Balmer’s Left Ideological Rhetoric Undermines His Book

The evangelical church in America needs to wake up to the fact that Jesus is not a Democrat or a Republican. In our proper Christian zeal to correct the injustices of our society, we latch onto political ideologies that can lead us to no longer holding a purely Christian perspective. As David Koyzis points out in his fine book, Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies, all political ideologies flow out of an idolatrous worldview. Ideologies are inescapably religious, in that they attempt to identify what evil is and what “salvation” is from that evil.

Christians, as I see it, are supposed to be politically active. The problem is that we easily lose our focus on the Kingdom of God as the worldview source for our politics and begin instead to focus on a particular political ideology as that source. We forget that politics must flow out of our Christian worldview, not the other way around. We are not to put political ideology over the Kingdom; we are to place the Kingdom over our political ideology.

In his book Thy Kingdom Come, Randall Balmer tries to show how the ideological politics of the Religious Right “Distorts the Faith and Threatens America” (as the subtitle of the book puts it). This should pique the interest of any Christian who has been dismayed by how the political moves of the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons, James Dobsons and Ralph Reeds of evangelical politics have betrayed what we feel Jesus Christ our Lord taught.

Balmer’s been burned by the Religious Right, and it shows. As an “insider” evangelical (having gone to evangelical schools, including the seminary I hail from, having been a writer for the flagship magazine of evangelicalism [Christianity Today] for years, etc.), he has experienced scorn and ostracism for holding to a liberal political ideology.

“The evangelical subculture, which prizes conformity above all else, doesn’t suffer rebels gladly, and it is especially intolerant of anyone with the temerity to challenge the shibboleths of the Religious Right.” (p. 168)

Balmer’s wounds show in his rhetoric throughout the book that casts the Religious Right as a sinister lot, whose only motivation is political power. For example, Balmer says that after the fall of Communism and with the election of Clinton, “the Religious Right desperately searched for a new enemy…After casting about, the Religious Right came up with a new foil, an enemy right here among us: homosexuals” (p. 24, 25).

Balmer doesn’t often allow himself to consider for a moment that the motivations of evangelical conservatives are not always so diabolical. Were they really only “looking for new enemies,” or “casting about” for new foils? He needs to consider that the conservative political motivation is not just about political power but about protection. Conservatives are seeking to protect themselves and their children from that which they are afraid. Balmer makes it sound like they are just looking for somebody to hate so that they can manipulate this for their political advantage.

That being said, there are things to commend in Balmer’s book. He has a very good chapter entitled, “Where Have All the Baptists Gone?” Balmer correctly points out that the early Baptists, people like Roger Williams (who championed for “Soul Liberty” in the 1600s), Isaac Backus (who wrote Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty in 1773) and George W. Truett (President of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1927-1929) were the strongest advocates to keep the state and the church from becoming entangled. Historically, when the Baptists were on the margins of society, they rightly declared that a just society would keep the government from dictating what its citizens were to believe religiously. Ironically, as Balmer points out, it’s now the evangelicals in the Baptist tradition that are to most active in trying to get government to mandate that our society line up with their religious ideas. Balmer is correct to say that the Ten Commandments controversy in Alabama showed that Judge Roy Moore and the Baptists that rallied with him were betraying their own Baptist roots.

However, Balmer looks at two other controversial issues and ends up looking more like a political pundit than a thinking Christian reporter. The first issue is public education. Balmer paints advocates of school vouchers as scoundrels trying to dismantle what he claims is “a key and formative institution in America’s history.” Never mind that secular public schooling is a rather novel experiment here in the United States (only about a century old) - the earlier public schools were practically Prostestant parochial schools supported by local communities. Also, never mind that there are advocates for government-sponsored religious education that are not associated with the Religious Right (see James Skillen's Center for Public Justice). And never mind that secular schooling can, and increasingly does, violate the free exercise clause of the first amendment (that parents have the right to raise their children in the religion of their choosing while not having to constantly fight the secular worldview that a public school can indoctrinate into their children). Balmer does not deal with these issues; instead he uses sarcasm and inflammatory language to make his points. He writes, “Make no mistake about it: What lies behind most rhetoric about school vouchers is the desire to garner taxpayer support for sectarian education….proponents of the voucher system insist on defending the program with specious arguments about social justice” (p. 82, 83).

It’s alarming how often a reporter the caliber of Balmer resorts to such rhetorical tactics to make his points instead of doing the hard work of investigative reporting. Another example is his chapter railing against advocates for Intelligent Design. He simply throws around words like “insidious” (see p. 122) when talking about their motives, but offers no proof of such sinister intentions. He writes, “The Discovery Institute claims to have recruited more than five hundred scientists to sign a document that reads, ‘We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.’” Balmer denigrates The Discovery Institute by writing that they “claim” something (thus casting doubt on it), but he never investigates whether this “claim” is true, who these scientists are, and whether or not they have the necessary credentials to carry any weight in signing such a document. He simply dismisses it out-of-hand.

Overall, Balmer’s tactic for dealing with radical right-wing evangelicals is to be a radical left-wing evangelical. He very rarely offers balanced perspective; his rhetorical style picks more fights than it does encourage thoughtful discussion.

When it comes to politics, what the Evangelical Church needs is not more “us vs. them” rhetoric, name-calling, simplistic caricatures of declared enemies, and denigration of the character of those we politically disagree with.

I read this book because I sincerely believe, as the subtitle of the book states, that the “Religious Right distorts the faith and threatens America.” But I do not want to be someone that, in reaction to the Religious Right, becomes the very same thing, using the same tactics, only from the other side of the political spectrum.

Jesus’ Kingdom is above all of this ideological bickering. Let’s focus on Him and His desire for Justice. Let’s not put political ideology over the Kingdom; let’s place the Kingdom over our political ideology.



Michael W. Kruse said...

Great review, Bob. I read this last fall and had an almost identical take. There is lot of anger behind his words.

We could all do with a little more light and little less heat. One of things his book did was to get me to reflect on my own tone and frustration I communicate. Your review reminds me that I need to think about that more often.

Ted Gossard said...

Bob, I could not possibly agree stronger with you on this. I think I had that same book from the library. I didn't read all of it.

Your answer of what we do need is so "spot on". Thanks.

LandonSandy said...

This review brought to mind the fact that the word choices I use in writting out my emotions and scars in a way that undermines my message. Good Thoughts.

Bob Robinson said...


I was convicted of the same thing. In my zeal to be "right" I can be "wrong" because it can skew my method.