Thy Kingdom Come
Given the continuing disputes within Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, a book that attempts to provide a persuasive history of how American Evangelicalism came to its present state might indeed be timely. That state, as Balmer might put it, is one where Evangelicals are seen (and many see themselves) as part of more conservative wing of the American political spectrum and so tend to take up the [now dominate] right wing of the Republican Party. Evangelicals of a more moderate political persuasion are either placed with the Religious Right by those on the left-hand side of the political spectrum or are seen as unfaithful to their evangelical heritage. Balmer attempts to present how Evangelicalism arrived at this present state of affairs and what alternatives there are within Evangelicalism—alternatives that he sees as more faithful to that tradition and more hopeful to the body politic. What could have been the basis of a fruitful discussion of any larger picture of Evangelicalism is marred by his presentation of how it became what it is.
Thy Kingdom Come fails to persuasively describe the past thirty-odd years of Evangelicalism and the Religious Right not because Balmer is not an objective historian or because he does not know the subject. Balmer clearly is a good church historian and knows American Evangelicalism not only from a life-time within its ethos but also because the topic has been the center of much of his scholarly pursuits. One need only look at his Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism to see that his knowledge of American Evangelicalism and the Religious Right is broad and detailed. Nor can one fault Balmer’s objectivity. While it is clear even from the subtitle, “An Evangelical’s Lament,” that Balmer is advocating a point of view; such advocacy does not automatically mean that he is being unfair to interlocutors. Rather, Balmer is less than successful on two grounds: he never clearly establishes to whom he is making his case, and one leg of his argument—that the right wing of the Republican Party co-opted Evangelicalism—lacks the necessary detail.Taking the second point first, Balmer contends prior to the mid to late nineteen-seventies, the issues the currently exorcize, unite, and characterize Evangelicals (abortion, homosexuality, and prayer in public schools) were back-burner issues. That is to say that while their positions may have remained constant (though he does argue that Evangelicals position on abortion has), the relative importance of them in a political sense moved from the periphery to the center. According to Balmer, what started this move was not a response to Roe v. Wade but Green v. Connally. The later case ruled that any institution the discriminated on the basis of race was not entitled to tax-exempt status. The line of the argument runs thus: prior to Green v. Connally Evangelicals were content to remain quiescent because state and federal governments were not interfering with how the conducted themselves. What Green v. Connally did was that it interfered with at least some conservative Evangelical or Fundamentalist institutions and consequently mobilized the faithful. The particular case involved was that of Bob Jones University, which at the time did not countenance inter-racial dating and thus ran afoul Green v. Connally. Evangelicals, thus threatened, started to organize. So far so good; however, it is one thing to say that Green v. Connally was the spark that mobilized Evangelicals into a political force and quite another that the conservative wing of the Republican Party started to lead Evangelicals like some pied piper. What is peculiar is that in his article “The Religious Right,” in The Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism moves the argument in the opposite direction—that as the more conservative wing of American Evangelicalism gained ascendancy and became politically active it came to dominate not only the religious but political sphere as well. Comparisons on this point with John Danforth’s Faith and Politics on this point are also worthwhile.
Nor does Balmer advance his thesis very far in his next chapter “Where Have All the Baptists Gone?” Part of the problem here is that he has taken one vital aspect of Baptist tradition, soul liberty (or freedom of conscience as expressed as a consequence of the phrase “priesthood of all believers”) and attempts to make this doctrine so central that without it the Baptist tradition (and by extension Evangelicalism) looses its very identity. What is wrong with such an analysis is that while the notion of soul liberty has historically been a vital doctrine within the Baptist tradition, the same can hardly be said of other traditions from which the current expressions of Evangelicalism have sprung, conservative or otherwise.
The very particularity of this chapter (and much that follows) begins to make it difficult to understand who Balmer’s audience is supposed to be. here are times when it seems as if he is trying to apologize to a secular audience for what he sees as his more conservative cousins’ bad behavior and general wrong-headedness, that is until is becomes clear there is no place on the secular political spectrum where he would be happy. He might be talking to those Christians who would not identify themselves as Evangelicals. This won’t do either since (despite appearances) even so-called main-line Protestant denominations run the gamut of political opinion. At other times one would think that he really trying to hold a mirror to the Religious Right, asking it if it really likes what it sees—or at least to retrieve that part of the tradition he says it has spurned, save that the Religious Right is consistently spoken of in the third person. What is left then is a distressed progressive Evangelical justifying his lament and encouraging his fellows that they really have been right all along. Perhaps he just wants so-called progressives to be more militant.
Interspersed in this tortured history are a number thought provoking nuggets. Unfortunately, if one does not accept Balmer’s reading of recent events, rather than seeing these insights as raw diamonds in a desert landscape, she is more likely to dismiss them as mere sloganeering. To stop at that would be a shame, because as the book progresses and he feels as if he as established his historical perspective the nuggets become more numerous and start to have a more organic feel about them. Toward the end of his chapter on the controversy between evolution and creation and throughout his chapter on the environment he really starts to focus. In previous chapters the arguments are at best sketchy and scattershot, and the chapter on evolution and creation threatens to be the same. In the end that chapter is rescued not by his insights into the science concerning the debate but by turning the argument towards the academic environment in which science is self-correcting and that there is nothing inherit in the method which discriminates against Christians and Christian belief. The chapter on the environment is better still. This is mostly because he clearly brings out a contemporary Evangelical aspect and does not stray from his presentation. Would that the whole of his book were so well done. It is here that one finds something more a kin to Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics. It is only at the last where there really is very much with which either to agree with or dissent.