A caucus of prophets: George McGovern's 1972 campaign and the crucible of Protestant politics
Lempke, Mark Alexander
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The rise of Christian political activism in the United States during the 1970s is often understood by both the public and historians of this period as a principally conservative force. This dissertation challenges this convention, and explores a strand of religious engagement in politics during this period through an unconventional lens, George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign. Often remembered solely for its electoral failure, the campaign was significantly infused with the tenets of social Christianity. By using both his own religious background and the broader prophetic tradition, McGovern's ideas of collective, social sin were foundations of a presidential bid that prioritized social justice and antiwar messages. This work also connects McGovern's own campaign to the support it attracted from disparate camps within Protestant Christianity, each of whom used their campaign efforts to establish their own theological identity. One bastion of support came from the Protestant establishment in the liberal mainline churches. Many of its ministers knew McGovern personally, and found his stances not only in harmony, but also in conversation with, those drawn out by the National Council of Churches and other ecumenical organizations. Evangelicals for McGovern, in contrast, used their activism on McGovern's behalf to articulate a worldview that claimed a fully biblical theology required social action on behalf of the less fortunate. The differences between these camps are best illustrated when McGovern attempted to win over an evangelical audience at Wheaton College, where his effort to coat social gospel programs with evangelical language was a deep failure. It reinforced for his evangelical supporters how their efforts to promote biblical social justice would be blunted by caucusing with theologically liberal Christians. As an alternative, they cultivated a broad evangelical identity that emphasized social action and identification with the poor. This work posits that Christian political action in the 1970s can be better understood as a charged debate between divided camps, rather than a clear trajectory of ascendant conservatism. McGovern's Christian supporters used the prophetic tradition as a means of challenging the Religious Right in the 1970s and 1980s, stressing the condemnations of the wealthy and the warlike in the Old Testament. Yet at the same time, the keen, but discrete, prophetic elements of both mainline and evangelical groups prevented them from forming a progressive religious coalition analogous to the relative ecumenism of the Religious Right. Prophetic discourse fed into these mainliners' and evangelicals' tendency to place confrontation and ideological purity over coalition-building, compromise, and unity. Ultimately, this project also argues that 1970s liberalism had subtle, but intractable, religious roots. A diverse collection of Christians had, in fact, come together to support a left liberal candidate long before Christian conservatism had organized, a key counter-narrative to histories of Christian political action during this time.