NOTE: This review was written for the journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith and appears in its September 2007 issue (vol. 59, No. 3, p. 240). I thank the American Scientific Affiliation for permission to reproduce it here. It has been slightly reformatted for this webpage.
Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America
Author: Randall Balmer
Publisher: Basic Books, New York
Reviewed by: Allan H. Harvey, firstname.lastname@example.org
Randall Balmer describes himself as a "jilted lover," and it shows. Balmer, a Professor of American religious history and an evangelical Christian, wrote Thy Kingdom Come to protest the way the Religious Right has "hijacked" the faith that in earlier times would have cared more about the poor and less about political power. His writing sometimes displays the bitterness of one whose beloved has betrayed him.
Balmer begins by analyzing the formation of the alliance between evangelical leaders and the political right in the 1970s. Considerable space is devoted to "the abortion myth," the popular story that the movement primarily arose as a response to Roe v. Wade. Balmer shows that the catalyst was instead threats to the tax status of Christian schools that practiced racial segregation. This is enlightening material, spiced up by a pro-choice quote (endorsing Roe v. Wade) from conservative Southern Baptist patriarch W.A. Criswell.
Chapter 2 ("Where Have All the Baptists Gone?") relates the long history of Baptist advocacy for church-state separation and liberty of conscience. Balmer laments how Baptist leaders have forsaken this heritage in favor of enforced orthodoxy and promotion of Christianity by government power. Chapter 3 describes what the author sees as efforts to undermine the public education system that he feels is vital to a healthy democracy.
Chapter 4 discusses creationism in various forms, particularly the Intelligent Design movement. Insights include placing ID in the context of a broader agenda to increase Christian influence in academia, and the observation that requiring science to legitimize faith "subjects religious belief to the canons of Enlightenment rationalism." Sadly lacking is any mention of evangelicals who reject creationism and ID as not only bad science but bad theology. Someone needs to introduce Prof. Balmer to George Murphy, Keith Miller, or Francis Collins.
Chapter 5 concerns the environment. The Au Sable Institute and the Evangelical Climate Initiative are held up as positive examples. This is the least pessimistic section, as the author sees growing Christian support for creation care, even as he describes efforts by some to continue giving profits priority over Godís Earth.
Only briefly in the concluding section are suggestions given for improving the situation. Balmer advocates chipping away at the hegemony of the political right over evangelicals, starting with a few issues like environmental stewardship and opposition to government-sanctioned torture. Existing groups like Evangelicals for Social Action are not mentioned. Balmer also wants us to recognize the historical lesson that it is best for both church and state when the church speaks as a prophetic voice from outside the centers of political power, rather than grasping that power which leads to compromise and corruption.
I liked this book less than I expected to. I share the authorís frustration that our faith has been co-opted by political forces who favor the rich over the poor, who would entangle church and state, and who promote arrogant nationalism. While I am not as far to the left as Balmer, I found his critique of the Religious Right convincing, enlightening, and often insightful.
So why was it a disappointment? Balmer offers little to appeal to the many politically moderate evangelicals who are uneasy with the tactics and stances of Dobson, Falwell, et al. He seems to adopt uncritically all the positions of the political left. The book is mostly complaint, with little evidence of Christian hope. Perhaps most troubling, the tone seems unworthy of a Christian scholar, often using demonizing language not much better than one might find in a Christian Coalition mailer or an Ann Coulter rant. For more constructive and less vitriolic coverage of similar ground, I recommend Stephen Carter's God's Name in Vain and Tom Sine's Cease-Fire.
|Disclaimer: The views expressed in this review are the opinion of the author of this review alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.|
Review originally written December 2006, published September 2007.
Page last modified September 3, 2007