Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Book Review: Thy Kingdom Come

Continuing my reviews of “big picture” books I read during my blogging hiatus, I come to Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America by Randall Balmer. I had wanted to read this since it was published in early 2006 and I heard Balmer interviewed on Bruce Prescott’s Oklahoma-based radio show, “Religious Talk.”  Subtitled, “An Evangelical’s Lament,” Thy Kingdom Come is just that, a lament by a lifelong U.S. evangelical Christian of the way that the white evangelical subculture has become captive to the political rightwing.

Balmer is now an ordained Episcopal priest, but he was raised in the Evangelical Free Church, a denomination begun by Scandinavian immigrants in the 19th C. that was formed around Pietist impulses and with a low-church, congregational polity similar to my own Baptist background.  He is a graduate of Trinity College (Now Trinity International University), which, along with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, is a major influential institution among U.S. white evangelicals.  Balmer, who has a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University, has for many years taught American religious history at Barnard College (Columbia University) in New York, where he has concentrated on changes in white evangelicals and on the intersection of faith and politics. (His latest book, which I have yet to read, is God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the U.S. Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. He is planning a book on Jimmy Carter.)

Thy Kingdom Come shows the dangers of the Religious Right in great detail. The chapter, “Where Have All the Baptists Gone?” made me very sad since it accurately described the role of my tradition, the Baptists, in creating and defending the U.S. tradition of religious liberty and church-state separation–a proud tradition. But, as Balmer shows, that tradition has been abandoned by most Southern Baptists, who now work to overturn it and at least turn the U.S. govt. into an institution that favors (evangelical) Christianity and gives it all kinds of legal privileges (while making those of other faiths or no faith into 2nd class citizens) and, in some cases, actually tries to promote a theocracy. 

Balmer holds out some hope at the end as he notes that fissures have begun among white evangelicals over environmentalism or “creation care.”  The Right thinks the very notion of care for the environment is a New Age plot, but more white evangelicals disagree.  This book was written in 2005. Since then, those fissures have grown into real cracks. After years of siding with those who call global warming a hoax, recently even the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution repenting of this stance and urging action to slow and reverse catastrophic climate change.  Most recently, the Baptist Center for Ethics (which is associated more with centrist and progressive Baptists than with the Right) composed a document urging the U.S. Senate to pass the strongest possible bill on climate change. The document was signed by 140 Baptist leaders from around the nation and from several different Baptist denominations.  Other parts of the evangelical community are taking similar actions, despite continued opposition from leaders of the Religious Right.

I disagree with those who claim that the Religious Right’s power was broken in 2006 with the deaths of Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy and the 2006 mid-term elections. As Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Baptists repeatedly says, the death of the Religious Right has been announced repeatedly since it first arose in the late 1970s and, like in a zombie movie, it just keeps rising from the grave.  But it is true that there have been far more cracks and fissures in the Religious Right coalition since Balmer wrote Thy Kingdom Come.  We have a seen a resurgence in the Religious Left and the Religious Center (including the Evangelical Left and Center), along with continued increase in American religious pluralism. Plus, largely in reaction to the Right, we have seen a slew of bestselling books by “angry atheists” and a reassertion of the values of secularism. (I believe that govt. should be secular. Whether or not society is secular is up to the free choice of the people. If persons of any particular faith cannot persuade members of society to faith, they have no right to ask for government aid in the matter.)

So, I think the immediate threat is less grave than when Balmer wrote this book. But that could change at any minute and the dimensions of the threat, to both vibrant Christianity and the American experiment, are real. This is a very important book well worth reading.  Go to your bookstore or library today.

May 1, 2008 Posted by | church-state separation, evangelicals, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

O.K., Now I Wish Wright Had Shut Up

While I agree with Elizabeth Edwards’ editorial, “Bowling 1, Healthcare 0″ that media coverage of flag lapel pins, whisky shots, and Rev. Wright are distracting and keeping voters from the real info. that they need to make informed electoral decisions, I also agree that Obama had no choice now but to cut ties with his former pastor, who seems to have gone off the deep end.  This is not the Jeremiah Wright that I heard preach, either.

I don’t much want to get into this, and prolong the controversy, but I do want to say a few words about the “U.S. Govt. behind the HIV/AIDS epidemic” conspiracy.  1) I don’t believe it.  There is no evidence for it. In the early ’90s, I met a woman doing a Ph.D. in biomedical ethics who was tracking down the most reliable version of this theory: that HIV was a mutation from one version of the smallpox vaccine (the one Jonas Salk refused to have anything to do with) that was tested in Africa, and she found no evidence to confirm, even using the Freedom of Information Act.  2) Rev. Wright, as a highly educated person, should know better, but white theologian David Ray Griffin should know better than to buy the conspiracy theory that the Bush/Cheney admin. masterminded the 9/11 attacks–instead of simply misusing the attacks opportunistically to ram through their own rightwing agenda, which they did. Sometimes people who should know better buy wild conspiracy theories about people and institutions that they distrust (sometimes for good reason) on other grounds.

3) This HIV/AIDS conspiracy theory is widely believed in many African-American communities, as I found out when I was on staff at a black church in the early ’90s.  What leads to such paranoia? Simply the fact that the govt. HAS done germ warfare against non-white races before, of course.  U.S. soldiers gave Native Americans blankets infected with polio as part of the attempted “final solution” to “the Indian problem” in the 19th C.  African-Americans in Tuskeegee, AL were used as unwitting guinea pigs in the notorious Tuskeegee syphillis experiments (told that they had “bad blood”) which did not end until 1972!  Further, while the U.S. govt. did not create the HIV virus, Ronald Reagan blocked all funding for research, prevention, treatment or cure for YEARS (back when we could have at least prevented the plague from becoming so widespread) because he believed it was God’s judgment on gays and lesbians and just killing “all the right people.” (See Randy Shilts’ classic, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic.)  Further, as Mike Broadway points out, in the Neo-con document Rebuilding America’s Defenses (2000, put out by the Project for a New American Century and signed by such rightwing Bush folk as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Elliot Abrams, Jeb Bush, and with contributers that included Lewis Libby and Paul Wolfowitz), serious foreign policy folk with connections to this administration advocated developing new biological weapons that would only target people with certain genes–that is, designed to kill only those of certain races or ethnicity! (Let us not forget that Rumsfeld and the first Pres. Bush sold Saddam Hussein the biological weapons that we later claimed as one reason we were invading–to punish him for using them.) To my knowledge, those race-based designer bio-weapons have never been developed, but it was urged by many in this administration.

Given this as background, one can easily see why African-Americans could easily believe the HIV/AIDS conspiracy theory.  Just because I believe it to be false doesn’t mean there is no reason for paranoia. It’s not like America has never been guilty of similar atrocities–and advocated similar ones in very recent history.

But, like the woman in North Carolina said, recently, I am tired of the controversy around Rev. Wright. I want the news to cover candidates on the ISSUES: ending the war/occupation; ending torture and restoring the defense of universal human rights; ending poverty and hunger; slowing, then reversing global warming; rebuilding our public schools and making university available for all; universal healthcare, etc.  Every time the news focuses instead on polls, flag lapel pins, “Obama is a secret Muslim” lies, or Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s most controversial statements, the media then undermines our democracy by denying voters the information they REALLY need for informed voting.  This is nothing new, of course, but it is part of why we are losing our democratic republic and slipping into a plutocratic oligarchy.

May 1, 2008 Posted by | U.S. politics, Uncategorized | 8 Comments