Monday, June 19, 2006



Randall Balmer is a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and his book, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament, is to be published next month by Perseus Books. There is an excerpt from the book at the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education under the title "Jesus Is Not a Republican."

In a very sad commentary, Balmer predicts that:

. . . when my new book on evangelicals appears, the minions of the religious right will seek to discredit me rather than engage the substance of my arguments. The initial wave of criticism, as an old friend who has endured similar attacks reminded me, will be to deny that I am, in fact, really an evangelical Christian. When that fails -- and I'll put up my credentials as an evangelical against anyone's! -- the next approach will be some gratuitous personal attack: that I am a member of the academic elite, spokesman for the Northeastern establishment, misguided liberal, prodigal son, traitor to the faith, or some such. Another evangelical friend with political convictions similar to mine actually endured a heresy trial.

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. I understand that. 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 about the issues I raise — and then quietly strike my name from their Christmas-card lists. Circle the wagons. Brook no dissent.
And what could bring down the disapproval of even his friends and relatives? The title the Chronicle gives the excerpt says it all. Suggesting that the Republican Party might not actually be taking the proper Christian position on issues may now count as heresy to the American religious right. Balmer sees the mutual grasping toward power as serving the following goals:

. . . an expansion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the continued prosecution of a war in the Middle East that enraged our longtime allies and would not meet even the barest of just-war criteria, and a rejiggering of Social Security, the effect of which, most observers agree, would be to fray the social-safety net for the poorest among us. Public education is very much imperiled by Republican policies, to the evident satisfaction of the religious right, and it seeks to replace science curricula with theology, thereby transforming students into catechumens.
Balmer's reasons for thinking that list is counter to Christ's own teachings, while certainly not ironclad, are interesting and largely persuasive. Similarly, his examples of Republican doctrine that Christ surely would have been against but which brings no condemnation from the religious right, such as the reservation of the right to use torture, carries much weight and his list of purveyors of public moralism who themselves have feet of ethical clay is nothing if not entertaining.
But Balmer's real and most important point is that the religious right's attempt to impose orthodoxy on everyone will eventually backfire. Citing the example of the Congregationalists, who, in the early 1800s, resisted the disestablishment of their church as the official religion in Connecticut and Massachusetts, only to find that, when it came, it caused a revival in its followers, Balmer notes:

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.
Finally, he urges his fellow evangelicals to:

. . . take into account the pluralistic context of American society and recognize the genius of the First Amendment. That requires respect for the canons of democracy and for the importance of public education to ensure its future. It acknowledges, for example, that the proper venue for the teaching of creationism or intelligent design is the home or the Sunday-school classroom, not the science curriculum. It means refusing to identify the symbols of the faith -- the Bible, prayer, the Decalogue -- with the political order. In short, our best hope for the recovery of an evangelical social and political ethic lies with recognizing that the faith functions best independent of the political order.
Not to mention being the best chance to keep democracy alive in the nation that is already the most dangerous one on the face of the Earth.

I read the excerpt, and: wow.

I was an evangelical, back when it was still a counter-culture (even more so in Canada), and he echoes a lot of my own thinking from that time, about the relationship between faith, power and secular society. I recall, around 1979, saying to a friend that the greatest disaster ever to befall the Church was when Constantine made it the Roman state religion -- the result was corruption of the faith by power-seekers.

Even my current atheist self finds the article moving. And he's right: the Christian Right will crucify him. Hmm....I seem to recall a precedent for that sort of behaviour....
Funny how people seem to identify more with the nailor rather than the nailee, isn't it?
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