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.
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