During the 1980–81 academic year I was a student at Fuller Theological Seminary. Ronald Sider came to campus to lecture, and a couple hundred students and faculty packed a room to hear him. The New Religious Right had just emerged in conjunction with Ronald Reagan’s first presidential campaign. During the Q&A, one student asked Sider what he thought of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. To paraphrase, Sider said that after years of trying to organize and inspire evangelicals to get involved in politics, it was disappointing to see them finally doing so. The reason, of course, is that the New Religious Right took positions diametrically opposed to Sider’s progressive evangelicalism. Along with John Alexander, Jim Wallis, and some lesser lights, Sider is a major figure in Brantley Gasaway’s fine new book Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice.
This book makes up roughly half of the historiography of what can be called “progressive evangelicals” or the “evangelical left.” The other half is David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). Hopefully, we will continue to see books of this caliber emerge as scholars study the wing of evangelicalism dwarfed by the Christian Right but still very significant. Using the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern as his starting point, Gasaway focuses on three organizations: (1) Alexander and The Other Side magazine, (2) Wallis and Sojourners (both the magazine and community), and (3) Sider and Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA). Following chapters on the rise of the movement and the contours of its public theology, Gasaway organizes the rest of his book around six leading issues: racism, feminism, abortion, gay rights (including gay marriage), poverty, and war and peace.
There are two interesting and significant features of the movement that Gasaway probes. The first is the internal tension among his three organizations and their leaders. On war and peace, poverty, and racism the three presented nearly a united front. On abortion and gay marriage, however, The Other Side took the most progressive position, Sojourners stood in the middle, and ESA remained most traditional and evangelical. The Other Side, for example, focused primarily on abortion dialogue then gravitated toward a soft or implicit pro-choice position before finally dropping the issue in the 1990s. Sojourners opposed abortions morally and strategized on how to reduce them. Meanwhile, Sider and ESA worked for the reversal of Roe v. Wade. This left to right pecking order exhibited itself even more significantly on gay rights and gay marriage. The Other Side early on endorsed full affirmation of committed gay relationships; Sojourners argued for a biblically based heterosexual position until 2013, when Wallis personally came out in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage; while Sider and ESA argued throughout the period that the Bible supported sexual relationships only within the context of heterosexual marriage. Still, all three groups lobbied for civil rights for gays as a matter of public justice.
The second interesting and significant dynamic Gasaway probes is the relationship of progressive evangelicalism to secular progressivism. Here feminism was particularly at issue, especially for Sojourners and ESA. Because secular feminism holds abortion rights as the centerpiece of women’s rights, Sojourners and ESA were never completely on board. As Gasaway writes, “Even as they identified as feminists, progressive evangelicals never unreservedly endorsed the broader feminist movement” (p. 127). Likewise, while both groups argued for full civil rights for gays and even legal recognition of civil unions, their reluctance to affirm gay marriage put them at odds with the secular gay rights activism. This tension and at times opposition refutes the charge that progressive evangelicalism is but a mirror image of the Christian Right. Progressive evangelicals have consistently criticized their conservative counterparts by pointing out there is virtually no issue on which the Christian Right differs from the Republican Party. Progressive evangelicals have been especially critical of conservative evangelicals on issues of poverty, economics more broadly, and war.
There are at least two weaknesses of Gasaway’s book. First, while Gasaway has read widely, deeply, and comprehensively in the literature published by progressive evangelicals, the book would be better had he been able to engage in extensive interviews. There is virtually no behind the scenes information or any sense of how painful, surprising, or disappointing key developments were for the leaders of these organizations. There are all sorts of inner dynamics one can pick up on when sitting across a table from historical actors that cannot be gleaned from the polished materials those actors publish. Because Gasaway’s subjects are nearly all still alive and active, he did not have access to their letters and diaries. This makes interviews nearly indispensable.
The second criticism is less of Gasaway himself and more of our profession—scholarly history writing. The book takes the standard monographic form. Each chapter covers a particular part of the story over the time period 1973 to the present. While each is well organized and well written, by the third or fourth chapter the reader will be forgiven for thinking, “Okay, here we go again. 1973 and all that.” The book would be more riveting if it had been done in a style where the author tells a story over the forty-year period with a narrative arc and full attention to the wider culture. This sort of writing is harder and takes longer, but it makes for books a non-scholarly audience is more likely to read. The problem, of course, is that most first books are revised dissertations, and dissertation directors and committees are often loath to allow the narrative style. This is a contested issue. Some say, traditionally, that history writing cannot or should not be narrative. I say it can be and should be.
Those criticisms aside, this is a good book and a must read for anyone interested in the subject. Any scholar or graduate student doing a research project on any aspect of progressive evangelicalism simply must read Swartz and Gasaway at the outset.