While today, press coverage treats Christianity’s alignment with political conservatism as a foregone conclusion, there is a larger milieu of liberal and progressive activism with Christian social justice. Join Averill and special guest Mark Lempke, PhD, for this special episode exploring George McGovern and the elusive Christian Left.
We invite you to listen to our podcast, read the transcript or watch the YouTube video below.
Further Readings on George McGovern and the Christian Left:
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Other Episodes of Interest:
- Buffalo Nine: The Vietnam War, Protest, and Liberal Academia
- Communists and Uteruses: How the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China Sought to Control Women’s Reproduction
- Marie Stopes: Married Sexual Pleasure, Birth Control and Eugenics
Transcript of George McGovern and the Christian Left:
Averill: 81 percent. So…a lot of us in the historians’ community were surprised by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election as we watched it unfold in real time. Not necessarily just who won, although some of us were deeply disappointed by the results….but who voted in what ways. One thing that baldly stands out from Donald Trump’s victory in the electoral college was his success with most facets of American Christianity. 81% of white evangelical Christians ended up supporting Donald Trump. 58% of Protestants as a whole. Over half of Catholics, although the data on that is a little all over the place. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, did better with black and Hispanic Christians, and non-Christian faiths. And she did great among voters who profess no religious faith at all: 68%.
Those are the numbers, but where do they come from? What is the story, the history behind them? While today, press coverage treats Christianity’s alignment with political conservatism as a foregone conclusion, there is a larger milieu of liberal and progressive activism with Christian social justice that we’d like to explore a bit in our podcast today.
I’m Averill Earls
and I’m Mark Lempke
And we’re your historians for this episode of Dig.
Averill: Today, we are joined by Mark A. Lempke, who has just written a book on this very topic, called My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity, published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Mark got his Ph.D. at the University at Buffalo just like me and Sarah, although he graduated when we were still early in the program. He currently teaches for UB’s campus in Singapore. Not everyone here in Buffalo knows it, but UB does have a program running there, serving about 1,300 students from across South and Southeast Asia. Thank you for joining us, Mark!
Mark: I’m delighted to be here, Averill. And I think it’s great that we have some UB historians reaching out to a wider audience from this podcast.
Averill: To set the stage: Christianity goes through something of a revival during the years after World War II. Church attendance and church membership are consistently at some of the highest rates in American history as young people return from the war, get married, and start families. And most Christians belonged to one of three broad categories: Catholic, mainline Protestant, or evangelical Protestant.
Mark: As categories go, Catholics are fairly self-explanatory. The difference between mainliner and evangelical Protestants is a little trickier. The split between them isn’t primordial or anything, but it comes from the turn of the century. At that time, there were growing debates about the role of science and modernity in faith. What do you do with evolution? What about new scholarship that studies the Bible as a text, and uses literary theory to argue that, say, the Book of Isaiah was written over many centuries by multiple authors? The mainline usually agreed to embrace modern science and try to reconcile their faith to this spirit of scientific inquiry. Evangelicals generally rejected that view; to them it was a matter of trusting the Bible’s teaching and what appeared to them as its plain meaning. There’s that old bumper sticker: “The Bible says it, I believe it, Case closed.” This division kind of hit a boiling point with the Scopes Trial, where a Tennessee schoolteacher had to defend his teaching of evolutionary theory in the classroom, when it was illegal to do so. Mainliners view the trial’s humiliation of fundamentalism as a triumph. Evangelicals reacted by retreating from much of public life…at least until the rise of the Religious Right.
Averill: At the same time, there’s more to the story than just the theology and just the beliefs. There is a growing social and cultural divide between these two factions. Evangelicals tended to be less wealthy, less educated, less…to use a word that’s getting a lot of air time today, “cosmopolitan.” The mainline controlled many of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious churches…Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalian, United Church of Christ. The historian David Hollinger nailed the social distinctions when he said that “if you were in charge of something big before 1960, chances are that you grew up in a white Protestant milieu.”
Mark: I think of it as the difference between Ned Flanders and Rev. Lovejoy, if you happen to follow The Simpsons. Lovejoy is a caricature of a milquetoast mainline pastor, and Flanders is a caricature of a zealous evangelical layman. Lovejoy is sincere, but he practices his faith in a somewhat formulaic, ritualistic, maybe even uninspiring way. Flanders doesn’t have Lovejoy’s intellectual verve, but his religious life is vibrant. He wants to proselytize. He believes that heaven and hell are realities. He thinks the Earth is only a few thousand years old. Or to use real-life figures, Billy Graham is a classic evangelical: charismatic, full of fire and brimstone, Christianity is the only way, the Bible is God’s truth, and so on. Fred Rogers– and people forget that he was a Presbyterian minister–is more like the classic mainliner: gentler, less doctrinal, less confrontational.
Averill: Religion, of course, had a big role to play as the 1960s unfolded, particularly in the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Baptist minister, and the Church provided much of the institutional support, meeting places, and spiritual energy that sustained the movement. But a common mistake is limiting our understanding of religion in the freedom struggle to black Americans. Plenty of white pastors- usually from outside the South- joined the cause. To give just one example, a black Methodist bishop, Charles Golden and a white Methodist bishop, James Mathews, attempted to integrate an all-white Jackson, Mississippi church by attending an Easter Sunday service together in 1964. Both men were turned away at the door.
Mark: And their experiences in the civil rights movement give these mainline pastors a strong affinity for the prophetic element of Christian teaching. Not prophetic in the sense of predicting the future, but of God delivering a message that comforts the marginalized and sternly rebukes their oppressors- that kind of righteous anger you see in Old Testament books like Amos and Ezekiel. That kind of language was in the black churches for decades, but the white mainline is introduced to it through the civil rights movement.
Averill: The civil rights movement is a good segue into some of the political changes that are also happening at the time. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won a landslide election. His opponent, Barry Goldwater of Arizona, was an avowed conservative, and at first, it is thought that his defeat signals a disaster for the conservative movement in America. In the years that followed, a docket of liberal legislation was passed, from Medicare, to the Public Broadcasting System being created, to some of the earliest environmental legislation. But ultimately, it was the issue of the Vietnam War that shadowed the Johnson presidency. And into this comes George McGovern, one of the chief political opponents of the Vietnam War, which ties in nicely with our recent episode on the Buffalo Nine and conscientious dissent against the Vietnam War.
Mark: George McGovern was born in 1922 in South Dakota, and his father was a Wesleyan evangelical pastor. He grew up in an environment where expectations were high, as a minister’s son. The Wesleyans emphasized projecting holiness, and in that way, working to fix up a broken world. But George wasn’t especially religious or devout until young adulthood. He served in World War II as a bomber pilot, and the experience fundamentally changes him. McGovern saw fellow pilots die, he saw the poverty and homelessness and the refugees the war caused. At one point, someone on his crew loosed a live bomb from the plane at the wrong moment, and he had to watch helplessly as it landed on a farm house in Austria and destroyed it. So, he was discharged from the service, went back to college, and tried to process all of the carnage and inhumanity he’d seen. Ultimately, his professors introduced him to the social gospel, a school of theology that dominated mainline circles in the early 20th century.
Averill: Shailer Mathews, a theologian who was part of the social gospel movement, described it as “the application of the teaching of Jesus and the total message of the Christian salvation to society, the economic life, and social institutions.” What this meant was that Christianity was more than just a creed of things that you believed. Christianity shouldn’t just try to save individual souls, but the whole of society. It understood sin as being collective, rather than individual. If a culture neglects its poor, or fails to address prostitution or hunger, it commits a sin writ large. So, practicing Christianity meant, to these men and women, achieving social justice.
Mark: They were fond of reciting the Lord’s Prayer…thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. They really wanted to make earth more closely resemble the peace and justice of heaven. And as a result of this, McGovern becomes a great devotee of the social gospel. He believes fundamentally that we all owe each other something- we are our brother’s keeper, or our sister’s keeper. And it so transforms him that he decided to become a minister- but part of the Methodist mainline, rather than his childhood evangelicalism.
Averill: So, McGovern was a minister?
Mark: In a way. He studied for about 18 months at Garrett Theological Seminary outside of Chicago. They very much stressed a kind of ministry that understood economics, social issues, how poverty endured. And for most of those 18 months, he was put in charge of a small congregation, leading services, and doing baptisms, and comforting the sick.
Averill: That’s…pretty unusual for a politician!
Mark: I guess that’s true! But McGovern left his seminary; he hated the rituals of being a pastor. The only element he really enjoyed was giving the Sunday sermon. So instead he got…you’re not going to believe this…a Ph.D. in history. And that’s really where a lot of McGovern’s liberalism comes from; the progressive school of history was still big at that time, and tended to stress the people versus “the interests.” And he moved back to South Dakota, and saw the Democratic Party as the best vessel for “the people.” There’s just one problem- there weren’t really any Democrats in South Dakota! So he built up the party from the grassroots up. He drove across the state, gave speeches, solicited donations, and ultimately, he was narrowly elected one of the state’s senators in 1962.
Averill: And Vietnam was hardly a blip on the national radar at that point. It was only with the attack on the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 that the war escalated, the number of draftees increased, and the commitment to keeping South Vietnam from communism became a priority.
Mark: McGovern actually voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution- only two senators voted against it. And he always viewed that as the biggest mistake he made in his career. His social gospel views and his training as a historian made him reluctant to think that the U.S. could prop up the unpopular Diem regime in Vietnam and its successors. When he visited Vietnam just a few years later, he was appalled– shaken to the core– by what he saw. Entire villages destroyed, the wounded overrunning hospitals to the point where there wasn’t enough room for everyone inside. He saw one child so heavily bandaged that he couldn’t tell what the front of him was! And it’s that moral revulsion of the war–one shared by many churchmen–that led him to run for president to end the carnage, both Vietnamese and American.
Averill: McGovern’s presidential campaign was a bit different from others at the time. In 1968, the Democrats’ convention was…a train wreck. The party met in Chicago reeling from the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, John’s younger brother. More than that, the party was deeply divided between its regulars, and its antiwar wing. Antiwar protestors took to the streets, and ultimately, violence broke out between them and the police. Hubert Humphrey emerged from the convention with the nomination…even though he didn’t compete in a single primary. That may seem a bit…odd to us today. But prior to 1972, primary elections were often considered “beauty contests,”–that is, good in a superficial sense for a candidate, but ultimately not that helpful in winning your party’s nomination. Most state delegations to a national convention were hand-picked by political bosses, and usually voted according to his wishes. After that disaster in 1968 McGovern was part of a commission that changed the primaries into more or less what they are today: binding contests to secure delegates for the national convention.
Mark: So in order to win the primary, he had to get a grassroots army going. Lots of those people were young, collegiate antiwar activists- not unlike the Buffalo students in your Buffalo Nine podcast. But a surprising number of his supporters were religious leaders and religious activists– all campaigning for one of the most leftist senators in the entire country! They shared his understanding of the Vietnam War as a moral problem that weighed against America’s conscience. One of those religious activists was probably the most fascinating person I met during my research. He is a man named James Armstrong. He was one of McGovern’s closest friends, but he was also a pretty important religious leader of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a shame in some ways that he is so obscure. I was astounded by the stories he could weave. He drove across Pennsylvania with Jimmy Carter, he went golfing with Billy Graham, cruised around Havana with Fidel Castro, negotiated the standoff at Wounded Knee in 1973, he comforted Fred Rogers on his deathbed….
Averill: He’s like the most interesting man in the world!
Mark: He even looks a little bit like that guy. “I don’t always endorse presidential candidates, but when I do…” Now, Armstrong was the Methodist bishop of the Dakotas at that time. And he decided to use his considerable clout to encourage other clergymen to come out and openly endorse McGovern, which just wasn’t very common back in those days. So, ultimately, he formed a group called Religious Leaders for McGovern, and a lot of names that were prominent back then joined, even if they aren’t all that well remembered today. There was Harvey Cox, whose book The Secular City is still required reading in most seminaries. Abraham Heschel, maybe the most famous rabbi in America at that time. There was William Sloane Coffin, an Episcopalian leader who was notorious for aiding draft resisters. And Armstrong often goes beyond mere endorsement. He gave advice to the campaign, wrote to his opponents in the party urging them to drop out, suggested names of young Methodists who could work on the campaign.
Averill: And all that did not go over well with the Dakota Methodists. Armstrong wrote about this dilemma once, saying “the pastoral role dare not be minimized–but anything less than prophetic witness is sub-Christian.” Especially in the suburbs, people went to church to be reassured, to hear a lesson on the Bible, and sometimes it seemed like their church leaders were more interested in faraway causes like helping Cesar Chavez organize or helping to integrate the South.
Mark: I found one letter to a religious editor from this era that gets to the point very nicely: “I used to go to church and the preacher would talk about God, Jesus and the Bible. Now he tells me why I shouldn’t buy grapes.” Lots of historians like Jefferson Cowie like talking about working-class resentment during this era, and that’s usually taken to mean their opposition to busing, or quotas, or affirmative action. But there’s a spiritual element to that as well. Many mainline Christians felt a degree of pastoral neglect, and there was, increasingly, a division between seminary-educated pastors with extensive training on social issues on one hand, and–quite literally, in this case–laymen’s issues on the other.
Averill: And this religious disillusionment among lower-middle-class Americans was mirroring changes taking place politically during that era. Working-class voters were moving away from the Democratic Party in pretty strong numbers. McGovern did terribly with blue-collar voters. He wasn’t even endorsed by the AFL-CIO! One of our professors here at UB, David Gerber, was part of this large army of grassroots volunteers trying to help McGovern out here in Buffalo. And he spent part of 1972 as a new professor at UB knocking on doors in Polish, Italian, Czech neighborhoods in the city. He had his work cut out for him; people in those precincts just hated McGovern. Time magazine had a great quote about these demographics: “they know God is a Democrat, but this year, they’re voting for Nixon.”
Mark: McGovern’s failure to connect with these voters has, I think, a lot to do with something that people who study faith in public life will usually call “civil religion.” It’s basically just using religious language to give an aura of blessing or sanctification to a political program. Whenever a president ends a speech with “God Bless America,” they are just employing civil religion to their ends. President Nixon’s approach is what religion historian Martin Marty calls “priestly civil religion.” Nixon would act like a priest, go through the motions, say the right reassuring things. McGovern’s instincts- and I think a lot of his evangelical childhood shows up here- falls under “prophetic civil religion.” It looks at how America has fallen short and urges it to come back into the fold, like one of the Old Testament prophets denouncing the malice or the backsliding of Ancient Israel. If you look at his speech to the Democratic convention of that year, it’s littered with these kind of callbacks. There’s that refrain, “Come Home, America.” He wasn’t telling America that they were uniquely blessed or that their faith will be rewarded. He was telling the voting public that they had gone astray- in ignoring the needy, in allowing racism to endure- in voting for Nixon!
Averill: Some of the lines from that speech are so striking. “From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation, come home America….” That almost reminds me of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Maybe some of our listeners will remember the 2008 primary elections, when then-Senator Obama’s pastor was taken to task for using religious language that rebuked his country…there was “god-damn America!” and with respect to the threat of terrorism, “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” Wright’s ideas were rooted in the black experience, and that’s as good a way as any to bring up how much this election hinges on identity politics. As many of our listeners know, during the 1960s, a number of movements began practicing what would come to be known as identity politics. Believing that “the personal is the political” many of these movements of marginalized or historically oppressed groups organized partly to gain a sense of pride in themselves and political equality for their particular group. Second-wave feminism, Chicano activism, the American Indian movement, and the early gay rights movement were all facets of this larger trend.
Mark: McGovern’s sense of the social gospel led him to draw the circle wider, to give these groups a voice. In ’68, he pushed for changes that forced the Democratic Party to have conventions with fairer numbers of female delegates, younger delegates, delegates who belonged to a racial minority. 1972 was really the first time that there was a sizable feminist bloc of voters, or even a bloc of gay voters- and almost all of them were for McGovern. And this made many of those hard hats, the stereotypical blue-collar union people, feel like McGovern wasn’t their champion any longer. For decades before McGovern’s run, urban working-class whites like those David Gerber met were the bedrock of the Democratic Party. Many of them, however, felt like liberals turned their back on them in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That prophetic strand McGovern latched on to…championing the oppressed, the marginalized. For McGovern, Vietnamese peasants were the marginalized. People stuck in ghettos were the marginalized. Kids who couldn’t afford a school lunch were the marginalized. That’s where his social gospel training led him. But the key is that those blue-collar workers, the hard-hats, saw themselves as the marginalized and ignored and hard done by. When Nixon talked about his “Silent Majority” of hardworking Americas whose voices were drowned out by shrill hippies protesting the troops in Vietnam…they responded to that language.
Averill: Now, McGovern lost that election. He ended up with only 39% of the popular vote. He barely carried Democratic bastions like New York City, or for that matter, Buffalo. He only won one state, Massachusetts, plus the District of Columbia, even lost his home state of South Dakota. It’s the first time in the party’s history that a Democratic candidate failed to win a single southern state. What’s more is that the loss was McGovern’s alone. Democrats lost only a small handful of seats in the House and actually gained two seats in the Senate—one of those Democrats first elected that year, by the way, was Joe Biden. So, McGovern soon realized that the voting public didn’t reject his party. It rejected him- and his message.
Mark: Right- and the magnitude of that loss forced many of his religious supporters to start working outside of electoral politics to make their voices heard. Maybe the most influential thing to come out of these religious efforts for McGovern was this group of McGovern-supporting evangelicals that met in a YMCA in Chicago in 1973, the year after. It’s got very few evangelist preachers, but lots of evangelical academics, theologians, social activists, journalists. One wag recently called these people the “faculty lounge” of American evangelicals. Anyway, they hammered out a manifesto called the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Conscience. And it’s a striking document. As American evangelicals, they repent for having neglecting the poor, for treating women like second class citizens, for being silent about racism, for putting their country and its wars before their God. One of them, Jim Wallis, started an organization that’s still around today called Sojourners, and they worked in the poorest neighborhoods of D.C. to share life and work collaboratively with people living in those areas. It’s activism of a very different kind.
Averill: So…you had evangelical, Bible-believing Christians meeting together, endorsing what looks like a pretty progressive agenda. Most people are probably aware of the Christian Right that has been on the political scene for some time. This seems more like a Christian Left?
Mark: I wonder about that myself a lot. Yeah- and that’s what I find astounding about all this. McGovern had lots of mainline supporters like Jim Armstrong, and quite a few evangelical supporters as well. I think the key difference is this– the Christian Right views American Christians, particularly white conservative Christians, as the victims of the changes wrought by the 1960s. Having a populist group called the Moral Majority, after all, implies that there’s an immoral minority somewhere that has taken control and has disadvantaged you in some way. So a lot of the anti-elitism we saw in the last election cycle has some roots there. For this Progressive Christianity, they would be more inclined to see Christianity as part of the problem- having abetted racism, or endorsed militarism, or shuttering itself off in the suburbs. If you boil it down to the human condition, people just don’t want to hear that they, themselves, are partly at fault. There’s a sense of repentance and introspection in the Christian Left that I think was wholly missing from the Christian Right.
Averill: And although Jimmy Carter was himself an evangelical, most evangelical Christians moved in another direction during the late 1970s. By the time we get to 1980, Christianity politicized. Many traditionalist Christians were critical of the growing secularization, that God was losing His place in schools, in government, in public life. The Supreme Court case Engel vs. Vitale had ruled against school-led prayer in public schools. Others were concerned about how the Equal Rights Amendment might affect families and gender roles. Andrew Hartman does a great job of explaining these strains of worry and anxiety in his book A War for the Soul of America. And then, of course, there was abortion.
Mark: That’s very true. And nothing galvanizes the Christian Right so quickly as abortion–an issue which, frankly, almost nobody cared that much about prior to the late 1970s, with the important exception of the Catholic community. Francis Schaeffer, one of the leaders of the Christian Right, used the term “co-belligerence” to describe his strategy. That simply means getting lots of different people angry about the same things in a coordinated way. So the issue of abortion, the role of prayer in schools, all these cultural touchstones catch fire. In more insular communities- suburbs, rural areas, the people who got on board with this program came from all over the spectrum of Christianity: more conservative mainliners, lots of Catholics, evangelicals of course, Mormons. There’s a commonly held belief that America had become a more permissive society, to its detriment.
Averill: Activists such as Phyllis Schlafly and her Eagle Forum built what Hartman calls “ecumenical bridges to likeminded conservatives of different religious faiths.” Pat Buchanan famously called this a “culture war” when he addressed the Republican National Convention in 1992.
Mark: Yeah, it’s frustrating, at least to me. People like Jerry Falwell spent the 1960s criticizing ministers for getting involved in political struggles; he was very critical of people like Martin Luther King or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for “politicizing the gospel.” But Falwell goes on to politicize it to an even greater extent- and usually at cross-purposes of the things Dr. King valued.
Averill: So- the Christian Right seems to have won the public debate over what Christianity should look like in the public sphere– at least if we measure it in terms of persuading voters and winning elections. How does social justice Christianity matter today, then?
[Transition to a more freewheeling discussion at this point. Maybe talk about why Democrats have trouble connecting to voters of faith these days; Hillary and her Methodism; Trump and the Court Evangelicals, where progressive evangelicalism is heading, and so on.]
Averill: Before we wrap up, what happened to our story’s almost-hero? Two years after the presidential election, McGovern was re-elected to his Senate seat, but lost during the election after that, which fell during the Reagan Revolution of 1980. He debated conservatives across U.S. campuses and television programs, including Barry Goldwater and Cal Thomas. His work withxz another unsuccessful presidential candidate, Bob Dole, led to SNAP benefits- which so many Americans rely on for food security, and the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
Mark: Bill Clinton appointed McGovern as the U.N. Ambassador for Food and Agriculture. But often, McGovern was happy as ever in his hometown of Mitchell, South Dakota, and took an active part in campus events at his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University. In 2006, the George and Eleanor McGovern Center opened, focusing on a commitment to social justice and public service. While he accomplished much in those years, his post-Senate career was marred by tragedy as well. His daughter, Terry, died from complications of alcoholism in 1994, as did his son Steven in July of 2012. Senator McGovern himself died not long after, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in October of 2012, just a few weeks before Barack Obama’s re-election.
Sources and Further Reading:
Stephen Ambrose, The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew The B-24s over Germany (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2001).
James Armstrong, Telling Truth: The Foolishness of Preaching in the Real World (Waco, TX: Word Books,1977).
Thomas Knock, The Rise of a Prairie Statesmen: the Life and Times of George McGovern (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.)
Martin Marty, “Two Kinds of Civil Religion,” in Russell E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, eds., American Civil Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 140-53.
George McGovern, Grassroots: the Autobiography of George McGovern (New York: Random House,1977), 4.
George McGovern, Robert Dole and Donald Messer, Ending Hunger Now: A Challenge to Persons of Faith (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 22.
Bruce Miroff, The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2007)
Gregory A. Smith and Jessica Martinez, “How the Faithful Voted: A Preliminary 2016 Analysis,” Pew Research Center, November, 9, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis/.
David R. Swartz, Moral Minority: the Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012)
Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991).