A Methodist in Babylon: George McGovern and the Limits of the Protestant Left

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:50 AM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Mark A. Lempke, State University of New York at Buffalo
While George McGovern is ensconced in public memory as the leftist presidential candidate who lost by a landslide in 1972, his churchmanship and his devotion to the social gospel program of reform are less well remembered. This paper will explore McGovern’s attempt to foster a broader Christian Left in 1972, and the limits of his approach. When McGovern declared his candidacy, he was readily supported by a number of theologically liberal ecumenical activists, who knew the senator from his strident opposition to the Vietnam War and his work as a Methodist layman. But on the campaign trail, McGovern visited evangelical Wheaton College to make his case to more theologically conservative evangelicals at a time when many ecumenists dismissed them as obscurantist and reactionary. His visit was at best a mixed success. His speech at their chapel and his meeting with evangelical leaders on campus manifested the deep cultural divisions within American Protestantism. Oftentimes, his gaffes reinforced longstanding perceptions of the mainline as both elitist and apostate that dominated the evangelical worldview. 

Almost unwittingly, McGovern’s visit persuaded antiwar and social justice evangelicals to mobilize not as an act of solidarity with other believers, nor with the Democratic Party proper. Instead, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and other Evangelicals for McGovern organized as a conscious act of identity formation. One way to clarify who they were was to define themselves in stark contrast to the establishment thinking and watered-down theology which, in their view, defined the mainline churches and the ecumenical movement more broadly. This paper argues that the origins of evangelical social justice in the early 1970s were in some ways reflective of the identity politics that were regnant in the early 1970s.