Righting America

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Looking for Jesus at Explo ‘72 | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Life Magazine Cover of Explo ’72. Photo via AbsoluteGrace

It was June of 1972, and I was heading into my senior year of high school in Denver. I was president of the youth group in my evangelical church. Driving my red Toyota Corona, I helped lead a caravan of cars filled with high schoolers the 800 miles to Dallas. We were headed to Campus Crusade’s Explo ’72, which attracted over 80,000 students from across the nation, which was described on the cover of Life as “the Great Jesus Rally,” and which is seen by some as marking the beginning of Christian Contemporary Music. 

My youth group, my church, and the attendees at Explo were overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly conservative: anti-civil rights, antifeminist, and prowar. But that was not me. Having been exhorted again and again to read my Bible, the inerrant guide for living as Christ would have us live, I did. And somewhere around the age of 12 – I can actually date it to the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, when my father overturned the dinner table in response to my comment that on that day a great man had been killed – I started to realize that there was some disconnect between the teachings of Jesus and the politics of my family and church. 

And as the Christians around me supported the election of Nixon and the turn away from civil rights and the invasion of Cambodia (and simultaneously blaming the killings at Kent State on the students), it became increasingly clear to me that the conservative politics preached and taught in my church had precious little to do with the Gospels. How could one hold to the Word, and support segregation and the Vietnam War?

For the most part, Explo was just like my church, just on a bigger scale. Patriotism was everywhere and so was Billy Graham. I attended seminars on topics such as purity in dating, which was taught by fundamentalist apologist Josh McDowell, and which made me feel guilty about the fact that on the way down to Dallas (when a friend was driving the Toyota Corona) I “made out” with a young woman in the back seat. 

All this said, I was thrilled at Explo to discover that there were tables where I – in my “One Way” t-shirt – could gather antiwar material and sign petitions calling on the United States to get out of the Vietnam. I was ecstatic that I could join in chants to “Stop the War.” I was so happy to find that there were evangelicals like me. 

Of course, as David Swartz points out in his very smart article, “The New Left and Evangelical Radicalism,” we were very easily absorbed by the sea of conservative evangelicals. That was even more true of me, given that I had no network of “evangelical radicals” to connect with. And when we returned to Denver, and gave our presentation on our “Explo experience” at a Sunday evening service, there was no interest or room for comments about the alternative evangelical politics I glimpsed in Dallas. Instead, what the pastor and youth pastor wanted us to talk about was the “revival” that was finally coming to America, after the dreadful 1960s.

Oddly enough, I was not discouraged. I assumed that a “progressive evangelicalism” would soon triumph. And that hope was reinforced when I was a student at Bethel, an evangelical college in St. Paul, Minnesota. Bethel was also like my church, only bigger. But while I was there, thanks to professors like G. William Carlson, I read folks like Jim Wallis (who was at Explo, although at the time I had no idea who he was) and Richard Pierard and Nancy Hardesty and Art Gish and John Howard Yoder and John Alexander, all of whom, in one way or another, understood the Bible as instructing Christians to work on behalf of justice and peace. 

It was heady stuff. And yet, it was at Bethel – surrounded by students who overwhelmingly supported Gerald Ford over the evangelical Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election – that I began to realize that calling on evangelicals to read the Gospels might produce individual conversions, but it was not going to bring about a large-scale progressive evangelical movement. 

Over time, I came to understand that an evangelical Left might always be present (see, today, the Red Letter Christians), but it will remain tiny, dwarfed by a white evangelicalism (or, perhaps, white evangelicalisms) that is overdetermined by white nationalism, capitalism, patriarchy, and homophobia. 

But all these years later, there is still some small part of me that does not know why this has to be the case.