while Wallis and his comrades embraced conspiracy theories hatched by the New Left. “Drinking deep from the wells of revisionist history and New Left sociology,” Swartz reports, “evangelical radicals eyed conspiracy at the highest levels of the United States Government.” I would go so far as to suggest that if a young evangelical wants to learn how not to engage in political and public life, they should study the activism of Robertson and Wallis. Swartz, however, seems generally sympathetic to Wallis and Sojourners, but in simply telling his story, Wallis’ Manichean view of politics is readily apparent.
Swartz tells us of Wallis’ conversion as a child in an evangelical church in the early 1950s, that he abandoned his faith while at Michigan State in the late 60s, how he became a leading activist in the radical left-wing Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). “He was a key organizer in the national student strike in the Spring of 1970.” But, according to Swartz, Wallis “watched in horror” when Weathermen and his SDS colleagues smashed the East Lansing City Hall.” Wallis became disillusioned “as the movement descended into violence and fragmentation.”
Swartz doesn’t tell us how–as late as 1970!– a key organizer in the SDS could possibly be shocked and surprised at the violent tendencies of the Weatherman, the SDS and parts of the New Left “movement.” Was it naiveté? Was it self-deception? In any case, he tells us that Wallis and other “evangelical leftists were left utterly alienated by the ‘days of rage’ that engulfed the movement in Chicago, Berkeley and New York at the turn of the decade.” Wallis, as the story goes, turned back to “his abandoned childhood faith.”
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