Thy Kingdom Come | Notes & Review

Randall Balmer. Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament. How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America. Basic Books, 2006 (265 pages) LA Times Op-Ed (August 23, 2017);

Journey With Jesus review; Jews On First review; The Strange Case of Dr. Balmer and Mr. Hyde, by John Wilson; NPR interview;

Preface: Bullies in the Pulpit

I write as a jilted lover. The evangelical faith that nurture me as a child and sustains me as an adult has been hijacked by right-wing zealots who have distorted the gospel of Jesus Christ, defaulted on the noble legacy of nineteenth-century evangelical activism, and failed to appreciate the genius of the First Amendment. (ix)

The effect of this right-wing takeover has been a poisoning of public discourse and a distortion of the faith. (ix)

Although the numbers are hard to come by, there are more politically liberal evangelicals than you might think, for one of the great delusions perpetrated by the Religious Right in recent years is that all evangelical Christians are politically conservative. (x)

Am I a feminist? Of course I’m a feminist! I’m a feminist because Jesus was a feminist, and I’ve chosen to fashion my life, with God’s help, after the example of Jesus and his teachings as recorded in the New Testament. (xi)

If that makes me a political liberal, then so be it. I claim the word proudly, and I resent equally the hard-right ideologues who have succeeded in turning liberal into a term of derision and my fellow liberals who have allowed them to do so. Liberalism in America is responsible for everything from Social Security, civil rights, public education, and equality for women to the very existence of the republic itself. … Liberals believe in tolerance and recognize the beauty of pluralism, although I acknowledge that we ourselves have not always practiced the former perfectly. Like conservatives, liberals have been guilty of excess, but, overall, the tradition of liberalism in America is a distinguished one, and I am pleased to number myself both as an evangelical Christian and as a political liberal. (xi)

As an evangelical Christian, someone who takes the Bible seriously and who believes in the transformative power of Jesus, I want to reclaim the faith from the Religious Right. I also want to protest that most of the Religious Rights’ agenda is misguided, even ruinous, to the nation I love and, ultimately, to the faith I love even more. (xii)

Sola scriptura and the priesthood of believers–combined, these two ideas had a revolutionary impact on the Western world. They led, first, to a dramatic rise in literacy as ordinary folks clamored to read and interpret the Bible for themselves and no longer depend upon authoritative pronouncements from the Vatican. Second, the mania for individual interpretation led to a splintering of Protestantism into many and diverse sects, congregations, and denominations, an efflorescence of new faiths that is hardly surprising because the Bible itself admits of many interpretations. (xiv)

Evangelicalism as we know it today emerged from three sources, what I like to call the three P’s: Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, Continental Pietism, and the remnants of New England Puritanism. All three came together in the 1730s and 1740s, igniting a huge conflagration of religious enthusiasm known as the Great Awakening. To this day, evangelicalism in America bears the marks of those initial influences–the obsessive introspection of the Puritans, the doctrinal precisionism of the Presbyterians, and the emphasis on a warm-hearted, affective spirituality from Pietism. (xiv)

Too narrow a front in battling for a moral crusade, or for a truly biblical involvement in politics, could be disastrous. It could lead to the election of a moron who holds the right view on abortion. – Christianity Today, “Getting God’s Kingdom into Politics,” September 19, 1930

Reagan’s election in 1980 and his reelection four years later cemented the political alliance between the Religious Right and the Republican Party. Ever since, shamelessly exploiting the “abortion myth,” the fiction that the Religious Right mobilized in direct response to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, leaders of the Religious Right have preached that neoconservative ideology and Republican Party policies offer the most compelling representation of the evangelical faith. (xviii)

Both theologically and historically, the term evangelical has little to do with politics; nor is it in any way incompatible with the great traditions of progressivism in America. … I generally offer a functional, three-part definition. First, an evangelical is someone who takes the Bible seriously, even (for many, not all) to the point of literal interpretation. …the serious approach to scripture as God’s revelation to humanity is one of the hallmarks of evangelicalism. (xviii)

Second, on the basis of this view of the Bible, evangelicals believe in the importance of conversion as the central criterion for salvation. (xviii)

Finally, an evangelical is someone who recognizes the imperative to spread the faith, or to evangelize. (xix)

I sometimes designate myself a “lover’s-quarrel evangelical” in an effort to distance myself from the narrowness, the legalism, the censoriousness, and the misogyny that too often rears its ugly head among evangelicals. I also want to call evangelicals to their better selves–or, more accurately, to remind them of the teachings of Jesus, as well as the exemplary work of nineteenth-century evangelicals. | That is the task of this book. (xxii)

Chapter 1

Strange Bedfellows

The Abortion Myth, Homosexuality, and the Ruse of Selective Literalism

Totalitarianism is easy to administer. Democracy is difficult…Under totalitarianism it would be a simple matter to regulate and control the morals of the populace; in a democracy morality is best taught in the home and from the pulpit. – Editorial, San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star, October 21, 1960

[via: As such, if one believes the “culture” is not going the way you think it ought in a democracy, it may be a subtle yet piercing indictment on “home grown religion,” which, if that concern festers, can devolve into totalitarianism.]

They have contested this point by drawing a distinction between innocent lives and all others. It’s a fair argument, but judging by evangelicals’ actions (or lack thereof) over the past half-century, innocent human life terminates at the moment of birth. (6) [Again, this is a theologically defensible position, based on the doctrine of human depravity (the idea that every human being inherits the sin of Adam), but the traditional understanding of depravity holds that Adam’s sin is transmitted at the moment of conception, so presumably the fetus i not entirely innocent, in theological terms.]

The Religious Right has so fetishized the fetus–on the eve of the 1988 Iowa precinct caucuses, a woman told me in hushed tones that the “most dangerous place to be these days is inside a mother’s womb”–that they have ignored altogether the travesties of poverty, war, and racism. Innocent human life, for the Religious Right, is clearly a circumscribed category. (6)

No evangelical seriously argues that divorce isn’t bad; nor am I suggesting that evangelicals condone divorce. The issue is one of selective literalism. (9)

Evangelicals generally, and the Religious Right in particular, chose around 1980 to deemphasize radically the many New Testament denunciations of divorce and to shift their condemnations to abortion and, later, to homosexuality–all the while claiming to remain faithful to the immutable truths of the scriptures. The ruse of selective literalism allowed them to dismiss as culturally determined the New Testament proscriptions against divorce and women with uncovered heads, but they refused to read Paul’s apparent condemnations of homosexuality as similarly rooted in–and, arguably, in terms of application, limited to–the historical and social circumstances of the first century. (9)

Selective literalism continues to serve an important function for the Religious Right. It allows them to locate sin outside of the evangelical subculture (or so they think) by designating as especially egregious those dispositions and behaviors, homosexuality and abortion, that they believe characteristic of others, not themselves. This externalization of the enemy is a favorite tactic of fundamentalists everywhere…who insist on viewing the world through the lenses of dualism or Manichaeism. They construct strict delineations between right and wrong–careful, of course, to place themselves on the right side of whatever lines they draw. (10)

Believing the Bible as I do, I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and begin doing anything else–including fighting Communism, or participating in civil-rights reforms – Jerry Falwell, 1965

One of the truly unfortunate developments around the abortion issue over the past several decades is that what passes for debate on the matter has devolved into a bumper sticker war: pro-choice versus pro-life, antiabortion versus antichoice. The issue is much more complex than that. I think it’s appropriate to draw a distinction (18) between abortion as a moral issue and abortion as a legal issue. (19)

Besides, despite the pro-life efforts to bestow a kind of fetal citizenship, the state still issues–and has always issued–a certificate at birth, not at conception. (19)

The real question for the Religious Right and the Republican party is how serious they are about reducing (and even eliminating) abortion itself, especially when everyone acknowledges that (19) legal sanctions will not work. (20)

…the Religious Right might want to consider the links between abortion rates and the availability of contraception or the economic plight of mothers-to-be facing medical and child-care costs. Surely such initiatives would do more than a legal band to make abortion rare and unthinkable. The Religious Right might also want to consider the fact that by the time Bill Clinton, a defender of reproductive choice, left office, the abortion rate had fallen to its lowest level since 1974, a year after the Roe decision. (20) [The Guttmacher Institute reports that 57 percent of women seeking abortions are “economically disadvantaged.” See also Lawrence B. Finer and Stanley K. Henshaw, “Estimates of U.S. Abortion Incidence in 2001 and 2002,” Guttmacher Institute, New York City.]

I agree with the Religious Right that abortion itself is a travesty. But I also agree with the Religious Right that making it illegla will not bring about any appreciable difference in the incidence of abortion. In order to reduce, or even to eliminate, abortion, there must be a shift in the moral climate surrounding the issue. Threats of governmental intrusion into the lives of women, I suspect, simply engender resistance to the antiabortion cause. (21)

[After Clinton, and Communism…] The Religious Right desperately searched for a new enemy. (24)

After casting about, the Religious Right came up with a new foil, an enemy right here among us: homosexuals. (25)

Why has homosexuality proven to be such a durable issue for the Religious Right? Like abortion, it allows evangelicals to externalize the enemy, based on the supposition that no true believer could be gay or lesbian. It also works because it plays on popular anxieties about sexual identity and gender roles in the wake of the women’s movement of the 19609s. “We would not be having the present moral crisis regarding the homosexual movement if men and women accepted their proper roles as designated by God.” Jerry Falwell wrote back in 1980. (26) [Listen, America!]

The elaborate construction and propagation of the abortion myth, together with the ruse of selective literalism, which diverted evangelicals from their birthright of fidelity to the Bible, suggests the perils of pandering for power. What should we read into the fact that evangelical conservatives dropped their longstanding denunciations of divorce about the same time they embraced Ronald Reagan, a divorced and remarried man, as their political savior in 1980? Not only have leaders of the Religious Right betrayed scripture, but they have shamelessly manipulated important issues–gay rights, abortion–for partisan purposes, all the while (32) ignoring Jesus’ teachings on other matters. Deeply complicated subjects have become mere political cudgels in the hands of the Religious Right, issues calculated to rally the faithful for political ends. They have taken complex, human problems and reduced them to campaign slogans. They have distorted the faith, the “good news” of the New Testament, into something ugly and punitive.

| The lesson of both mainline Protestantism in the 1950s and the Religious Right in the 1930s and beyond is that religion functions best when it is not tethered to particular political parties or ideologies. Religion works best when it operates from the margins of society and not at the centers of power and when it remains true to the faith and refuses to allow political interests to shape–or commandeer–its doctrines.

| But the reverse is also true: Political movements and politicians who seek to cloak themselves in the mantle of religious legitimacy invariably fall prey to self-righteousness, intolerance, and fanaticism. (33)

This radical notion of love doesn’t comport very well with most political agendas. Politics and politicians concern themselves with the acquisition and the exercise of power, whereas the ethic of love, more often than not, entails vulnerability and the abnegation of power. … History, moreover, teaches us the dangers of allying religion too closely with politics. It leads to intolerance in the political arena, and it ultimately compromises the integrity of the faith. (34)

Chapter 2

Where Have all the Baptists Gone?

Roy’s Rock, Roger Williams, and the First Amendment

As religion must always be a matter between God and individuals, no man can be made a member of a truly religious society by force or without his own consent, neither can any corporation that is not a religious society have a just right to govern in religious affairs. – Isaac Backus, 1781

The Baptist tradition, then, enshrined two ideas: adult (as opposed to infant) baptism and liberty of individual conscience, generally expressed in the shorthand phrase “separation of church and state.” (41)

Thus was born the grand and noble experiment of the First Amendment, which both proscribes the establishment of religion and ensures the free exercise of religion. In devising it, the founders called upon the ideas of Roger Williams as well as the model of several of the Middle Colonies, including New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, all of which had demonstrated that the way to accommodate religious pluralism was to avoid religious establishment. “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever,” John Leland, yet another Baptist, declared in 1790. “Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another.” (45)

Congress shall make now law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. – The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States

The line from Williams to the U.S. Constitution, then, is unbroken. So durable and so successful was this formulation in delineating the boundaries between church and state that it remained intact throughout American history–until the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s. (46)

I contemplate with solemn reverence that the act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting the establishment of religion, prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State. – Thomas Jefferson, January 1, 1802

Reflecting on the futility of the government dictating belief, [Roger] Williams asked, “Where did you find evidence of a whole nation, country or kingdom converted to the faith, and of Christ’s appointing a whole nation or kingdom to walk in one way of religion?” (51)

“Soul liberty” lay at the foundation of Williams’s political philosophy, and it remains–ostensibly at least–one of the cornerstones of Baptist beliefs. Soul liberty protected individual conscience from the tyranny of the majority, a principle that Baptists, at least until recently, have always defended, in part because Baptists themselves began as a minority. Now that Baptists have achieved numerical success in America–the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination, and it approaches hegemonic status in the South–so-called Baptists like Scarborough want to rescind the principle of soul liberty.

| Those who seek to abrogate the First Amendment separation of church and state, however, fail to comprehend both the teachings of Jesus and the lessons of history. As Backus noted, Jesus did not have the benefit of the state when he formed his church, yet Christianity flourished nevertheless, ultimately reaching beyond Palestine to the farthest corners of the earth. The umbrella of state (51) sanction beginning with the conversion of Constantine in A.D. 312 turned out to be, at best, a mixed blessing, opening the door to state interference in religious matters. An era known as the Dark Ages ensued, and by the sixteenth century, the church had become so corrupted by power that it would eventually take Martin Luther and the unleashing of the Protestant Reformation to renew it. (52)

When Christianity first found its way into the city of the Caesars it lived at first in cellars and alleys. But when Constantine crowned the union of church and state, the church was stamped with the spirit of the Caesars. … It is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be forever voluntary and uncoerced, and that it is not the prerogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel men to conform to any religious creed or form of worship. – George Washington Truett (Baptists and Religious Liberty)

…an “originalist” holds that the Constitution is not a fluid and pliable document, that it should be interpreted according to the “original intent” of the framers. (59)

Originalism is compelling for its clarity and its simplicity; Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas frequently invoke it in their Supreme Court opinions. But the limits of originalism become (60) apparent when you try to apply it to the second clause of the First Amendment, the guarantee of a free press. Employing the same logic that Moore uses to justify the exclusion of religious expressions other than Christianity–and, perhaps, Judaism–you would have to argue that freedom of the press extends strictly and exclusively to newspapers, because newspapers were the only “press” that the framers knew at the end of the eighteenth century. (61)

How peculiar, then, given this history, that evangelicals associated with the Religious Right would seek to enshrine Christianity as the faith of the nation through prescribed prayer in schools and government support for religious education or by erecting religious monuments on government property, thereby projecting the appearance, if not the reality, of state sanction. Evangelicals, especially Baptists, know better. They have always opposed formalized prayer as empty ritual, what one eighteenth-century evangelical called the “old, rotten, and stinking routine of religion.” Jesus instructed his followers not to pray “like the hypocrites,” who pray “on the street corners to be seen by others.” Evangelicals throughout American history have preached against the dangers of trivializing the faith, and what could be more inimical to true piety than the recitation of prayers prescribed by the state or the fetishization (62) of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” on a block of granite in a public building? (63)

Reconstructionism, also called “theonomy” or “dominion theology,” is a social ethic popular among leaders of the Religious Right that advocates restructuring civil society according to the laws contained in the Hebrew Bible. (64)

The Institutes of Biblical Law

Reconstructionists, in short, don’t want to reconfigure the line of separation of between church and state. They want to obliterate it altogether. (65)

…religious disestablishment as mandated by the First Amendment is the best friend religion ever had. Religion has thrived in this country for more than two centuries precisely because the state has (for the most part, at least) stayed out of the religion business. Religious establishment breeds complacency. The examples of other Western nations suggests that once you begin to dictate religious belief or behavior, as with prescribed prayer in schools or Roy’s Rock in Montgomery, Alabama, you kill it. (66)

Those of us who number ourselves in the community of faith must resist the blandishments of the culture. The lesson of the Protestant Reformation, and perhaps of the New Testament itself, is the treachery of institutions as guarantors of faith. Indeed, one of the reasons for evangelical success throughout American history is the alacrity with which evangelicals have found creative ways to operate outside of institutional boundaries, be it the open-air preaching of George Whitefield in the eighteenth century, the circuit riders of the nineteenth, or the innovative use of media by Aimee Semple McPherson, Charles Fuller, and Billy Graham in the twentieth. Conversely, perhaps the greatest weakness of mainline Protestantism in recent decades is its misplaced faith in allegiance to institutions. This reliance on denominational structures and apparatus has enervated religious vitality and commitment, in part because it breeds complacency, the very danger inherent in religious establishment. (67)

Like Jesus standing on the ramparts overlooking the city, evangelicals must somehow find the courage and the will to resist the devil’s cajoling, the temptations of authority and the splendor and power and arrogance and cultural influence. We must recognize that religion flourishes best at the margins of society and not at the centers of power. (68)

Christianity itself needs more Baptists, women and men willing to reconnect with the scandal of the gospel and not chase after the chimera of state sanction. We need women and men prepared to stand on conviction and articulate the faith in the midst of a pluralistic culture, not by imposing their principles on the remainder of society but by following the example of Jesus and doing what Baptists have always done best: preaching the gospel and not lusting after temporal power and influence. (69)

Baptists have one consistent record concerning liberty throughout their long and eventful history. They have never been a party to oppression of conscience. – George Washington Truett, 1920

May it again be so. May it always be so. (69)

Chapter 3

Deconstructing Democracy

School Vouchers, Homeschooling, and the War on Public Education

This is our choice: to abandon public schools, or to redeem them. My choice is clear: I argue for redemption. I argue that America’s central cities have had enough of abandonment. They have been abandoned by big business, abandoned by the middle class, abandoned by high-paying jobs, abandoned by major supermarket chains, and on and on. Only two institutions remain to anchor inner-city communities: the churches and the public schools. It would be ironic and tragic if we now chose to abandon one of those two anchors, the public schools. – Reg Weaver, Vice President of the National Education Association, 1999

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris

Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy. – John Paul Stevens

Views like these, and innumerable others, have been safe in the sectarian pulpits and classrooms of this Nation not only because the Free Exercise Clause protects them directly, but because the ban on supporting religious establishment has protected free exercise, by keeping it relatively private. With the arrival of vouchers in religious schools, that privacy will go, and along with it will go confidence that religious disagreement will stay moderate. – Justice David Souter

My parents were not affluent by any stretch of the imagination, so my experience cannot be attributed to residence in wealthy neighborhoods or privileged school districts. But I was surely privileged in other ways–in my encounter with ideas and individuals outside of my own insular world.

| The self-styled “school choice” advocates would destroy all that. Their use of public funds would support religious and charter (86) schools, both of which (unlike public schools) can choose whom they want to educate. “School choice” would also abet the stratification of education by subsidizing the tuition that wealthier Americans are already paying to elite private schools. (87)

The national debate surrounding voucher programs is just one aspect of a broader religious war on public education. (87)

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessing upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country. – Required New York State school prayer

By the 1980s, the war on “secular” education had become central to the mission of the Religious Right. (88)

I believe that the decay in our public school system suffered an enormous acceleration when prayer and Bible reading were taken out of the classroom by our U.S. Supreme Court – Jerry Falwell, 1980

Why would evangelical parents want their children–who were (and are) perfectly free to pray silently in school, just as Jesus instructed–to recite a prayer mandated by school officials? (89)

A union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion. – Justice Hugo Black, Engel v. Vitale

Whatever common culture we have attained in this country has come about largely through the agency of public education. At the risk of sounding mawkish, I truly believe that public schools served to make America what it is by helping us forge a mutual understanding of one another as Americans.

| Homeschooling, school vouchers, and charter schools all diminish the possibilities for such understanding. The private and specialized schools envisioned by the advocates of school vouchers and charter schools threaten that heritage and strike at the heart of the formative mechanism essential for the function of citizenship. By siphoning students from the public schools, private education inevitably narrows that meeting ground.

| It also contributes to a ghetto mentality–socially, intellectually, and culturally. The creation of religious schools leads to heightened segregation of different racial and socioeconomic groups. The so-called “school choice” initiative is both a civil rights and a social justice issue, and Christians who take seriously the teachings of Jesus should be fighting against voucher programs and charter schools because they perpetuate divisions, rather than reconciliation, within society. (93)

If capitalists are supporting school vouchers, the scheme is probably not calibrated to the best interests of education. “If most minority children, children of color, children of disadvantage and poverty, are going to have any chance at a quality education, [Reg] Weaver said, “they aren’t going to get it from big business, they aren’t going to get it from the tender mercies of the free market, an they sure aren’t going to get it from the scheme cooked up by the far right. They can, however, get it from a reformed and revitalized–a redeemed–public education system.” [ Remarks by Reg Weaver, vice president of the National Education Association, to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People 90th Annual Convention, Labor Luncheon, July 13, 1999.]

The future of Democracy hangs in the balance in the tussle over homeschooling, school vouchers, and public education. The large and growing movement toward private education and homeschooling represents a betrayal of an essential component (95) of American culture, and I find it paradoxical that the very people who purport to reclaim America’s past are the same people seeking to jettison such a key and formative institution in America’s history. Public education, and the underlying conviction that schools are important gathering places, is central to our identity as Americans; public schools provide the most logical place, perhaps the only place, where future generations, especially within a pluralistic context, can coexist with at least a measure of comity and learn the rudiments of democracy. Whatever their shortcomings–and I don’t want to understate those shortcomings–public schools can and must be preserved. If we care anything about democracy, we must care a great deal about public education. (96)

If the neoconservatives and the Religious Right have their way, “government schools” will disappear altogether, and learning will take place in the home, in voucher schools run by religious groups, or in charter schools operated by capitalists.

| I can’t imagine anything less democratic. (97)

How many Patrick Henry students, I wonder, have read The Origin of Species or The Cather in the Rye or Fast Food Nation or The Feminine Mystique or Das Kapital or The Autobiography of Malcolm X?

| Such an environment quashes critical thought and intellectual engagement; instead, it produces ideologues, and ideologues, sadly, are in great demand these days in a cultural and political environment that thrives on a dualistic view of reality, one that divides the world into neat categories of black and white, good and evil. This kind of education, which is an extension of homeschooling or religious schools, never encourages students to entertain seriously any ideas that might threaten the shibboleths of their evangelical upbringing. (106)

In a society that has always been characterized by pluralism, and is more so now than ever, we need public schools like never before if we mean to perpetuate this great experiment of American democracy. And, Mr. Dobson, why shouldn’t schoolchildren learn to be tolerant of others, even those with a different sexual orientation?

| No one disputes that public education is in trouble, especially in places like Cleveland, but the attempts on the part of the “school choice” advocates to accelerate, rather than to arrest, that decline are reprehensible and shortsighted. Before heeding the siren call of school vouchers and charter schools, herding our children into schools run by capitalists or religious sectarians at taxpayer expense, we as a society should assess seriously the real costs of giving up on public education, costs calculated not merely in dollars but in the future of democracy itself. (108)

Chapter 4

Creationism by Design

The religious Right’s Quest for Intellectual Legitimacy

Just because a lot of people make noise doesn’t make it an intellectual issue. Just because a lot of people believe in astrology doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because a lot of people think that there are aliens who abduct people in spaceships doesn’t make it true. It would be bizarre to claim that the ability of a group to gain a great deal of publicity for a viewpoint constitutes its intellectual seriousness, otherwise any form of demagoguery that gets a hearing would have to be so honored. – Stephen Jay Gould, 1994

John Washington Butler, January 21, 1925 … drafted legislation which made it “unlawful for any teacher” in state-supported schools “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” (111)

Although Scopes was convicted of violating the Butler Act and fined $100 (the conviction was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on a technicality), Bryan and, by extension, all evangelicals lost decisively in the larger courtroom of public opinion. (114)

Evangelicals, chastened by the opprobrium leveled at them during and after the trial, retreated from the broader society after 1925 to construct their distinctive subculture as a place of refuge from the larger world. (115)

Epperson v. ArkansasMcLean v. Arkansas Board of EducationEdwards v. AguillardPeloza v. Capistrano School DistrictFreiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education

The history of the creationist-evolution “debate” since the Scopes trial has been, in essence, the story of adaptation to new legal, social, and intellectual realities in order to win validation in education circles. (122)

The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory – Judge John E. Jones, December 20, 2005

In effect, the creationist/intelligent-design movement aspires to replace science, or physics, with metaphysics. (133)

The attempt to “baptize” creationism or intelligent design as science, moreover, demeans both religion and science by confusing (133) the categories. Paradoxically, when the Religious Right asserts that intelligent design is science, it implies that faith in God or in the reliability of the scriptures is inadequate, that it needs the imprimatur of the scientific method. This subjects religious belief to the canons of Enlightenment rationalism because it concedes, at least by inference, that faith is not sufficient in itself. On the other side of the equation, the intelligent-design movement demands that scientists answer questions–about the existence of God or an intelligent designer–that the scientific method is incapable of asking. (134)

As a believer, I have no problem accepting that God, in some way that I cannot fully explain, is responsible for the created order, but that is an assertion of faith, not a conclusion vindicated by scientific inquiry, for I know of no experiment to test empirically for the presence of God. (139)

The problem with intelligent-design theory is not that it is false but that it is not falsifiable. – George F. Will

“Not being susceptible to contradicting evidence, it is not a testable hypothesis. Hence it is not scientific but a creedal test–a matter of faith, unsuited to a public school’s science curriculum.” Intelligent design purports to answer a question–Who is responsible for the created order?–that scientists would not dare to ask because they have no way outside the claims of faith and within the canons of the scientific method to pose the question, much less (139) formulate an answer. (140)

No, Princeton no longer retains the confessional moorings that constrained it in 1746, when the school first opened its doors, a circumstance that merely underscores the point that institutions are woefully inadequate as guarantors of faith.

| But Princeton and places like it guarantee the perpetuation of other important values in American life, not least of which is the intellectual freedom to pursue ideas untrammeled by confessional agendas. Dembski and his intelligent-design brethren can bemoan the fact that their ideas have not won acceptance in the public schools or in the academy, but that is due not to bias (as they contend) but to the fact that they have yet to persuade anyone in the courts or the scientific community that intelligent design is anything other than religion. (141)

…creationism in a cheap tuxedo. (141)

Chapter 5

Voices in the Wilderness

Evangelicals and the Environment

Oh, God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail. – Saint Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, CA. 375

The created order has no intrinsic value aside from how it benefits human beings. (149)

This anthropocentrism is abundantly evident in the agenda of the Religious Right. … How many Americans, evangelicals included, engage in recreational shopping, for instance, oblivious to the environmental impact of their actions or their marketplace decisions? Even more to the point, how can anyone miss the irony that the ranks of those opposed to abortion, who profess to hear a “fetal scream,” are remarkably deaf to squeals of live animals hanging from meat hooks in the abattoir? (152)

Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship; Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship

I don’t think that God is going to ask us how he created the earth, but he will ask us what we did with what he created. – Richard Cizik

Care for the earth, God’s creation, should be an instinctive response on the part of those who number themselves among the followers of Jesus–and even more so for those who insist that an intelligent designer fashioned the natural world. The Religious (163) Right however, conjuring the goblins of neopaganism, have cast their lot with corporate and business interests, distorting the faith with a narrow, pinched reading of Genesis. This theology of dominion, coupled with the wise use of ideology of corporate interests, places humanity in the role of exploiter and justifies the plundering of natural resources. (164)

An increasing number of evangelicals, however, dissent form this rapacious ideology. They have decided to heed their consciences rathe than obey the patter of the Religious Right. (164)


Taking the Country Back

These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. – Isaiah 29:13

The evangelical subculture, which prizes conformity above all else, doesn’t suffer rebels gladly, and it is especially intolerant of anyone with the temerity to challenge the shibboleths of the Religious Right. Despite their putative claims to the faith, the leaders of the Religious Right are vicious toward anyone who refuses to kowtow to their version of orthodoxy, and their machinery of vilification strikes with ruthless, dispassionate efficiency. Longtime friends (and not a few family members) will shuffle uneasily around me and studiously avoid any sort of substantive conversation (168) about the issues I’ve raised in this book–then quietly strike my name from their Christmas card lists. That’s how the evangelical subculture operates. Circle the wagons. Brook no dissent. (169)

Could it be that they are less interested in actually reducing the incidence of abortion (in which case, they should seek to alter public opinion on the matter) than they are in continuing to use abortion as a very potent political weapon, one guaranteed to mobilize their base and get out the vote? (174)

Too often, the leaders of the Religious Right confuse morality with moralism. A moralist takes it upon himself to stand in judgment, to point fingers at the shortcomings of others. Jesus had strong words for the moralists of his day, the religious leaders who were always tut-tutting about someone else’s transgression, all the while neglecting the larger mandate of godliness, which Jesus reckoned in terms of compassion rather than judgment. He called them “blind guides,” and he suggested that the faith of a repentant sinner was far superior to that of the moralist. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye,” Jesus asked, “and pay no attention the plank in your own eye?” (179)

Far from something to be feared, pluralism is a good thing. It keeps religious groups from resting on their laurels–or their endowments, in the case of mainline Protestantism–and makes them competitive in the marketplace of ideas. (184)

America has been kind to religion, but not because the government has imposed religious faith or practice on its citizens. Quite the opposite: Religion has flourished because religious belief and expression have been voluntary, not compulsory. We are a religious people precisely because we have recognized the rights of our citizens to be religious in a different way from us, or even not to be religious at all. We are simultaneously a people of faith and citizens of a pluralistic society, one in which Americans believe that it is inappropriate, even oppressive, to impose the religious views of a minority–or even a majority–on all society. That is the genius of America, and it is also the reason that religion thrives here as nowhere else. (185)

I have no interest in making abortion illegal; I would like to make it unthinkable. That is, I believe that the most effective way to limit the incidence of abortion is to change the moral climate surrounding the issue through education or even through public-service campaigns similar to those that discourage smoking or drugs or alcohol and spousal abuse. That strategy, more than ineffectual laws that intrude on individual rights, would take us farther toward eliminating abortion. (188)

Since beginning my travels, I’ve developed an even greater suspicion of the bloviating preachers of the Religious Right, those who have anointed themselves shepherds of the flock and the arbiters of morality. They have led their sheep astray from the gospel of Jesus Christ to the false gospel of neoconservative ideology and into the maw of the Republican Party. And yet, my regard for the flock and my respect for the integrity of rank-and-file evangelicals is undiminished. Ultimately, it is they who must recover the scandal of the gospel and rescue us from the depredations of the Religious Right.

| I challenge my fellow believers to reclaim their birthright as evangelical Christians and examine the scriptures for themselves–absent the funhouse mirror distortions of the Religious Right. For those equal to the task, I suggest a form of shock therapy: juxtapose the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), arguably the highest expression (190) of Christian ethics, with the platform of the Republican Party. (191)

The Bible I read tells of freedom for captives and deliverance from oppression. It teachers that those who refuse to act with justice or who neglect the plight of those less fortunate have some explaining to do. But the Bible is also about good news. It promises redemption and forgiveness, a chance to start anew and, with divine help, to get it right. My evangelical theology assures me that no one, not even Karl Rove or James Dobson, lies beyond the reach of redemption and that even a people led astray can find their way home. | That sounds like good news to me. Very good news indeed. (191)


When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. – Sinclair Lewis, 1935

I believe that, in the not-too-distant future, when we look back at the first decade of the twenty-first century, we’ll recognize that the defining moral issues of our time are climate change, the war in Iraq, and the Bush administration’s persistent use of torture against political prisoners. (194)


My big disappointment in reading Randall Balmer is that his voice is not more prominent in our public discourse, that his historical work is not more widely understood, and that his challenges have not been more thoroughly considered. Balmer provides a brilliant, relevant, and historically prophetic voice to the tensions, frustrations, and disappointments that are plaguing evangelicalism. Perhaps more importantly, the brand of evangelicalism he purports and inspires others to attain is beautiful, winsome, and close to the heart of Jesus.

At times, Balmer seems to over-simplify his critique without taking into consideration variegated nuances. In particular, the chapter on schooling, vouchers, and public education left me a bit unsettled, recognizing that while his critique of much of the institutional and political rationale may be valid, he does not, in my opinion, give a fair treatment of the personal factors that cause families to make their educational decisions.

Regardless, Balmer is an illustrative writer, and I’m deeply grateful for his mentorship in the historical journey of evangelicalism, and his kinship in the Way of Jesus.

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  1. Pingback: The Power Worshippers | Reflections & Notes | vialogue

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