Progressive evangelicals tried to halt this migration: “The energy of the pro-life movement must be removed from the ideological agenda of the New Right,” Wallis warned in 1980. As conservatives transformed the fight against abortion from a “Catholic issue” into the defining battle of the culture wars, Wallis and others countered with another idea borrowed from Catholics, the “consistent life ethic” opposing poverty, war and the death penalty as well as abortion. Yet left-wing evangelicals’ measured arguments were no match for cries that abortion is murder and family values are under siege. It seems they were not so mainstream after all: efforts at fund-raising fell flat, and by the mid-’80s half of the subscriptions to Wallis’s magazine, Sojourners, went to Catholics.
Swartz concludes on a positive note: 70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars. The Democrats have woken up to the importance of religion: President Obama has sought the advice of Jim Wallis. Still, a statesman like Mark Hatfield seems less a useful role model than a political animal of a distant and extinguished age. A creature from such an alien climate could never survive today.