We took a year or so ago at Randy Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come and we want now to look at his newest book, God in the White House. The book studies a simple theme and traces the story — an interesting story to all of us.
I don’t think enough are willing to think intelligently about the relationship of State and Church. Many of those fighting to defend the separation raise the law as a major point when they need it but infringe upon that separation when they can get by with it; and I’m blaming both sides on this one. The specter of Constantinianism lurks, but it’s one of those all-too-attractive slippery slope arguments. Luther posited Two Kingdoms; Calvin wedded the powers too tightly in Geneva; the Anabaptists had a kind of Two Kingdoms approach but focused on the Kingdom of God (except Zwingli struggled to carry this out). I’m not seeing enough intelligent thinking about this today and that is one reason I like Balmer’s stuff — he’s advocating the value of separation of Church and State. Agree with him or not, I like to hear discussion of this issue.
Balmer is a master story teller; nurtured among evangelicals and one who attended TEDS about the same time as I did (though we did not meet then), Balmer’s odyssey has led him to have both a sharp eye for our foibles yet a continued deep appreciation for evangelicalism.
The book traces the story from John F. Kennedy’s famous speech arguing for religion to be bracketed both by voters and by Presidents (Sept 12, 1960) to George W. Bush’s declaration, in 2000, that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. How, Balmer asks, did religion become so central to the American candidacy process? Balmer’s thesis, defended also in Thy Kingdom Come, is that both the Church and the Republic flourish best when faith and State leave one another alone. So, Balmer’s thesis is not to advocate keeping religion muted in the State but to argue that the church flourishes when this happens.
The book begins with my first memories of politics: the campaign and election of John F. Kennedy. Because of Kennedy’s assassination, many today have lionized Kennedy but I do recall the debate if it was right for America to have a Roman Catholic President — and that theme is the focus of the first chp. Furthermore, one can’t help in reading this chp to think of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. (Here is Balmer’s take on Romney.)
A few points about the chp — and much of it is dedicated to the opposition by Protestants, mostly evangelical, to a Roman Catholic President. Now, for many today this seems utterly ridiculous. Not so, my friends: the history of the RCC’s involvement in the States of Europe is not exactly one of tolerance. Factor that into this age (1) the rise of immigration and its changes to American society, (2) the Protestant concern with evangelism of Roman Catholics and (3) a post WWII fear of surreptitious motives and sinister incursions of ideologies, and you’ve got some of the explanation of what was going on in 1960.
Some of those who were dead-set against Kennedy and enthusiastic supporters of Nixon include Norman Vincent Peale, whose ministry was wounded by his involvement in the anti-Catholic program, Billy Graham, whose words and behaviors are not without question, W.A. Criswell, who strongly supported separation of church and state (a Baptist emphasis) but who during the Reagan era changed his mind, and Harold Ockenga, erstwhile vocal champion and leader of neo-evangelicalism. You probably can guess how opposed much of the Southern Baptist Convention was to Kennedy.
There were some nuts opposed to Kennedy and they said some scurrilous, unintelligent, and bigoted things … and it’s embarrassing but it’s true.
There were also some wonderfully reasonable Christians, evangelicals, Southern Baptists and others … and it’s nice to read about and it’s also true.
Something kept coming to me as I read this chp: those who argue from a possible event (Roman Catholic President) to far-ranging implications (the Pope will move into DC and run the place) are so often wrong I wish we could ban “slippery slope” arguments from public space. (Of course, not really — but my exaggeration makes my point: slippery slope inferences are fears turned into deterministic script and they are nearly always wrong.)
Balmer includes Kennedy’s speech — it’s worth the price of this book for me.