Review of Evangelicalism in America by Randall Balmer

Review of Evangelicalism in America by Randall Balmer September 25, 2016

Review of Evangelicalism in America by Randall Balmer

I consider Randall Balmer a friend; I hope we will still be friends after I publish this review of his most recent book which is scheduled to “hit the bookstore shelves” (meaning “be available for purchase by the general public”) on October 1 this year (2016). I also hope to remain friends with my friends at Baylor University Press.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

It might help if I begin by saying how much I respect both Randall and BUP. And I just like Randall—as a person. He’s a very neat guy and we have so much in common. (Randall’s father and my father were both evangelical pastors in the same city many years ago and we then had at least one friend in common. Also, Randall has a “lover’s quarrel” with his evangelical upbringing as do I. And we agree on many aspects of that love and that quarrel.)

I first became personally acquainted with Randall when I read his book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture (Oxford University Press, 1989) and watched the PBS documentary based on the book. I literally cried at some points in that viewing! This was my extended family—what he called “the evangelical subculture” in America. And, like him, I have long had very mixed feelings about it.

In some ways I feel like American evangelicalism has left me while I refuse to leave it. That’s called “inner exile” (in the inimitable words of a former college president under whom I worked and taught for many years). “Inner exile” means you can’t bring yourself to leave a community but realize it has ostracized you to the point that you never feel really comfortable in it.

In a mood of deep introspection I have to admit that possibly all my main criticisms of Randall’s most recent book—Evangelicalism in America—arise from the emotional level. I have some quibbles about his uses of some terms such as “Arminian,” but overall I feel that if I had the knowledge and scholarly expertise in the subject Randall has, I could have written a very similar book.

Now, a brief overview of the book itself. In many ways it overlaps with an earlier book of Randall’s also published by BUP: The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond (2010). I reviewed that for Books and Culture but I’m not sure if the review was ever published. (I write many book reviews for publications but rarely check to see if they are ever published.) However, in spite of that overlap in content, Evangelicalism in America is a bigger and, I judge, better book than The Making of Evangelicalism. So if you have read the latter, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the former. There is much more material in it.

Evangelicalism in America is not a calm, cool, “objective” look at evangelicalism in America. There’s lots of information in it—about the movement’s beginnings, theology, leaders, etc. But the book is a diatribe against what Balmer regards as American evangelicalism’s triumphalism in the public arena of politics and the so-called “culture wars.”

Here is the underlying narrative. Evangelical Christianity was born in the fires of pietism and revivalism. I was very strongly marked by the first and second “Great Awakenings.” During the 19th century American evangelicalism was a strongly reformist impulse with regard to race and sex. Even the temperance movement was a progressive social movement because of the damage alcohol did to families and especially women and children (through their husbands’ and fathers’ frequent inebriation and abuse). Balmer rightly notes that even “The Great Commoner” politician William Jennings Bryan, so vilified by historians because of his poor performance at the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee (1925), was actually a social and political progressive.

Then, to continue this general overview of Balmer’s narrative, something changed within American evangelicalism. First it turned away from social and political progressivism and toward an otherworldly focus. According to Balmer, the fault there lay in the rise of premillennialism to replace postmillennialism within the American evangelical movement. Of course he notes other causes, too. Eventually, American evangelicalism turned into fundamentalism and became mean-spirited, overly dogmatic, separatistic and created its own separate culture within America. The ethos of that fundamentalist subculture of the middle of the 20th century was what Fuller Seminary president E. J. Carnell called “orthodoxy gone cultic.” (Not in Balmer’s book, but the quote fits Balmer’s description of mid-20th century fundamentalism well.)

A major part of Balmer’s narrative about American evangelicalism is his account of how the movement succumbed in the 1970s and 1980s to the temptations of power politics and took on a triumphalistic approach to government that included, among other things, a strongly anti-women’s liberation stance. Balmer has an axe to grind against not only the so-called Religious Right but the broader evangelical alignment with conservative causes. He is angry about evangelicals’ abandonment of Jimmy Carter and blames them for Carter’s loss to Reagan.

Okay, enough of the narrative. Read the book to get the “whole story.” You really should! You should not rely on my admittedly very brief summary here.

In general I agree with Balmer which is why I find myself in “inner exile” with regard to his and my shared American evangelical background. (He was raised in the Evangelical Free Church while I was raised in a very moderate and strongly evangelical Pentecostal denomination. But my grandparents were Evangelical Free as were some of my aunts and uncles. My mother was raised in that denomination but became Pentecostal in her 20s.) The difference is that I have chosen to remain within American evangelicalism and suffer the anxieties of inner exile while, I suspect, Balmer has left American evangelicalism even as he embraces some evangelical characteristics and feels some nostalgia about his roots in evangelicalism.

So here are my criticisms. They pale in comparison with my endorsement of the book. I whole heartedly endorse it and recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about American evangelicalism and why it has become what it seems to be.

First, however, toward the latter part of the book, when Balmer talks about “evangelicals” I think he is talking about “fundamentalists.” In some places in the book (as elsewhere) he acknowledges that distinction, but in his rather harsh criticisms of contemporary American evangelicalism he rarely acknowledges it. I would differ from his narrative in that I think the majority of American non-fundamentalist evangelicals are not part of the right-wing “culture warrior” movement to “take America back for Christ.” Balmer rarely acknowledges people like me who are politically and economically progressive while still being evangelical in theology and spirituality. I am a revivalist at heart and whole heartedly embrace the profile of a true “evangelical” Balmer sets forth at the beginning of the book.

In my opinion, and if I were telling the same story Balmer tells, I would say this: the real “villains” of the narrative of American evangelicalism being taken over by fundamentalists—which I agree is largely true of the movement insofar as there is one—are Phil Donahue and Larry King and other media people who gave fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell a platform to declare themselves the “true evangelicals” who speak for the whole evangelical movement and all evangelicals and rarely, if ever, invited someone like Randall to challenge that on their talk shows. Today, because of the media and some influential sociologists of religion, moderate-to-progressive evangelicals have great difficulty getting any hearing as evangelicals because the impression created by the likes of Donahue and King has become normative for defining “evangelical.”

Balmer does briefly acknowledge the existence of a kind of “rump” of the evangelical movement that consists of progressives like Jim Wallis, Ron Sider and Tony Campolo, but he seems to me too dismissive of any real evangelicals who do not fit his narrative. I’m not sure—by the end of the book—if he considers us real evangelicals. I think he has bought into the confusion between fundamentalism and evangelicalism so typical of American sociologists and historians. They know the difference, but they have allowed the fundamentalists to control the conversation about the meaning of “evangelical.”

Second, I see what I think is an unacknowledged tension in Balmer’s narrative about the history of American evangelicalism that I wonder why he does not himself acknowledge. Here it is (and it is not unique to Randall!): The progressive evangelical social reformers of the 19th century are applauded even though they, too, attempted to guide, if not control, public social policy using fairly strong arm tactics. Charles Finney, for example, encouraged students at Oberlin College, where he was president, to break the law by participating in the Underground Railroad. B. T. Roberts, founder of the Free Methodist Church, strongly advocated government passage of an income tax to redistribute wealth. Whether the advocates of the Social Gospel Movement should be considered evangelical may be debated, but one cannot say they were not actively involved in shaping American public social policy in the late 19th and early 20th century. In other words, there was quite a bit of social, cultural, and political triumphalism in American Christianity in the 19th and early 20th centuries—among progressives.

So I think it’s a little ironic for anyone to criticize the Religious Right for attempting to manipulate public policy, turning it in their direction, without acknowledging that Christian progressives did the same early (and sometimes do it now). And without any doubt the so-called more liberal, “mainline” Protestant denominations have had tremendous influence on public life and social policy in the 20th century sometimes by fairly nefarious means (in my opinion).

I have to wonder if Balmer’s harsh criticism of the fundamentalist Religious Right’s efforts have less to do with political machinations and power-plays than with their particular beliefs and policies.

Third, I am puzzled about Randall’s seemingly strong, even passionate, support of the Internal Revenue Service’s threat to remove tax exempt status from Bob Jones University—unless and until the university obeyed the IRS with regard to race relations on campus. And I’m equally puzzled by his apparent criticism of conservative evangelical leaders who decried that intrusion of government into religion. He seems to think they were motivated by racism or simply saw this as an opportunity to frighten American religious people—especially evangelicals—about growing secularism in government. I wonder what he would think if a government threatened to take away tax exempt status from a religious organization because it, the government, disagreed with that organization’s refusal to hire, say, men. My point is simply that any intrusion into any religious organization’s policies, insofar as they are legal, is frightening. (At the time of the Bob Jones University controversy, so far as I know, the university was not breaking any law.)

Please note that I am not condoning or supporting Bob Jones University’s racial policies (which are now officially defunct), but I am calling for governments to take a hands off approach to religious organizations insofar as they are following their own religious beliefs and traditions that are not physically harming to anyone. A government that can take away a university’s tax exempt status for good reasons can also take it away for bad reasons. And a government that can take away a university’s tax exempt status for any reason can go much further and shut one down entirely—by, for example, revoking students’ ability to receive government supported student loans.

I suspect that Randall’s response to my criticism here would be that evangelical and other religious social activists in the 19th century did not use underhanded means to manipulate public policy and even elections but that 20th and 21st century “evangelicals” (most of who I would call fundamentalists) did and do. Fair enough. I’m just not sure I’m convinced that the difference is all that great or that that is the main concern. In this book Randall includes a chapter about Baptists’ traditional stance with regard to separation of church and state. Of course, I agree with him that we “need more [traditional] Baptists.” But his reason seems to be mostly to protect the state and the public from deleterious social policies and laws tied to fundamentalism. I would add that another reason for separation of church and state is to protect churches and other religious organizations from government interferences. It doesn’t seem that Randall is concerned about that as I am becoming concerned about that.

This mention of Baptists bring me to my final criticism of the book which really piggy-backs on an earlier one or is very similar to it. In the final chapter of this book entitled “Dead Stones: The Future of American Protestantism” Randall calls for more “real Baptists” in America. According to him, real Baptists are those who stick to the traditional Baptist principles of soul liberty and separation of church and state. Fair enough; I agree with him. I’m one of those “real Baptists.” However, we do seem to be a minority now—compared to especially Southern Baptists who seem to ignore separation of church and state and want to “take America back for God” by political means. But here’s my question. If “real Baptists” are those who, as a minority, stick to traditional Baptist principles, why aren’t evangelicals who stick to traditional evangelical principles and do not go on religious crusades to underhandedly manipulate elections (part of Randall’s narrative of late 20th century evangelicalism) not the “true evangelicals?” And if most American evangelicals used to have progressive social ideals, why are those of us who remain on that path not the true evangelicals? Why are the majority, the evangelical fundamentalist “culture warriors,” treated as the true evangelicals? In other words, I see a disconnect between the way Randall treats Baptists and evangelicals. He is doing for Baptists what I have been trying for years to do for evangelicals! Why isn’t he joining me in my effort to disconnect late 20th and early 21st century Religious Right culture warriors from “true evangelicalism?” Why is he seemingly caving into the media’s tendency to accept as truly evangelical whoever says he is including people who are clearly more fundamentalist than evangelical?

Well, enough criticism. I still think the book is good and worthy of reading and opening up a vibrant conversation about these and other matters. Buy it and read it.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment solely to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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