FAITH

Still waiting for the great leap backward

A U.S. evangelical aims to steer his faith back to its progressive roots

Brian Bethune August 28 2006
FAITH

Still waiting for the great leap backward

A U.S. evangelical aims to steer his faith back to its progressive roots

Brian Bethune August 28 2006

Still waiting for the great leap backward

A U.S. evangelical aims to steer his faith back to its progressive roots

FAITH

BRIAN BETHUNE

Perhaps the most im-

portant effect of Randall Balmer’s eye-opening Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament will be to inform the outside world

that people like him actually exist. So seemingly total is the identification of U.S. evangelicals with right-wing politics and the Republican

party, that for many people the very idea of a liberal evangelical is an oxymoron. But not only do Balmer and his ilk still flourish in the U.S., they have a long history of championing progressive causes. Baptists and other evangelicals—persecuted Old World minorities grateful for America’s level playing field— were at the leading edge of struggles ranging from the separation of church and state to the abolition of slavery.

So it’s to history that Balmer, 51, a professor of American religion at Columbia University and a self-described “jilted lover,” looks for the answers to what happened to American evangelicalism. “We basically ran out of steam at the end of the 19th century,”

Balmer says in an interview. The challenges of modernity, especially Darwinism, drove evangelicalism into an increasingly fundamentalist “defensive subculture.” Then came the U.S. Supreme Court’s striking down of abortion laws in Roe vs. Wade in 1973, which had a galvanizing effect on America’s militantly anti-abortion evangelical population. Or so the story goes.

Balmer explodes what he calls the “abortion myth.” In 1971, he tells us, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution asking Congress to loosen abortion restrictions. In the wake of Roe vs. Wade, W. C. Criswell, perhaps the most influential Baptist preacher in the country, expressed his satisfaction with the decision. What actually mobilized conservative evangelicals to form the religious right, as Balmer calls it, was the U.S. government’s 1975 move to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University. Aimed

at the school’s racially discriminatory policies, it was seen by many evangelicals as an allout assault on their institutions. This ancient history matters, Balmer argues. Through ceaseless mythmaking, the religious right has convinced many evangelicals that their churches have always been uncompromising on abortion, and that they must support the Republican party, even if they are opposed

PROMINENT BAPTIST LEADERS, HE WRITES, ASKED CONGRESS TO LOOSEN ABORTION LAWS IN 1971

to its other policies, like the war in Iraq.

It’s also one of the many un-Christian ironies Balmer mines to full effect in his book. Religious-right stalwarts like to style them-

selves the heirs of 19th-century anti-slavery activists in their campaign for the unborn; Balmer enjoys pointing out “that the ‘new abolitionists’ got their start defending racial segregation.” Likewise, his comment on the cry of one protester—“Get your hands off my God!”—when the granite block bearing the Ten Commandments was removed from the lobby of the Alabama state judicial building: “If I’m not mistaken, one of those Commandments warns against graven images.” It is Balmer’s evangelical response to the religious right that is most intriguing, rather than his rather mainstream liberalism. He fears his opponents less because they espouse policies he considers wrong-headed, than because of the damage done to his faith. “The First Amendment is the greatest friend religion ever had in this country,” he says. “The genius of American religion is its open marketplace, its religious entrepreneurs competing against each other without either aid or hindrance from the state. It’s why America is the most religious country in the Western world.” The religious right’s political agenda threatens to corrupt Christianity from within and spark hostility from without, he believes, “because it refuses to accept the basic etiquette of democracy—it wants its religion endorsed by the state.”

The religious right will vigorously deny it, Balmer says, but its ultimate aim is a revived Puritan state. “At some point you have to apply the duck test: if it walks like one, talks like one—if they want prayers in public school, the Ten Commandments in courthouses, laws that ‘reflect biblical teaching,’ what else can you call it but a theocracy?”

Balmer’s hope, which he admits is more willed than truly optimistic, is that liberal evangelicals can offer their fellows “another way, respectful of their traditions and the teachings of Jesus—which are far more concerned with justice for the poor than the fact that human life is sacred.” Maybe then, the jilted but still smitten lover believes, evangelicals will recall their history and realize that “religion flourishes best from the margins, and not from the corridors of power.” M