My first exposure to Randall Balmer was several years ago, after I had made some posts on a discussion forum chronicling some attempts to reconcile my past as a fairly straightforward, conservative evangelical Christian with the various religious, political, and cultural views that I had begun subscribing to. An online acquaintance recommended that I read Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory, a collection of essays written while Balmer was trying to make sense of his own evangelical upbringing after returning to the faith.
Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory is one of the finest “religious” books I own, one that I constantly return to, quote from, and recommend. One of Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory’s greatest strengths is its fair, respectful tone. Even when he’s interviewing folks on the absolute fringes of Christianity, folks whose views are troubling to say the least, Balmer treats all of the subjects of his essays in a way that is respectful and compassionate.
“Compassionate,” however, is probably not a quality that I would ascribe to Balmer’s latest book, Thy Kingdom Come. Indeed, the book’s rather alarming subtitle — “How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America” — should be enough of an indicator that Balmer is taking off the gloves and striking up a much more defiant, incisive stance this time.
Throughout the book’s five chapters, Balmer states concerns about the increasing politicization of Christianity, specifically in the rise of the “Religious Right.” The attempt is to point out the flaws and hypocrisies inherent in this group’s attempt to intertwine the Christian faith with politics, or more specifically, the agenda of the Republican Party. In Balmer’s view, such a marriage does nothing but undermine the Christian message, and the prophetic mission of the Church.
Folks who proudly consider themselves part of the Religious Right, or of the conservative persuasion in general, will no doubt find Thy Kingdom Come to be enraging at best. Balmer pulls no punches in his arguments. In fact, he makes his opinion very clear at the start:
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 Right’s agenda is misguided, even ruinous, to the nation I love and, ultimately, to the faith I love even more.
The book’s first (and arguably strongest) chapter, “Strange Bedfellows,” addresses the Religious Right’s “pet” issues: abortion and homosexuality (you can read an excerpt on NPR’s website). The chapter’s first half debunks what Balmer terms “the abortion myth,” namely that the Religious Right first mobilized in response to Roe v. Wade, at great personal and financial risk. The truth, however, is not quite so noble.
For starters, notable Christian leaders actually welcomed the Roe v. Wade decision after it came out, praising it for protecting individual liberties and even working to actively support the decision. As for the Religious Right’s origins, Balmer points out that it actually mobilized, not to protect unborn babies, but to protect Bob Jones University.
The university, a Christian institution, had come under fire in the mid-1970s by the U.S. government for racially discriminatory policies and was being threatened with a change in tax status. This was seen as a direct attack on the Christian subculture in America, and evangelical leaders began mobilizing in response to defend Bob Jones University from government oversight. Thus was born the Religious Right. Only after the Right had formed was abortion added as an issue (and almost on a lark, it seems).
However, much of this has been covered up by the “myth,” perpetuating the idea that the origins of the Religious Right lay in a righteous response to a moral outrage — an idea that has been leveraged for great political advantage.
The chapter’s second half turns to homosexuality, and the Religious Right’s attempts to stop the “gay agenda.” But here again, Balmer points out a wee bit of hypocrisy. While the Bible arguably has several passages that speak out against homosexuality, the Bible has many more passages that denounce divorce (except in cases involving infidelity), and with much more explicit language. Why then, Balmer asks, does the Religious Right spend so much energy to condemn and outlaw homosexuality (and abortion), while doing virtually nothing to outlaw a practice that the Bible wholeheartedly condemns?
In Balmer’s view, the reason is that campaigning against divorce is simply no longer politically expedient. In a country where the divorce rate among self-professed evangelical Christians is as high as, if not higher, than that of the general populace, divorce is no longer seen as that big of a deal. It’s difficult to condemn a behavior that many of your congregants are guilty of, have no problem with, or go out of their way to justify.
However, abortion and homosexuality make for tremendous soapboxing, in part because they allow Christians to externalize sin — to point out the iniquities of others while allowing themselves to appear unspoiled by the surrounding wicked and corrupt culture. It’s easier to campaign when you have an obvious, clear-cut enemy to campaign against, and for many Christians, abortion and homosexuality fit the bill nicely.
While Balmer’s writing can come across as heavy-handed, and he sometimes seems a little too eager to take potshots at those he’s writing about, what ultimately elevates his writing above simple screeds and angry rants is the history that he brings to bear in his arguments (Balmer is a professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and Yale).
A prime example of this occurs throughout the book’s second chapter, “Where Have All The Baptists Gone?,” which looks at the controversy surrounding the First Amendment’s disestablishment clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).
Specifically, he looks at the case of Judge Roy Moore. Moore became famous for placing a monument of the Ten Commandments in his courthouse (an act that many saw as an attempt to imply state sanction of Christianity), was eventually stripped of his office for defying orders to remove it, and subsequently became a hero to many Christians.
Balmer steps back and looks at the separation of church and state from a historical context. Using both statements by several noted figures from the history of the Baptist denomination (which so happens to be Moore’s denomination) as well as other historical examples, Balmer makes his case for the dangers of a too-close alliance between church and state. Such an alliance, according to Balmer, almost always results in persecution, declining congregations, and spiritual trivialization and malaise.
In their attempts to tear down the walls between religion and state influence, Balmer argues that Baptists like Roy Moore go against the very foundations of their religious tradition. Since Baptists had begun as a religious minority persecuted by state churches, they knew all too well the importance of supporting the freedom of religion from any unnecessary state involvement. Therefore, the quotes that Balmer includes are full of passionate appeals against church/state relationships, and arguments that state-mandated religion goes against the very idea of a personal, individual faith — one of the cornerstones of Christianity.
Furthermore, Balmer argues, true church/state separation is actually a blessing because it places all religions on equal standing — no one religion is preferred, nor is any one religion sanctioned. All religions are forced to compete in equal standing within the marketplace of ideas, which forces their adherents to remain vital and passionate lest the faith become trivialized and dead. Balmer puts it this way:
[R]eligious 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) stayed out of the religion business… the examples of other Western nations suggest that once you begin to dictate religious belief or behavior… you kill it.
The Kingdom Come is not a perfect book, nor does it resonate as strongly as his other work does. While all of the chapters offer compelling and interesting arguments — I personally found the chapter on Intelligent Design to be rewarding — the strongest, most passionate and damning material comes early on, when Balmer addresses abortion and homosexuality.
Furthermore, even with all of the history that he uses to back up his arguments, they sometimes seem too black and white, too simplistic and even self-righteous considering the complexity of the issues he addresses. However, in his defense, he admits as much from time to time. These are complex issues, and a thorough discussion is likely well outside the scope of a book that is self-described as a note from a jilted lover, and as an alarming wake-up call.
Chances are, The Kingdom Come will most likely preach to the choir (even though Balmer has a few choice words for Democrats; for example, blasting them for increasing the divisiveness surrounding abortion), and it will probably do little to dissuade hardened conservatives. Folks in the middle of the political divide, who are uncomfortable with simply lumping themselves into one party line or the other, will probably benefit the most from Balmer’s writing.
But I hope even hardened conservatives will not simply dismiss out of hand Balmer’s points and concerns. Even they have to be somewhat troubled by the current state of affairs, where churches readily ally themselves with political figures who, it is revealed, were more interested in using religious clout for political and financial gain. Where noted Christian leaders support and even celebrate war, assassination attempts, torture, and illegal imprisonment while pushing forward a “Culture of Life.” Where churches put the American flag on equal standing with the Cross of Christ. Where far too many people, on both sides of the political fence, assume only the Republican Party is God’s tool to bring about His will here on Earth.