From the July/August, 2007 issue of Touchstone

Falsely Alarmed by Ralph Mackenzie

Falsely Alarmed

Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America
by Randall Balmer
Basic Books, 2006
(242 pages, $24.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Ralph Mackenzie

One of Randall Balmer’s earliest memories is of “sitting in the kitchen of a rural parsonage in southern Minnesota and asking Jesus into my heart.” Many years later, the still born-again Evangelical—“I’ll put up my credentials as an evangelical against anyone’s!” he asserts—writes in this book-length lament: “The evangelical faith that nurtured me as a child and sustains me as an adult has been hijacked by right-wing zealots who distorted the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The examples offered by Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College, Columbia University, to make his case for this hijacking are predictable. Evangelical preoccupation with abortion threatens America, he claims: “The Religious Right has so fetishized the fetus . . . that they have ignored altogether the travesties of poverty, war and racism.” He thinks that those on the Religious Right need to have a “bigger tent” when it comes to all of these “life issues.”

Roman Catholic readers will recognize, as does Balmer, that this “big tent” resembles the “consistent ethic of life” or “seamless garment” argument proposed by the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin in the 1970s. Orthodox Catholics, however, still rightly criticize such an argument on the ground that it doesn’t differentiate between practices that are intrinsically evil, such as abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, and homosexual activity—all condemned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church—and those that may be evil in certain instances, but are not intrinsically so, such as the application of capital punishment or the decision to wage war.

Empty Threats

Another imagined threat from the Religious Right that rattles Balmer is Reconstructionism, also called “theonomy” or “dominion theology.” The brainchild of Rousas John Rushdoony, who proposed it in the early 1960s, Reconstructionism seeks “to rewrite civil and criminal codes to conform to Mosaic and Levitical laws in the Old Testament.” While some of Balmer’s readers may have heard of Reconstructionism, it has had zero influence in mainstream Evangelicalism. Balmer’s ostensible concern here appears as little more than alarmism.

Balmer also fears that Evangelicals are not sufficiently concerned about poverty, education, and the environment, but perhaps the biggest threat he perceives comes from Evangelical opposition to evolution, in what he calls a “battle for the future.” Until the 1990s, he notes, “the debate over origins itself remained fairly stagnant.”

But then along came Phillip Johnson, the “godfather” of intelligent design theory (ID). In describing Johnson’s conversion to anti-Darwinism, Balmer seems impartial, but when he describes the current debate, he not only takes sides, but also mischaracterizes the opposition. For example, he writes that proponents of ID want people to “accept on faith that a creator was in some way at work in bringing the world into being,” a disingenuous way of describing the ID argument that nature is too complex to have developed in the random, purposeless way described by orthodox Darwinism.

Further, Balmer claims, ID proponents are “insidious,” indulge in “shopworn creationist criticism,” and offer “vague platitudes,” while their Darwinist opponents are “confident,” but “don’t pretend to know the truth” and always “keep an open mind.” (One might wish that Balmer did.)

So it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that one of Balmer’s heroes is William Jennings Bryan, despite the latter’s anti-Darwinism. Because Bryan supported labor rights and women’s suffrage, Balmer believes that he “would be considered a political liberal by today’s standards.” Many Evangelicals would disagree: In Bryan’s day, abortion was not legal, homosexual activism was unknown, and the culture was not being aggressively secularized. It is hard to imagine Bryan supporting any of these hallmarks of today’s liberalism.

Ample Swipes

Despite worrying, in a June 23, 2006 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, that “the minions of the religious right will seek to discredit me rather than engage the substance of my arguments,” Balmer himself is not above petty swipes.

For example, he tells us about Leo Giovenetti, pastor of Mission Valley Christian Fellowship Church in San Diego, who was a vocal supporter of the Mount Soledad Cross, the centerpiece of a Korean War veterans’ memorial, whose removal was threatened by an atheist who brought suit claiming that the cross’s location on a public site violated the separation of church and state.

Apparently Balmer thought it germane to his discussion of the controversy to describe Pastor Giovenetti in his church as “approaching the Plexiglas podium, wearing faded denims, boat shoes, and a mint-green oxford shirt that strained to contain his ample waistline.” In the worship service, “the songs were simple and melodically undemanding, the lyrics repetitive and, on the whole, pretty vapid.”

As a prominent spokesman for a “big tent,” “left of center” movement in Evangelicalism, Balmer joins Evangelical leaders such as Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo. He suspects that the publication of Thy Kingdom Come will make him a pariah among other Evangelicals and perhaps cost him his (unpaid) position as an advisory editor for Christianity Today. If it did, I believe that Sojourners magazine would welcome him with open arms.

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