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Can the Evangelical Left Rise Again?

Hulton Archive/Getty

Last week, after President Jimmy Carter announced that he will undergo treatment for brain cancer, admirers traveled for miles to attend his Sunday school class in Plains, Georgia. The former president and long-time Southern Baptist taught about forgiveness and peace in his class, and took photographs with everyone who had traveled to see him. He was, in other words, much as he always has been: a progressive Evangelical with a warm and patient presence, the president charged with the task of restoring dignity and integrity to the White House following the cynicism-inducing administrations of presidents Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Did Carter succeed in undoing American cynicism about politics? Despite his best efforts, and the public's general respect for him as a person, it seems the project was always doomed. Can the same be said about the tradition he represents? For the Evangelical left, once a substantial contingent of American life, is now seemingly small and powerless compared to its rightwing counterpart.

“I sometimes argue that Jimmy Carter is the last progressive Evangelical,” says Randall Balmer, a professor of religious studies at Dartmouth and author of Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. That is, Carter was the last progressive president whose election relied heavily upon the votes of Democrat-friendly Evangelicals. In fact, Balmer says, the same Evangelicals who voted en masse for Carter in 1976 turned against him in 1980, resulting in his devastating defeat by Ronald Reagan, whose presidency sparked a string of victories for the Evangelical bloc that would later be known as the religious right.

The turnabout in Evangelical political orientation was preceded by a long history of Evangelical political activity on the left. Balmer points out that Evangelicals were particularly active in the Antebellum South, though northern Evangelicals also maintained a political presence, advocating for public schools, prison reform, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery. By the twentieth century, he says, the dominance of Evangelical progressives had been somewhat reduced by immigration and other political shifts; nonetheless, they busied themselves with campaigns for social justice and women’s suffrage. Progressive Evangelicals were also active in the labor movement, supplying spiritual vigor to the early growth of unions, as Valparaiso University historian Heath Carter points out in Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago. (It is Professor Carter I quote in the remainder of this article, not the former president.)

By the seventies, this tradition had germinated into a thriving branch of Evangelical protestantism. These left Evangelicals were anti-war, pro-civil rights, and deeply concerned with people on the margins of society. Progressive Evangelicalism comprised a variety of different strands, from the hippie-esque “Jesus People” who viewed Christ as a counter-cultural figure (think Godspell) to the politically serious social justice advocates who founded Sojourners magazine. “The people at the center of the Evangelical left in the seventies were young, white Evangelicals,” Carter says, “but they were networked with black peers who were pushing them on issues of race, and they were in turn running with that.” Jimmy Carter, with his devotion to racial justice and commitment to alleviating the ravages of poverty, rode this wave of progressive Evangelical sentiment all the way to the White House.

But as Carter ascended to the presidency, several events began to undermine the momentum of the Evangelical left. Balmer points to the long, drawn-out battle between the IRS and Bob Jones University over the tiny Christian school’s racially discriminatory policies. Because of a purported Biblical injunction against interracial marriage, Bob Jones University refused admission of black students until 1971, at which time it began admitting only married black students. Due to this policy, the IRS sought to remove the school’s tax-exempt status, and the resulting outcry among fundamentalist supporters of the university targeted Jimmy Carter personally for blame. Both anti-racist and an occupant of the White House, Carter now represented at least two things his former Evangelical compatriots had grown suspicious of: desegregation and the federal government. With their racial resentment newly aroused and a small-government streak arising from it, Balmer argues, the Evangelical right began to develop swiftly, and the already-established political right was more than glad to integrate the fledgling movement into its ranks.

In the ensuing decades, the Evangelical right overwhelmed the Evangelical left for a number of reasons. The right marshaled a great deal of money in mobilizing Evangelicals to their cause, and in so doing managed to not only invite Evangelicals into the fold of the GOP electoral base, but also to fuse Republican Party loyalty into the fabric of Evangelical life. “The Evangelical left never identified with the Democratic Party,” Carter notes. “They never quite feel at home in American politics, they’ve never been quite comfortable with how parties draw the boundary lines.” Part of the trouble was with abortion, which quickly became a sharply delineated right-versus-left issue, putting progressive Evangelicals with a distaste for abortion at odds with their fellow leftists.

While Evangelicals on the right found themselves in lockstep with the GOP, Evangelical lefties are much more prone to splitting their votes among different parties depending on their commitments, reducing their political power. Progressive Evangelicals were also less successful at building up the media empires that came to define the Evangelical right through the work of televangelists and popular, politically engaged preachers. And, with their commitment to inter-racial justice, the Evangelical left was never able to capitalize on the racial resentment and nostalgia for a segregated past that tend to surface among distressed white Americans during times of political unrest. For all these reasons, the Evangelical right easily defeated Carter in favor of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and followed that victory with several more: the elections of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Which were perhaps, in retrospect, pyrrhic victories. “The Bush years were very good to the Evangelical left,” Carter says, in that they demonstrated to Evangelicals the hazards of lending unquestioned support to the GOP. Will progressive Evangelicals therefore reemerge as a political force? “I’m pessimistic about that,” Balmer says. “It would take a lot of money, a lot of organizing, a lot of re-education.” Carter is more sanguine, noting that young Evangelicals seem less loyal to the Republican Party than their parents, and might be willing to break ranks come election season. Both professors agree that the Evangelical tradition is rich with progressive values and campaigns for justice, especially when it comes to serving the most disadvantaged members of society. Throughout his long life post-presidency, Jimmy Carter has certainly never given up on this brand of Christianity, and if a new wave of progressive Evangelical youths follow in his footsteps, he could have no finer legacy.