Their Kingdom Come
Randall Balmer on the rise of the Religious Right.
By Robert Cornwall
What is an evangelical? That is a difficult question to answer. You would assume, for instance, that an evangelical is a Protestant, but Time magazine named Roman Catholics like Rick Santorum and Richard John Neuhaus among its list of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. Fuller Seminary is evangelical, but so is Southern Baptist Seminary, and there’s a strong difference between the two. Jim Wallis and Jim Dobson both call themselves evangelicals, but they are very different in their views and beliefs.
How we answer questions concerning the nature of evangelicalism today has important political consequences. A century ago, Fundamentalists and religious conservatives stood on the margins of political society, while socially progressive Mainline Protestants took center stage. All that has changed over the last three decades as conservative religious movements have moved to the forefront. Ronald Reagan was their first presidential standard bearer; today, it’s George W. Bush. The question is: Has this political ascendancy been good for the evangelical movement or the nation as a whole?
Absolutely not, says Randall Balmer, a Columbia University religious history professor and chronicler of the evangelical movement, whose book, “Thy Kingdom Come,” is a pointedly written rejoinder to those who would claim the nation for Jesus through politics.
A graduate of Trinity College (now Trinity International University) and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Balmer describes himself as an evangelical. But it is evident that he’s a liberal one, at least politically.
The major theme of “Thy Kingdom Come” is a concern about the merger of interests between the Religious Right, the Republican Party, and evangelicalism. To Balmer, being an evangelical should not be incompatible with a liberal or progressive perspective on politics. His definition of an evangelical is brief and to the point. An evangelical 1) takes the Bible seriously, 2) believes in the importance of conversion, and 3) recognizes the imperative to spread the faith, or to evangelize.
This is a very broad definition, one which many progressives can affirm. Marcus Borg, after all, says that he takes the Bible seriously, just not literally. There isn't anything here about eschatology (pre-millennialism for instance), inerrancy, or political litmus tests.
The book begins with an account of how the Religious Right has constructed a political agenda focused on abortion and homosexuality. Balmer explores this agenda in terms of its roots in a "selective literalism." In other words, this is a "biblical" theology that is based on narrow proof-texting.
From there he moves on to the politicization of the Baptist tradition, one that has American roots in the state-separationist views of Roger Williams. Whereas modern Baptists seem intent on imposing a conservative Christian ideology on the nation, in its origins this was a tradition that sought to keep the church separate from the state so that the church might remain unstained by an alliance with the state. The old heroes--Williams, Isaac Backus, and John Leland have been replaced by less savory contemporary counterparts like Jerry Falwell, Rick Scarborough, Judge Roy Moore, and Tom DeLay. "Where have all the Baptists gone?” Balmer laments. It is a good question, and one that should lead us to a close re-examination of the First Amendment.
Moving further into the controversy, Balmer takes up the "War on Public Education," examining school vouchers, home schooling, and the challenge of religious self-segregation from the democratizing influence of public education. Though Balmer at times romanticizes the historical effect of this movement, he also recognizes the challenges of the current system. Still, he is on the right track in pointing out that in our pluralistic nation, public education can provide an important opportunity to bring people of differing ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds together.
In the chapter "Creationism by Design,” Balmer clarifies the primary goal of the “Intelligent Design” movement as an effort to gain intellectual legitimacy for a religious understanding of science. Though he is himself a theistic evolutionist, Balmer has no problem with people learning creationism or intelligent design, but he believes it belongs in Sunday school, not the biology classroom. Through a succinct history of the Creationist and Intelligent Design movement, Balmer demonstrates that it is more philosophy than science.
Discussing evangelicals and the environment, Balmer exposes the insidious and dangerous liaison between political conservatives and religious conservatives. Waving the flag of “dominionist” theology, many in the Religious Right, including Charles Colson and Jim Dobson, have given religious support to the brazen use of the earth's resources in the name of human supremacy. The good news, however, is that a growing number of evangelicals, especially young ones, are discovering that there is another way to look at Genesis 1, a way that calls for stewardship and not rapacious utilization of resources.
In his conclusion, Balmer imagines giving a speech at Wheaton College, a fiery rebuttal to the Religious Right, pointedly naming names and sins and calling for repentance. It is also a call to step back from power and embrace humility and tolerance as the American ideal. This imaginary speech is a warning not just to evangelicals; it also speaks to us political progressives who have been long in the wilderness and may be hungering too much for a return to power.
“Thy Kingdom Come” is an important book, written by a historian who has been traveling for years among the evangelical subculture and who manages the difficult task of both identifying with evangelicalism and standing apart from it as an insightful observer. The result is an honest appraisal of the dangers inherent in a religious movement whose worst zealots ultimately seek to usurp politics and endanger the most basic principles upon which our democracy was built.
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Robert Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc, Calif., and an op-ed columnist for the Lompoc Record. He keeps a blog, Ponderings on a Faith Journey, and his last piece for SoMA was Darwin Matters.
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