Asbury University assistant professor of history David Swartz was not at all surprised to hear the story of a Laurel County high school teacher embroiled in controversy after she wrote, "You can't be a Democrat & go to heaven," on her classroom whiteboard.
"That's the image in the popular imagination, right?" Swartz said. "At least for a lot of people — you can't be progressive, politically, and be a theological conservative."
Swartz' new book is about a group of people who would beg to differ with that viewpoint: The Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.
"What I am trying to show, historically, is that being conservative theologically does not mean you have to be conservative politically," Swartz says.
The historian says he saw that first-hand growing up.
"I tell people that this project was an attempt to figure out my parents," Swartz says, laughing. "In the end, all history is autobiography. They grew up in the 1970s as the evangelical left took off. They ran a pretty egalitarian marriage. My dad cooked as much as my mother. They weren't really comfortable with the idea of America as a Christian nation. They didn't like budgets that prioritized the military over poverty work. And yeah, they were really evangelical. They lived out the kind of warm piety with a rich prayer life and a warm community that they were part of in their church.
"You look at depictions of evangelicals in the media, and then I looked at my family, and there was some cognitive dissonance there."
Swartz ran into some of that dissonance recently when he appeared on MSNBC's hipster midday show The Cycle, and the hosts appeared to have a hard time grasping the concept of an evangelical left.
But the movement was very active in the 1970s, when self-described born-again Christian and Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president by a wave of like-minded individuals. He swept the South, except for Virginia, rendering a now bizarre looking electoral map considering Republicans have been dominating Southern states in presidential contests for the past three decades.
"I wanted to complicate the caricature that evangelicals are just angry people who are conservative," Swartz says. "A lot of us are animated by the sort of compassion and peace Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount. The project was an attempt to see what other configurations there were, and how common is it to be a non-right evangelical."
Swartz says Carter represented a growing movement in the 1960s and '70s of Christians motivated by social justice issues like combating poverty and war.
The book centers on the stories of several of them, like Mark Hatfield, an anti-Vietnam War activist who was a moderate Republican from Oregon, and the Rev. Jim Wallis, a 1970s social justice activist who is the founder and editor of Sojourners magazine.
Carter's election was a moment that the evangelical left could have seized, but didn't, Swartz says, in large part because his presidency was perceived to be a failure. He was swept out of office in 1980 by Ronald Reagan in an electoral landslide, with massive support from evangelical Christians. And conservatism became synonymous with Christianity, Swartz says largely because of one issue.
"Abortion became such a big deal by the late '70s and early '80s," Swartz says. "There are a lot of evangelicals that would be a lot more progressive on issues like diplomacy and poverty, but abortion became this literal life-and-death issue that trumps everything else. To this day, you have a lot of people who would be more moderate on a whole host of issues, but they can't bring themselves to vote that way because of abortion.
"The ironic thing is that Democrats were arguably more pro-life and pro-family than the Republicans prior to the 1970s, partly because Catholics were such a big part of their coalition."
Dovetailing with the anti-abortion stances of the Republican party was a growing pro-choice orthodoxy in the Democratic party that forced many Democratic politicians, including Vice President Joe Biden, to flip their positions to "a personally pro-life but publicly pro-choice position."
And that, Swartz says, is what will likely remain a sticking point to a reviving Christian left, particularly with strongly Democratic and Christian communities such as blacks and Latinos growing in electoral influence.
"If you look at the story of everybody," Swartz says, "it's just a whole lot more complex than you imagine it to be."
That's the point he was trying to make.