The Chronicle of Higher Education, which like all higher-education-associated operations jealously guards its revenue sources, has uncharacteristically provided free access on the web to its recently-published excerpt from the forthcoming book. Another excerpt is available from NPR, which generally operates for free except for the incessant begging.
SWNID has utter respect for Balmer. He is a careful scholar whose work generates ideas instead of just recycling them. We have met him at the annual Stone-Campbell Journal Conference, shared with him a meal at a local Chinese buffet, and also judge him to be a fine fellow.
So we offer the following critique with some reticence, as it is based only on the reading of these two excerpts and not on the book as a whole and as we will be rather sharp in one aspect of our assessment.
We say that Balmer is probably offering the best critique so far of the excesses of the so-called "religious right." Insofar as he finds evidence of its impotence on its signature issue (abortion), inconsistency in many of its pronouncements, what appears to be a lust for power on the part of many of its leaders, and an overall co-option by its political allies (libertarian and pro-business conservatives among the Republicans), he is on the mark.
The book's most important contribution looks like it will be the historical analysis that supports such characterizations. In the excerpts Balmer notes early, pro-abortion remarks by evangelical leaders and certain patterns of early engagement that suggests that the movement's leaders came late to the antiabortion movement, instead responding to a threat to their power in the government's removal of Bob Jones University's tax-exempt status.
More broadly, Balmer is saying what Stephen Carter in God's Name in Vain said several years ago about both the religious right and the religious left: when religious people take up partisan politics--as opposed to speaking to political issues from a prophetic stance--they inevitably compromise their principles and lose their ability to effect genuine change.
So where's the aspect of the SWNID critique for which we stated reticence? Here goes:
Balmer looks to have sullied his book by parroting at points the partisan positions and rhetoric of the religious left. For example (from the Chronicle):
I went to Sunday school nearly every week of my childhood. But I must have been absent the day they told us that the followers of Jesus were obliged to secure even greater economic advantages for the affluent, to deprive those Jesus called "the least of these" of a living wage, and to despoil the environment by sacrificing it on the altar of free enterprise. I missed the lesson telling me that I should turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, even those designated as my enemies.
What this riposte and others like it do is not so much enliven what could be a dull exposition as engage in the same thing that Balmer decries on the other side. Essentially Balmer's rhetoric identifies Christian morality to one side of the issues of economics and national security. It assumes, despite considerable debate on the subject and considerable evidence to support those who differ with Balmer, that lower tax rates for the rich are a bad thing for the poor, that a higher minimum wage would be good for the poor, and that human economic activity is by definition bad for the environment. Elsewhere, Balmer assumes that the justification for the Iraq War patently violated Christian just-war doctrine, again a widely debated point with substantial arguments on the others side. Worse, Balmer at points assumes that the Bush administration has tortured prisoners, a point for which less evidence exists than existed for Saddam's possession of WMD, and so evangelical organizations' failure to make deliberate pronouncement against said torture was an egregious sin.
Note that we don't fault Balmer for being, apparently, a Democrat. He lives in Connecticut and teaches at Barnard College of Columbia University, for goodness sake. He hasn't been to a public toilet in five years that didn't have "Bush Lied, People Died!" written on the walls. His colleagues and neighbors probably think that he's a radical right-wing nutcase for even calling himself an evangelical. The body of Christ is more than big enough for his political views. And the opposition party, as we note just about every day, could use some responsible minds in it.
What we fault him for is not acknowledging that there are serious arguments on the other side. They may not be made by the likes of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Donald Wildmon and James Dobson. Check that: they are not made by those guys. But some of us believe in keeping the minimum wage where it is or in waging war in places like Iraq precisely because of our commitment to help the poor and oppressed. We've seen the failures of socialistic and pacifistic approaches and the successes of free markets and sagacious use of military force. So we're ready to try something different from Johnson's War on Poverty and Sweden's foreign policy.
Balmer's rhetoric, however, doesn't invite a reopening of debate on these issues. It assumes that all the truth is on the religious left.
That's unfortunate. If true of the whole book, it will make the book less than it could be. Stephen Carter's book may not have as rich a historical canvas as Balmer's (though the law professor Carter does pretty well with history too). But he notes the faults of both sides in absolutizing the rhetoric of their positions versus absolutizing the principles that motivate them. Balmer may not have made this critical move (the Chronicle's excerpt contains the problematic rhetoric; NPR's does not; so perhaps the book as a whole will stay above water).
Christianity is about release for the captives. That's an absolute. What that looks like politically, however, is always open to debate. Balmer may have just missed the opportunity to reopen the debate among evangelicals. On this point we hope that the rest of the book is better than the one excerpt suggests.