Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America, An Evangelical’s Lament, by Randall Balmer, is bound to create some controversy for those who read it and who are willing to face the tough suggestions and observations he makes. I will be looking at this book over the next two weeks, but only on MWFs.
“I write as a jilted lover,” he opens up. “The evangelical faith that nurtured me as a child and sustains me as an adult has been hijacked by right-wing zealots who have distorted the gospel of Jesus Christ, defaulted on the noble legacy of nineteenth-century evangelical activism, and failed to appreciate the genius of the First Amendment.” That’s the second sentence. On the next page he contends there are more politically liberal evangelicals than you might think. He’s right. There are.
An evangelical according to Balmer is (1) someone who takes the Bible seriously, (2) believes in the importance of conversion, and (3) believes in the imperative to evangelize. Balmer claims to be both an evangelical and a political liberal, in the sense that a liberal believes in the progressive creation of freedoms for humans.
This “lover’s quarrel” with evangelicals is a call “evangelicals to their better selves — or, more accurately, to remind them of the teachings of Jesus, as well as the exemplary work of nineteenth-century evangelicals.”
Chapter 1 is about abortion, homosexuality, and the ruse of selective literalism.
Here are some central claims of this hard-hitting, wonderfully-written, and stimulating chapter:
That the Religious Right propagates the abortion myth, namely that the Roe v. Wade decision galvanized evangelicals into a formidable political block. Not so, argues Balmer. In fact, it was the Supreme Court case in 1975 about the right of Christian schools to maintain their own standards that was under threat. Balmer claims, with major support from major Religious Right figures, that it was the Bob Jones IRS case that galvanized the Religious Right. Bob Jones University wanted protection for its racial dating policies, and the Religious Right entered the fray to contend that Christians schools could not be interfered with. (Balmer notes that calling themselves “new abolitionists” is violently inconsistent for what the Religious Right was actually defending was the right to segregation.)
Balmer has had a personal conversation with Paul M. Weyrich who admits that “abortion” was only added to this agenda at the last of minutes as leaders participated in a phone conversation on what should be on the agenda of the Religious Right.
Balmer claims that evangelicals abandoned, and have abandoned, their biblical and tough commitment against divorce as they slid into an awakening to the potential power of the abortion issue. (He quotes some evangelicals who defended the Roe v. Wade decision, not the least of whom was W.A. Criswell.) They have become selective in what they want the American public to stand for.
His question on this one: “If you are serious about your professed commitment to biblical literalism, why are you not working to outlaw divorce?” (10)
Balmer believes abortion is a travesty; but he contends that abortion is both a moral as well as a legal issue. He’s libertarian: “the government should have no jurisdiction whatsoever over gestation” (19). But, he thinks abortion is a morally lamentable. He thinks the Democratic Party, among which he identifies himself, “has utterly botched the abortion issue” (21).
He then turns to homosexuality.”Like abortion, it [homosexuality] allows evangelicals to externalize the enemy, based on the supposition that no true believer could be gay or lesbian” (26). He thinks the Democrats, like mainline Protestants are virtually moribund.
He also warns that what happened to mainline Protestants is what could happen to the Religous Right: joining the culture poisons the gospel and erodes the prophetic stance, just as politicians who get too chummy publicly with people of faith “inevitably fall prety to self-righteousness, intolerance, and fanaticism” (33).
What I’ve seen in this book makes me think the conservative evangelical will be offended, the emerging Christian who leans left will love the book, but the most important group that needs to read this book may not read it: the Democratic Party.
I’ve long been a reader of Jim Wallis, but I thought his God’s Politics was little more than a scrapbook of “here’s what I said to this group, and here’s where I went next.” Balmer is a bright observer of American evangelicalism, and a master of American history, and these two attributes make him a bright light for those of us who want to see through the thinness of politics we now witness and who want to land on the solid ground of a genuinely evangelical and politically liberal (properly defined) politics — something called “purple politics.” The challenge for purple politics is to avoid letting it turn blue.