Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Coming Buzz: Balmer's Thy Kingdom Come

You heard it here first: Randall Balmer's new book, Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical's Lament, is going to be a big subject of buzz for the coming months. Expect to see Balmer on many programs and his book cited by many commentators. Cool Christians in the coffeehouses will be talking about nothing but this.

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.


JB in CA said...

Apart from the stuff about Iraq, Balmer's new book sounds an awful lot like his old PBS series, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," which I found insufferable through and through for the same sort of reasons you mentioned above.

Dustin said...

With the utmost respect, I must ask how this blog, satirical or not, is of any different substance, just on the other side of the issues, than the author of said book? It seems like quite a contradiction of sorts, as SWNID seems to believe the solution to said problems is most readily found in conservative Republican politics and employs the same attack mentality of those who disagree. I guess I find myself a bit confused by it all. Please correct me if I am wrong and simply misinterpreting the entirety of SWNID's pursuit called a blog.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Excellent question, Dustin, and one that I have anticipated.

It's primarily the difference of the community of discourse: this is a blog, and that is a book. We deliberately strike an opinionated and partisan pose, largely satiric and self-depreciating, both to advance a point of view and simultaneously to note ironically that all political pronouncements are tentative. The nature of blogs is to be personal and opinionated.

And blogs are brief. We can't write much. We do this on the fly and on the side. On the web, no one reads anything over 300 words anyway.

Also, we don't have an editor to tell us where to lighten up or tone it down.

Balmer, on the other hand, is writing a book. He has an extended form to make an extended argument. He seems to do it without a hint of sarcasm or self-depreciation. He presumably attempts to call his evangelical family to a different mode of behavior. But by failing in any way to acknowledge the theological seriousness of theo-conservative political views, he alienates his audience.

Now a couple of other differences. We have our opinions, and they tend Republican, but note how often we decry the lack of seriousness on the other side. Lately we do this even more than criticizing (or "attacking," as you style it; "ridiculing" might come closer to the truth) the substance of the so-called arguments of the left. We'd personally love to see a real political debate in this country, like the ones that Kennedy and Nixon had in 1960, as opposed to the noise that has come from the minority party for the last several election cycles.

You've already acknowledged the differences: sarcasm matters, and so does the medium. Joel Kilpatrick's A Field Guide to Evangelicals and Their Habitat reflects an analysis and point of view pretty close to Balmer's. But it avoids the "insufferable" tone that Balmer strikes with its deft sarcasm that invites evangelicals to laugh at themselves.

So fault Balmer and his editor. If he wants to write this way, he is condemned to the same fate as Jimmy Carter, whose rhetoric Balmer's sadly resembles.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

It is a strange blogger who keeps commenting on his own post, but I want to add one more point of clarification about my perception of Balmer.

What makes Balmer's work "insufferable," as our friend in California puts it, is that his rhetoric that Christian morality demands not just that a particular social problem be addressed but that it be addressed by a particular means. He doesn't acknowledge that there are serious minds who argue from the same Christian principles to the same issues but who come to different conclusions about the best policies to address those issues.

That what makes it all so sanctimonious. And that's how I try to tailor my response. I don't for a minute want to impugn the grasp of Christian morality evinced by Randall Balmer, Jimmy Carter, Jim Wallis or any other evanelical of the political left. But I will always find problematic and irritating their rhetoric that draws a short, straight line from Christian concern for the poor to higher marginal tax rates on income and capital gains.

Balmer, for instance, calls for evangelicals to move from antiabortion politics to adopt Cardinal Bernadin's pro-life "seamless garment" that is also pacifistic and anti-capital-punishment. He speaks as if the failure to do so is patently inconsistent.

Well, it isn't. There's an obvious moral differece between abortion and just war or capital punishment. It has to do with the restraint of human sinfulness. Unborn humans are innocent of wrongdoing (unless we style "invading a womb" as a crime, which some do). Executing murderers is retributive justice. One can argue whether it is done justly in this country (as Colson does) or whether it is effective in restraining more murders (as many do), but it doesn't equate to abortion morally. There's no retribution in an abortion.

Balmer postures as frustrated that evangelicals don't put on the seamless garment, but maybe they don't because the weakness of its moral reasoning is so readily apparent.

Bryan D said...

Did someone clone Jim Wallis? Seriously, I've read this book before a couple years ago. Different author, title and cover art, but essentially the same.

Dustin said...


I appreciate the response. I agree with the differing mediums you mentioned and their intended purpose. There may be times when I am a bit dense when it comes to understanding the full satirical weight of this blog, when it is employed and when it is not. That is to my detriment.

Without having the opportunity to read the work yet, I understand how my lack of knowledge of said work limits my ability to make a full comparison. Thus the need for my original question.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

You are not dense, Dustin. You are the model of polite consideration. I could learn something from you, but it would spoil my sarcastic fun.