Levellers

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

  1. Of course the religious right keeps rising from the grave. It’s existence doesn’t depend on which way the political wind happens to be blowing. They don’t say, “Oh, we lost some elections. We might as well cease to exist.” These are people of conviction, after all.

    Comment by James Pate | May 3, 2008

  2. James, your point is good, but may be overblown. 1)Not all of the RR are “people of conviction.” Some are charlatans and hucksters who are manipulating people of conviction for their own gain. 2) Fundamentalists and evangelicals en masse DID cease to exist as a political force from 1925 (after the Scopes evolution trial in Dayton, TN) to c. 1979. They were still around, in plenty of numbers, but most were not actively involved in politics. Those who were could not be lined up predictably in one party or another. Many have expected that this pattern would resume after setbacks, but I am warning that this has not proven to be the case for 25+ years. It hasn’t even proven to be the case when some of their own leaders have urged less concentration on politics, as Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson did in the late ’90s with Blinded by Might. (Dobson has stuck by this, but Thomas went back to his old ways with the rise of G.W. Bush.) 3) The RR could “cease to exist” as a potent political force IF their message began falling on deaf ears. There have been some signs of that since 2006, but I am warning that it is far too early for those of us from other faith perspectives or other political perspectives to start confidently predicting that U.S. Christians have awakened to the falseness of the RR message in majority numbers. This may prove to be the case, but we shouldn’t count on it.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 3, 2008

  3. Hi Michael. That’s true that they weren’t that political in the 1920’s. But they didn’t have the problems back then that exist today. Abortion was against the law in a lot of states, for example. Also, my impression is that the religious right got more and more active when evangelicals and fundamentalists realized that government policy can affect them. These issues remain, so I don’t think the religious right will go away anytime soon.

    Comment by James Pate | May 6, 2008

  4. James, one of the myths that Balmer explodes is the Religious Right’s myth that they got involved in politics because of abortion. When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, only Catholics were greatly upset. The Southern Baptist Convention passed 2 resolutions in the ’70s giving sets of conditions under which abortion would be moral. Christianity Today advised against a crusade to overturn the decision. W.A. Criswell, then a HUGE RR leader, publicly approved Roe, saying that he had always believed that it was the woman’s choice to keep or terminate a pregnancy–and he was pastor of FBC, DALLAS–and Texas was the state with the test case of a law outlawing abortion! There were fundamentalist textbooks in Christian ethics that approved of abortion.

    Further, the attempts of political operatives like Paul Weywrich to get conservative Protestants politically active on subjects like abortion and school prayer fell on deaf ears: until the Supreme Court ruled that segregationist schools like Bob Jones University would not be eligible for any federal funds or scholarships, etc. unless they desegregated. The Religious Right originally organized to protect the “right” of Bob Jones U. and other segregationist religious schools to discriminate–and only turned to abortion and other topics once they were organized.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | May 6, 2008


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