(Slate) -- In late November of 1973, about 50 evangelical leaders convened at a shabby YMCA hotel in Chicago for what they hoped would be a generation-defining gathering. Attendees at the Thanksgiving Workshop of Evangelical Social Concern got to work assembling a document that would serve as a manifesto for the future of their movement. They condemned institutionalized racism, unfettered capitalism, and the Vietnam War, and they proclaimed that “God lays total claim upon the lives of his people.” The stakes were high, and they knew it. “For better or for worse,” activist Ron Sider predicted, American evangelicals “will exercise the dominant religious influence in the next decade.”
As we now know, Sider was right—just not exactly as he hoped. A few years later, Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell and other leaders began to coalesce around a right-wing political agenda very different from the one laid out at the Thanksgiving Workshop. Since then, conservative evangelicals have dominated election narratives and policy battles and prompted cultural skirmishes over things like Kim Davis’ visit with the pope. If you read only the headlines on religion in America, it would be easy to assume that Christians are a unified mob of anti-gay, anti-government caricatures—as President Obama uncharitably put it back in 2008, those clinging to their guns or their religion.